Do current patterns of growth and development define an improving human condition ?
The global economy has reached unprecedented levels of economic output and activity. Earlier predictions of grim disaster associated with Malthusian thought have proved completely irrelevant, because human ingenuity and technological development have provided solutions to the problem of stagnation in production of goods and services that were foreseen during the nineteenth century. Yet a consumerist society, which has focused relentlessly on accelerated economic growth measured according to conventional yardsticks has created problems at a staggering level, solutions to which are at the same time difficult, yet crucially urgent.
The most important challenge facing humanity – as has been voiced by several world leaders including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, United Nations Secretary General, Ban-Ki-moon and former US President Clinton – is the growing threat of climate change. Human society, ever since the advent of industrialization, has been responsible for emitting increasing quantities of greenhouse gases, the most dominant of which is carbon dioxide, which is largely the result of combustion of fossil fuels. This has led to a warming of the climate with several other forms of interference with the earth’s climate system. Precipitation levels have changed in different parts of the world and extreme precipitation events have become more frequent and more intense. Similarly, heat waves, floods and droughts have increased in frequency and intensity, with increasing misery and hardship for some of the poorest communities in the world. Thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of bodies of ice on a widespread basis have led to sea level rise which increases the extent of devastation from cyclones, storm surges and coastal flooding. The recent tragedy in Myanmar is a grim reminder of the severity of impacts of climate change with an increasing sea level……
While I was in New Zealand earlier this month I was together with the President of Kiribati, Mr. Anote Tong, who repeatedly, in the forums that we both addressed, emphasized the grim reality that by the end of this century the inhabitants of Kiribati will have to vacate and move away from this beautiful island state. Similar would be the fate of our neighbours in the Maldives, which are a set of islands barely a meter or two above sea level.
Mitigation of emissions of greenhouse gases is urgent and has to be taken in hand with immediate effect in a manner that would lead to rapid reduction in emissions. According to one scenario assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to stabilize average temperature increase of the earth between 2°-2.4° C, we would have no choice but to start reducing these emissions at the global level by 2015 at the latest. Hence we need to put in place measures that bring about a net decline in emissions with effect from 2015.
Technologies and policies to promote the development and dissemination of suitable technologies would clearly make a major difference to existing scenarios of growth of greenhouse gas emissions, but very little is likely to be achieved in the absence of lifestyle changes. In a country like India these changes would need to be made essentially to return to our own traditional values and beliefs. Our reverence for everything that is part of nature was one of the most sacred elements of human behaviour in this country. We have deviated substantially from the principles that supported such values for thousands of years. I was in a conversation with the wife of a diplomat yesterday, and she expressed deep amazement at the amount of money that rich Indians, and even those belonging to the upper middle class, spend in weddings and celebrations. The desire to display wealth through pomp and waste has reached vulgar and obscene levels. Unfortunately, intellectuals in our society and those who can shape public opinion do not voice adequately the dangers inherent in the current approach. If, with the backdrop of growing disparities of income and wealth, we find the rich in our society showing extreme insensitivity to the problem of income disparities and the plight of the poor, we would create a huge divide in our society, which would lead to major alienation of those living in poverty and a growing resentment against the system.
When I moved to New Delhi over a quarter century ago I recall not having seen a single gated colony. Now, unfortunately, every middle class colony has gates and security guards. The scene that one witness all around is similar to what one finds in the most socially unstable cities of the world, which, unfortunately, exist exclusively in some developing countries. Neglect of public transport and policies that encourage proliferation of motor vehicles are making some of these cities unlivable. Last week I was in Brazil and during the course of a twelve hour stay in Sao Paulo, I had several media and television interviews and other meetings planned by my host, which of course, left me hardly any time to even recover from the effects of a long journey – something I rarely require anyway – but I was clearly not prepared for the form of transport arranged by my host to make the most intensive use of my time there. My colleague who accompanied me and I were transported by helicopter from one roof top to other during the course of the day and even in the evening when we had to catch a flight to Brasilia we landed at the city airport by helicopter. Ostensibly no other form of transport would have worked with the limited time that I had available. Perhaps it is not inconceivable that in the years ahead Indian cities would require similar facilities, but I am not sure that the teeming population of millions of slum dwellers would accept the growing divide between rich and poor, and the complete lack of infrastructure and services for catering to the needs of the underprivileged.
It would not be stretching things too far to say that the problem of climate change, growing water scarcity that rightly causes deep concern in Mr. Shekhar Kapur’s mind are interrelated, and the only answer in my view is to bring about on a universal basis a complete reorientation of human values and a sharp change in lifestyles which, unfortunately, seem to be driving aspirations of all and sundry across the globe in a singular direction. Perhaps we need film-makers, advertisers and TV channels that focus on the gravity of pursuing current trends and the imperatives of immediate change.
R. K. Pachauri
Director General, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) & Chairman,
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)