Saturday, March 28, 2020

MUSINGS FROM PRIYADARSHINI KARVE: What Is Your Idea Of Sustainability?

Migration - Birds and People

I hope everyone is staying home and following all precautions as we are in the grips of COVID-19 pandemic. One outcome of the lockdown is that people are more than usual active on social media. A lot of the social media traffic is fake news or rants... but in between some interesting thoughts, data, news items, opinions, etc., are also getting shared. 

There is one class of social media posts that caught my attention. Several people are posting their own observations, other people's observations, pieces of prose and poetry, photographs, videos, memes, etc., echoing one thought: The withdrawal of humans and human activities is giving nature a breather and helping it recover. This is a true observation. But then many people are going a few steps ahead and projecting this as 'a positive outcome' of the pandemic. Some people are thinking that this is the way forward to a solution to climate change. 

So let's think about the cost of this so-called 'positive outcome'. 

As per today's (28 March) available data (check this for updates): Today there are 436,715 active cases of COVID-19, out of which about 5% people are critically ill, and already 27,370 people have died worldwide.

The numbers are still rising daily, and the pandemic is likely to continue for a few months. I should also mention that this is the data of 'detected' cases only. There may be an even larger number of people who are infected with either no or mild symptoms worldwide, spreading the infection to others. Also, there will be a lot of deaths across the world that may be caused by this infection but will not be recorded as such due to a variety of reasons.

The only way to deal with the pandemic is to try and minimise the death toll. This will be possible if all the patients with high risk get proper treatment on a priority basis. This will in turn be possible if the number of people needing treatment do not overwhelm the health systems available in a country.

From this viewpoint, a two-pronged strategy is being employed across the world: 
(a) lockdown - minimising the contact between people (almost every country including India is doing this in varying degrees), and 
(b) widespread testing to detect carriers of the virus - so that they can be further isolated and treated (not all countries including India are as yet doing this, but this too is an essential step without which the first step will not be hugely effective)

However, the lockdown is causing huge economic impacts. All economic activity has come to a standstill. I am not refering to loss of GDPs and fall in share markets and what not. Those are only notional losses. Because both 'corporations' and 'money' after all are just figments of human imagination, as pointed out by Yuval Noah Harari in his world famous book 'Sapiens'. So these imaginary losses of the imaginary entities can be overcome through policies, mutual agreements, bailouts, etc. The hardest hit by the halt of economic activities are the marginal populations - those who typically depend on daily earnings to meet their survival needs. This is a worldwide tragedy for all those who eke out a hand to mouth existence, with no savings and social security support systems to fall back on.

In the Indian context, the migrant workers, who as it is live very precariously in most cities, are the worst affected. It is really tragic to see hoards of people walking away from the cities that were shut down with a single television announcement, leaving them uninformed and unprotected. No amount of economic packages declared subsequently can help them HERE and NOW. The only option they see is to follow the ancient natural instinct of the human species - if things get tough at a location, pick up and leave! Start walking and hope to find a better place to live in!

THIS is the price we are paying for the so-called 'positive outcomes', my dear friends!

If you are a true believer in sustainability you will not rejoice over this. Because sustainability is NOT about sacrificing humans for the sake of the planet. Yes, sustainability opposes destruction of the planetary ecosystems for the sake of human civilisation, but the opposite is not desirable either!

We seek sustainability FOR human species. This means social and economic wellbeing for ALL humans through judicious use of natural resources. We want to protect the planet so that it will continue to sustain humans on it - not at the expense of human lives and wellbeing! The fight for sustainability is the fight against inequality in human society and the destruction of planetary ecosystems, simultaneously - not just the one or the other.

So what this is showing you is not the way forward to solve the climate crisis. What this is showing you is how we DO NOT want to attempt to solve the climate crisis! We do not want to be pushed into a situation where we have our backs to the wall and drastically shutting down everything is the only option left to us. We need to start changing our social, political and economic systems today in the direction of going low carbon without losing sight of the goal of universal human wellbeing.

And there is some good news now that says that this is indeed possible. A recently published paper shows that contrary to popular belief the link between energy use and quality of life is much weaker than previously supposed. More specifically the contribution of increase in the use of fossil fuels to increasing the life expectancy of people is only about 25%. This means that use of fossil energy can be reduced without harming the wellbeing of people. The only change that needs to happen is shift in the priorities of the national governments and global decision making bodies.

This fits very well in my idea of sustainability. What about you?

Priyadarshini Karve
Samuchit Enviro Tech


Samuchit Enviro Tech. 


Pushpak said...

Enlightening blog...

Savita said...

Very much agree to this point of view. Only thing to consider, perhaps, if some of the office activities can happen online now, why not after the lockout period ? At least a fraction of people refrain from commuting over large distances.