Saturday, April 25, 2020


We are currently living through a critical period in the history of human civilisation. The decisions that we make and the actions that we take today, will decide the form of human society in the future. What will humans be doing at the end of this century? Different people have come up with different scenarios based on various assumptions, and there is a range of possibilities. At one end of the spectrum, the end of 2100 may see about a couple of billion humans trying to rebuild a new civilisation. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a more positive outlook of about 10 billion people already well on the way to a sustainable, equitable, climate friendly civilisation. Ironically, the people who are living today and will be deciding the outcome for 2100 will not be around to see the consequences of their actions. It will be their children and grandchildren who will live through those consequences. So can we be the responsible ancestors that our future generations deserve?

Our decisions and actions are generally guided more by the collective knowledge of the past generations and our own past experiences, than by any considerations of the future. In order to forecast into the future, we do need to 'backcast' into the past, but with a critical and unprejudiced perspective. We need to look at the past through the lens of the future. 

I tried to do that a bit for an input I was invited to present at a discussion meeting organised by the Climate Collective Pune, on the occassion of the Earth Day 2020. Here I am putting forth some of my musings that fed into my input. 

Just as our actions today will decide the future reality for the next generation, in a way our predicament of today was decided by a decision of our ancestors nearly a couple of centuries ago. The decisive moment was in the middle of the 19th century. The Europeans discovered coal and petroleum and realised that these high energy density fuels can really accelerate the engine of industrialisation. The availability of this tremendously powerful energy allowed the European industries to suddenly increase their manufacturing capacities to a huge scale. This meant that there was a suddenly escalated demand for raw materials and labour, and a sudden need to expand the market base. This was the trigger for imperialism, which then spread the model of industry powered economic development across the world. Two world wars in succession through the 20th century killed the ability of the European nations to maintain the political empires, but they certainly did not give up on their economic and industrial empires. From imperialism, the world just transitioned to globalisation. 
The Roots of Global Crises lie in the fossil fuel powered Industrial Revolution of 1850s

The process of ramping up of industrialisation in Europe caused exploitation of natural resources as well as people in Europe. It also triggered massive land use change and polluted the air and water sources around the industrial areas. Climate change was also triggered the moment we started using fossil energy. Collectively, the exploitation, land use change and pollution lead to increasing inequity, disease epidemics, industrialisation of food production systems, degradation of natural ecosystems, and loss of biodiversity. First with imperialism and later with globalisation, through the last century, the erstwhile problems of Europe became global crises. Post 1980s, climate change also showed its impacts across the world, leading to additional crises. 
The Minefield of Global Crises in the Path of Human Civilisation in 21st Century

This is not to say that industrialisation, technology, science, etc., did not bring benefits! But in a way, the cost for those benefits is now being paid by us and our future generations. We are facing across the world today, a minefield of various crises, all rooted in this historical context. 

Furthermore, there are strong interlinkages and feedback loops between these crises. For example, land use change and pollution is increasing the contact between humans and wild species, leading to new diseases jumping from animals to humans. This causes epidemics and pandemics. The waves of diseases generally have tragic consequences because socio-economic inequity and climate change are collectively leading to poor nutrition and therefore lowered immunity. At the same time, because of climate change, existing diseases are now entering new areas with the changing weather patterns, and causing more epidemics and pandemics. All of this means that contrary to our past experience, COVID19 is not a one off disaster, but we are going to see more and more pandemics in the coming years! When we are looking for solutions therefore, we must understand these linkages. This will allow us to address the root causes of the crises more effectively while also trying to find solutions to the immediate effects of the crises.

Interlinked Causes of Global Crises: An Example

This also means that we can no longer afford to focus on the global crises in isolation. Since the causes are interlinked, the solutions also must be interlinked. This is why we should not simply 'restart' the economy! We need to create a new socio-politico-economic model that will simultaneously push back against the three major triggers of current global crises - Exploitation, Land use change and Pollution, and Climate Change. 

One promising approach in this context is the Doughnut Economics. It is interesting that several city and country leaders in Europe are actually trying to figure out how this framework can guide them in the post-COVID19 recovery. As India debates on how to ease out of the lockdown, it would be worthwhile to adopt a similar 360 degree vision! 

Priyadarshini Karve
Samuchit Enviro Tech


Samuchit Enviro Tech. 

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