What we measure informs what we do. And if we’re measuring the wrong thing, we’re going to do the wrong thing.
~ Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in Economics
This is a world of fabulous wealth and extreme poverty. While around 20 per cent of humanity enjoys privileges and prosperity of a kind that would have been hard to imagine a century or two ago, at least one billion people live in such abject poverty that they struggle for mere survival each day. The gigantic world economy is not only remarkably unequal, but also unimaginably threatening to the ‘environmental services’ of Earth. It is creating an almost insurmountable environmental crisis that is extremely dangerous and unprecedented in the span of humanity’s 10,000 years of civilization. Indeed, the rapid growth of human civilization is seriously damaging the integrity of the planetary ecological system. The cumulative impact of surging per capita consumption, rapid population growth, human dominance over every ecological system, and the pervasive biological changes worldwide have created the very real possibility that we may soon reach a dangerous “planetary scale tipping point”, to quote the warning by 22 prominent biologists and ecologists on nature, conducted in 2012. The existing models of development appear to be unsustainable even for those who have benefited, let alone the vast majority of people, many of whom live in conditions of unbearable deprivation and squalor and naturally aspire to share the benefits of opulence.
Nature has always been benevolent to us. But the cardinal blunder of our industrial way of life is that we are consciously blind to the basic reality of our relationship with the Earth’s limited resources. This impervious attitude is reinforced by the method of accounting for natural resources, which always treat their use as income rather than withdrawals from capital. This, in the words of economist Herman Daly, is ‘a colossal accounting error At least we should put the costs and the benefits in separate accounts for comparison.’ British economist E. F. Schumacher in his classic book, Small Is Beautiful, also lamented that ‘Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate over and conquer it. The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. The latter illusion is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this matters most.’
Historically, we have lived off the interest generated by the earth’s natural capital assets. We are now misusing those assets. In every continent, the population and economy are placing new demands for more food, fresh water, energy, commodities, and manufactured products. Our demands on the earth exceed its regenerative capacity by a wider margin each day. Multiple indicators have shown that human society has reached a critical threshold in its relation to its environment. Precisely, according to James H. Brown, “We’ve created this enormous bubble of population and economy. If you try to get the good data and do the arithmetic, it’s just unsustainable. It’s either got to be deflected gently, or it’s going to burst.”
The litany of ecological complaints encompasses a long list of problems. Five specific areas, which have been severely affected, can be expressed by a simple acronym: WEHAB ~ Water, Energy, Health, Agriculture and Biodiversity. The first is water and sanitation. More than one billion people make do without safe drinking water. Twice that number lack adequate sanitation. More than 3 billion people die every year from diseases caused by water unfit for consumption, 90 per cent of whom are children. The second is energy which is essential for development. Around 2 billion people currently go without it, and lansuish in the poverty trap in consequence. The third is health. Worldwide, infectious diseases kill nearly 14.5 million people a year; most of whom are among the world’s poorest. More than one billion people die every year from air pollution ~ two-third of them are poor, mainly women and children. Worldwide, close to one-fourth of all disabilities are rooted in environmental factors. The fourth is agricultural productivity. Humanity is reaching its limitations in terms of its ability to provide more food to more and more people.
There has been a decline in agricultural productivity gains since the Green Revolution in the second half of the 20th century ~ from 3.5 per cent annually three decades ago to a little over one per cent at present. Over 10 per cent, between 25 million and 30 million hectares, of the world’s irrigated lands are now classified as severely degraded. Soil erosion is a key factor in land degradation. Around 2000 million hectares of soil equal to 15 per cent of the land cover or an area larger than the US and Mexico combined is classified as degraded as a result of human activities. Erratic and less predictable “precipitation patterns” associated with global warming are leading to less frequent but heavier rain.
Finally, we come to biodiversity and the ecosystem management. Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate ~ as much as 100 times of what it would have been without the impact of human activity. More than half of the world’s wetlands have disappeared over the past century, half of the remaining coastal wetlands are likely to be lost by 2080 to agriculture, urban sprawl, and rising sea levels as a consequence of climate change. Half of the tropical rainforests and mangroves, and as much as three-quarters of all plants and genetic varieties have already been lost. About 70 per cent of coral reefs are endangered. Earlier reports of disappearing permafrost in the Arctic regions had alarmed scientists who fear that our anthropomorphic zeal could well destroy some of the finest species of plants and animals on the planet.
The overwhelming emphasis of modern economic activity on ‘growth’ rather than ‘development’ is the root of major problems. While there are many dimensions and measurements of economic development, we tend to rely largely on a single measurement called Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For decades, it is the measure of all things. Governments worldwide are concerned with economic growth as a measure of the country’s performance, both in absolute terms (how fast are we growing?) and in relative terms (are we growing faster than our neighbours?). The evolution of GDP is a matter of obsessive concern to governments around the world and it is also a regular topic on the agenda of global and regional conferences.
(To be concluded)
The writer is a retired IAS officer