By Avideep Gabhawala*
Last December while randomly browsing shelves of the campus library I came across Edward Goldsmith’s “The Way & Gregory” Bateson’s “Steps to an Ecology of Mind”, among other books on ecology. Like so many of my generation, numbed by the constant discourse in media and uninspiring school subjects followed by wider societal inaction, for many years I completely suppressed any deeper exploration into the whole heavily unbearable subject of the ecological crisis. Like so many others, over the past few years, out of an ecological consciousness and sensitivity slowly born out of travel, trekking and a paradigm-altering personal experience it was quickly dawning on me how important the issue of learning to live in harmony with our ecology was to this century.
Since these experiences, I have come to attach much importance to the fact that people cannot really be made to care just through narrow education of textbooks in their childhoods or smart facts and figures and solutions dispensed onto them through various media, but rather a first-hand consciousness borne out of direct experiences with their natural surroundings. While in the age of photography and second-hand viewing everything that has the potential to induce reverence can equally become washed-out and profane, the possibility for a sublime experience through first-hand experience when interacting with natural surroundings is never diminished. The second component that is needed for this ecological consciousness is a core philosophy and this is where the two books mentioned earlier come in.
The former was written by a controversial English environmentalist whose magnum opus charting a course for humanity’s future as an ecological constituent seems mostly ignored and out of public discourse these days. The latter work, similarly underappreciated, is an inter-disciplinary mammoth that integrates various subjects under anthropology, ecology, evolution under a common system-theoretic paradigm. Two most fundamental ingredients that these books do provide to this ecological kernel are: deep ecology, the belief that non-human living organisms and elements have an intrinsic value independent of their use and purpose from anthropocentric perspectives and the principle of emergence, the possibility for a whole to be greater than its sum of parts, which can be extended to the whole of Earth and all organic and inorganic elements which constitute it which form a complex web of continuous interactions from which a greater entity emerges. Or as James Lovelock, the original articulator of this latter idea also known as the Gaia Hypothesis, puts it, “Life does more than adapt to Earth. It changes the Earth to its own purposes. Evolution is tightly coupled dance with life and the material environment as partners. From the dance emerges the entity Gaia.” Having these ideas baked into one’s conscience one cannot but help smile like an idiot every time now that one watches bees buzzing around a tree or think about other such wholes out there in the vast firmament at night.
One can also equally see the fragility of this larger Whole Earth Organism much like our own bodies whose upkeep requires equally fragile, complex, and creative micromachinery in the form of immune systems, circulatory systems, cognition etc. Such moments of ecological ecstasy are nothing new. Numerous writers, poets, philosophers, thinkers provide an account of their own, be it Emerson in his essay “Nature”, or Steward Brand’s account of how he led a movement to force NASA to release the first full picture of Earth taken from space following a psychedelic experience and subsequently used as cover of the first issue of “The Whole Earth Catalog.”
While important such consciousness borne out of experience and a first philosophy is definitely not sufficient to solve these issues, which must necessarily be followed by detailed technical conceptualizations and action. But it is this first philosophy or the lack of it which dictates the nature of this action, its coherence and its intentional rigor. For instance, given that as a people we recognize the fundamental fact that we share the planet with other organisms, not just the larger ones we can see and only ones which make into the popular conservation discourse (tigers, elephants, lions, etc.) but all that constitute an ecological niche through a web of interdependence, and that we recognize their right to existence independent of human benefit or purpose, national policies which expand or include new geographical areas under IUCN Protected Area Categories I & II -type conservation areas become increasingly laudable. The solution is definitely not as simple as sealing off entire geographies to humans and human activity. Most protected areas, in India at least, usually have indigenous human settlements within or in their vicinity which depend on these ecosystems for their survival. The ill ecological impact of these often-small indigenous communities with an almost non-existent technological apparatus however is nothing compared to what persons & organizations connected to the wider industrial-capitalist-technological nexus of the modern world may have on such ecosystems whenever exposed to them.
The loss of ecological complexity and diversity as a result of human activity and population, accelerating in the past few years, is no secret, they even have a name for it, “Holocene Extinction”: extinction as a result of cancerous/virus-like attributes of the human constituent on the larger planetary organism. Mr. Soumya Dutta, a physicist, activist & researcher with a long career in climate & energy justice issues (whom I had the opportunity to talk to when researching for this article), couldn’t be more insightful when he brings up the lack of discourse, capability, and research effort & will into regenerative aspect of ecological impact.
