The Cost of Things

Terrorists committed a heinous, horrible and cowardly crime in Mumbai again today.
Mumbai will be back on its feet again tomorrow and will not let you terrorists scare or rob it of its spirit. Shame on you!

In a way it was an odd coincidence that I went to see Al Gore in an Inconvenient Truth today. I wanted to stay away since I have been subjected to a lot of Powerpoint Poisoning in my short life, but reviews from my labmates, Roger Ebert, Lawrence Lessig and Ashutosh were too overwhelming to ignore. Al Gore makes a presentation - even the great Edward Tufte would approve - that would be no small crime to ignore.

As Al Gore compared 9/11 and global warming, I thought about today's blasts and last year's downpour (which figures in the movie) in Mumbai. I can see why Gore is having so much trouble getting his point across. I am reminded of Peter Sandman (via Freakonomics):

According to risk communications consultant Peter Sandman, “risks that scare people and risks that kill people are different."He uses the equation: Risk is equal to hazard plus outrage (hazard + outrage = risk) to assess situations and determine people's reactions. The equation is quite simple, according to Sandman. "When hazard is high and outrage is low, people under-react and when hazard is low and outrage is high, they overreact."

While the bomb blast toll figures are still being updated, last year 750 people died from torrential, record-setting rains that soaked Mumbai. While murder and violence is definitely deplorable, I consider it one of the great injustices in the world that we cannot punish ourselves or others for being accomplices in the murder of the planet and its ecosystems.

While India is still nowhere near the USA in terms of its emissions, we and other developing countries are fast catching up. While I am all for rapid economic growth, it often and unfortunately correlates with a larger ecological footprint. Will we choose to be different? Historically speaking, we won't. We see this with regards to health: Richer and more educated people are in better health than poorer and less educated counterparts. Substitute people with countries and health with the environment and Bjorn Lomborg's assertion that "... air pollution diminishes when a society becomes rich enough to be able to afford to be concerned about the environment." makes perfect sense (hat tip: Amit Varma).

I am all for economic progress but the environment is too important to be expected to simply piggyback on a prosperous economy. As Jared Diamond has pointed out in his book Collapse - (review), China and India's economic success might be a Pyrrhic victory. "Sin now, atone later", might have worked in the past, but if the Gore charts are to be believed, we might not have the luxury of turning the clock back on the damage done. It is easier said than demonstrated. Only if environmental costs and benefits were as tangible and easily quantifiable as economic success stories via freer markets, or terrorist attacks. Cracking ice-shelves will never beat bomb blasts in terms of outrage.


The best way would be to reconcile market forces and environmental issues. The set of articles in this issue of the Economist make very interesting reading(see). There are some excellent ideas.

But it is very, very tricky.
In one of the examples the writer talks about Panama. It is more economically and environmentally advantageous for Panama to bottle and sell its water from its freshwater lakes than allow it to flow out into the Miraflores locks for operating the Canal, but the US will never allow it.

So even in such cases where both economic and environmental imperatives are aligned reality pans out differently. In any case, sooner or later, rich or poor, the whole planet will have to pay.


Mihir said...

An excellent post Hirak.

A few caveats apply
- environmental fearmongers have been around for decades, predicting doom and gloom for all. any views on how Gore's presentation is different from the rest? In particular, it appeared from the previews at least, that he has a lot of scientific data to back it up. True? Somewhat?
- The assumption that conventional economic development is necessary for the upliftment of poor. May be it doesn't percolate to the masses? In that case, environmental damage will have already occurred, without remedying the economic situation.
- the morality of the whole thing is troubling. the west got its riches from exploiting the environment; without giving up their standards of living, how are westerners going to convince india, china and the rest of the world of the true ecological danger?

Hirak said...


- Gore's presentation is very accessible and well-explained. It IS backed with the latest data. I could tell that he quoted almost directly from papers that were published in Science/Nature a few months ago. Though it is hard to catch, the slides do show the references to the papers at the bottom.

- Percolation and drip-down effects will make things relatively better but will that be the required difference? This is one of my points - will it be too little, and more importantly too late?

- Right now, it seems more likely that the West will correct itself before we do. Forests in the Brazil and Indonesia are being destroyed, but American forests are being conserved.

Ashutosh said...

Great post. You are absolutely right in saying "Cracking ice-shelves will never beat bomb blasts in terms of outrage.". I think that's an excellent point, and also precisely the reason why global warming could finally mean our doom, because it happens so slowly that it doesn't cause enough outrage until it's too late. But of course the slowest things like cancer are also the most destructive and insidious.

Mihir also raises an important question about whether unconventional development can raise the standard of living to the kind we aspire to. I think it can, but only if it is pursued early enough. And early enough not from a national, but global perspective. If we continue to raise our standard of living through conventional development, then a time will come when again, it will be too late to revert. But why look far? I always look at Japan and France. 50% and 70% energy from nuclear power? The example's right in front of our eyes. We just need to stop making excuses and implement a similar one.
And yes, responsible as the US is for emissions, what really worries me more are India and China. One important reason is that enviromental laws are still quite strict in the US. How many years will pass before public and political concern makes us pass laws comparable to these US laws? Again, it just may be too late until then.

The more important point is that we have to give the common man on the street some incentives to keep him from polluting, otherwise why would he care about what's going to happen to our planet in twenty years?

Also, we sometimes rightly react with indignation when the US tells us to start using unconventional sources. But this issue should not have anything to do with the US in the first place in my opinion. Let us assume that the US does not exist, but that the current enviromental scenario which is disturbing does. It is our own duty, quite independently of the US, to develop our own sources, especially when we are geared towards so much development. However, whether this can be done on time in a practical way is a different matter, and since I am one of those who believes that "with great power comes great responsibility", I think the Western world should do its part and let us in on its own unconventional sources R & D.

Sumedha said...

A lucid post.
What can we do to 'shock' the world into waking up?