Nowhere is this inability to balance and harmonize with our ecosystems more prominent and obvious than in our energy production and consumption apparatus. Given our heavily-fossil-fuel-dependent electricity production, industries and transport needs collectively contribute 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions, shifting away from these impact-heavy, non-renewable modes of energy production over the next few decades is crucial to curb global average temperature rises that we have been witnesses to over our own lifetimes, currently standing at well over 2°C over pre-1990 levels. While technological feasible, much political & economic constraints and trade-offs seem to prevent this energy shift at the necessarily required scale and momentum. Answering to my half-hearted optimism stemming from the massive investment in renewable energy all over the world, including India, over the past few years, Mr. Dutta showcased multiple reasons for why such optimism cannot be justified as of yet.
Even as the Indian government and the Prime Minister keep restating the possibility of even overreaching their target of 175GW of renewable energy capacity, the government earlier this year held auctions for 38 coal mines in Jharkhand and Orissa and continues sinking public funds through the Power Finance Corporation & Rural Electrification Corporation into coal power projects. According to the CEA, coal powered energy capacity may continue accounting over 50% of India’s total capacity even by 2030. So, while the investments in renewables are definitely “massive” in absolute terms, renewable capacity continues being an additive to the grid rather than replacing the highly inefficient and massively polluting fossil-fuel based power generation. As in India, governments around the world continue lacking a sense of urgency and continue ignoring curbing of emissions as a survivability issue. This is evident even at the geopolitical level as the changing nature of UN’s climate change conferences over the years demonstrate: from the global consensus around scientific facts and CBDR (Common But Differentiated Responsibility) just before the 2009 Copenhagen conference to its complete breakdown in the form of conveniently voluntary non-binding pledges of individual nation-states as witnessed during the Paris Agreement.
Although something current political discourse around the world is increasingly reluctant to address, the energy consumption facet of the climate crisis is deeply connected with issues of humanitarian justice and global inequality. The difference in per capita energy consumption between the affluent nation-states of the West and that of the global South is no secret. However, this difference extends onto even smaller scales, that is within the populations of individual nations where there may stark inequality between an affluent urban minority and the rest of the population. However, as pointed out to by Mr. Dutta, what is important for a country like India and what economic inequality even at overall rising per capita consumption prevents is adequate human development. Even as Sri Lanka’s per capita energy consumption only lies at about 494 kWh per year as compared to India’s 1181 kWh per year, its ranks 71 among nations on the Human Development Index scale, as compared to India’s 129. Combined with recently released data on worsening child nutrition levels in India, this paints a worrisome picture of our energy consumption patterns and showcases a need for realigning political, policy and public spending priorities from industrial and consumptive extravagance witnessed in the past 20 years to more equitable development in terms of education and health.
As technology improves and the learning curve diminishes, renewables today are cheaper and safer, however not without their own tradeoffs, be it solar power’s land use issues, ecological impacts of lithium mining and battery production or wind’s massive upfront costs. While for private corporations in the energy business, it makes sense to gauge the economic minutiae of these various tradeoffs as they try to make the most profit with constrained financial resources, no such short-sighted calculi can be justified by governments which must look at the long-term impact of not switching to renewables and must treat this shift as a survival issue. As the history of civilization showcases, no economic development can be possible in a country in the grips of a full-blown ecological crisis.
Given the highly authoritarian shift and corrosion of public institutions in India (and many other countries) in the recent years, politicians and bureaucrats are increasingly divorced from public feedback on various policy issues, including that on climate change. While ecological activism in India still lacks the sufficient scale and organizational sophistication including popular public awareness of these issues, the current farmer protests in India do provide a model on how bottom-up grassroots activism can possibly break this isolation and directly cause impactful change. If the past several decades of politics around the world has taught us anything it is that, complacency and homeostasis is built into the policymaking apparatus, be it the left, right or the center in power. Even with political parties most receptive to ecological crisis issues in power, public activism and public participation through various channels cannot rest.
The issue for current and coming generations is not whether it is possible to avert climate change since its causes and effects are a living reality today, but whether they can risk a complete disaster if this inertia persists. The kinds of radical socioeconomic and political change that the current ecological crisis demands can only be brought about through a global bottoms-up movement based on sound first principles and robust organizational strength that while guiding contemporary policies for mitigating the crisis also lays out a philosophy and framework for a future where the invasive elements of our species are subjugated and a harmony with the natural world is possible. I believe this is the most important challenge of the 2020s and might as well be our final one.
*This article resulted from a conversation with Mr. Soumya Dutta, a physicist, activist and researcher with a long career in climate change, energy justice and other humanitarian issues; he is currently serves as the Convener for the Beyond Copenhagen Collective. The author is greatly thankful to him for his time and patience in presenting many of the ideas in the article and enriching an abstract reverential ecological consciousness with grounded facts and technical focus