“Wait a minute,” he almost shouted, “the world population has grown. Without economic growth, people would starve.”
The lockdown during the pandemic had made him edgy. After all the economic activity he was used to had all stopped for several months. With no revenues, the expenses seemed like a drain on his wealth. He had been quick at relieving most of his staff, arguing that there were no revenues.
The environment seemed like an obstacle to power and prosperity.
She, on the other hand, always argued for the environment. She appeared to put the environment ahead of the economy. That really, really annoyed him. How could one worry about the environment when the population that had grown needed to be serviced? How could anyone be so egg headed, he wondered.
“Yes, you are absolutely correct.” She said softly. Her whisper was soothing and a contrast to his edgy voice. “Over the last 59 years, we’ve increased in numbers from about 3 billion to more than 7 billion. In India alone we’ve grown from 450 million in 1960 to 1.3 billion in 2019.”
“See?” he looked at her accusingly.
“Oh, yes.” She looked at him in the eye and continued “In the same period, from 1960 to 2020, our global GDP grew from about a trillion to 86 trillion US$. 86 fold. That is more than 30 fold increase per capita.”
His tried to hide his surprise. He had never imagined this number.
“You must be mistaken.” He was defensive “Where did you get those numbers from?”
“From the website of the World Bank” she smiled. She knew that not only was that verifiable, it was a source he would accept with his eyes closed.
“Are you telling me we are at least 30 times better off than we were in 1960?” he asked searching for ways to defend his argument to grow the economy “Isn’t that good?”
“Well, it appears you haven’t see the wealth distribution statistics either” she responded. “While we were busy growing the economy, we’ve been busy rewarding the few who made the decisions for growth and made the world more unequal.”
“How so?” he was now uncomfortable as he saw his assumptions about the economy fall apart.
“In India, the top 10% have been rewarded with more than 65% wealth in 2012, the bottom 50% with only 5%. And every year they voted for the economy over the environment, the top 10% were rewarded by earning more than 55% of the national income while the bottom 50% earned less than 5%.” She decided to make the connection “And they continued to make our environment less and less liveable.”
“What do you mean make the environment less liveable?” he was grasping at straws now “What does the distribution of wealth have to do with making the environment less and less liveable?”
“Do you know how much forest area we have per unit of GDP?” she countered “In just the last 26 years, from 1990 to 2016, the forest area we have per unit of GDP, dropped 7 fold. From 0.0035 to 0.0005 square km/US$. That means even as we continue to use more of the planet to extract the resources we need and the dispose the wastes we produce, we have 7 fold less nature to absorb the consequences of economic activity. In India forest area has shrunk almost 8 fold, in these 26 years, from a dismal 2.3 to 0.3 square meters per INR of GDP.”
“But we’re now having renewable energy, and we’re recycling more and more material” he decided to argue that the economy was going green.
“Surely, you can’t be serious”, she argued “You now push for green energy as a solution to the worlds ills, forgetting that it continues to push the short term economic gains that will continue to make the problems worse.”
“How will it make the problem worse?” he asked, hesitantly.
“Did you notice that our global energy use grew from 2 trillion to about 13 trillion kg oil equivalent, or 6.5 fold increase from 1960 to 2014?” she countered, “And that every GJ of energy that we used resulted in extracting, using, and discarding more materials? It increased our consumerism, allowing us to go on as if nothing was wrong about the economic decisions we make. It resulted in economic activities that caused the destruction of mountains, rivers, forests faster and faster with machines running on energy, that do not fatigue or respond to destruction. And consequently it also destroyed biodiversity, natures bio-geo chemical cycles, the climate and weather that sustain life on earth. We move to more energy intensive farming changing the economics for the farmer and consequently unleashing social consequences. We make more and more powerful machines running on energy to do everything faster, accelerating the destruction of a liveable planet. How would your green energy change this?”
He was silent. She continued, “. Yet, you’ve never asked how much economic activity per square km is liveable? Did you know that India increased its GDP per square km 813 fold from 12 thousand INR to almost a million INR per square km from 1960 to 2018?”
He had never thought about what GDP per square meter was good. This did seem to have grown absurdly. If she was right in framing it this way, surely there would be a limit to the GDP that could happen in one square meter?
“How caring have you been of all the community of life that shares our planet with us and makes it liveable?” her kind eyes had a distressed look as she continued, “Isn’t it time we scaled down human activity per Ha to that which respectful and caring of the community of life and ensures ecological integrity?”
He hardly recognized life other than his own and, sometimes, the humans that surrounded him. The idea of the community of life was a shock. Yes, we did in fact share the planet with other life.
“So what would you have me and the world do” he asked resignedly.
“As long as you make economic decisions, you will keep repeating economic decisions as they will reward you in the short term while destroying the planet that sustains you in the long term. As long as you believe it is a energy decision about moving to green energy, you will continue your greed for more and more things, and for power.” Her hands waved as she explained.
He looked at her, almost in a plea to help him find a way forward.
“An economy, driven by fossil fuels or renewables, is still an economy, irreverent, uncaring, disrespectful to the community of life, exploiting the planet, and rewarding the destruction of that which sustains life.” She stated firmly. “Isn’t it time to accept that you’re addicted to ambition, greed, and the economic and social structures we have built that reward unethical behaviour? Isn’t it time to make moral decisions?
Isn’t it time you contributed to rebuild an ethical society that respects and cares for the planet and the community of life? Isn’t it time our children recognized the environment as the true mother of life, not the economy that has been imprinted on us by those who are rewarded by the economy?”
But we’ve grown up imprinted to believe that economics is the purpose of our existence. We learnt to evaluate the value of everything in money and power, not the intrinsic value of the thing itself, not beauty, care, or respect. The environment for many is just something “out there” to visit for a vacation or to own for a farmhouse. We’ve grown up being told that it has no economic value.
We ignore that economics has not solved, and cannot solve, inequality, hunger, shelter, intolerance, health, unsustainability, environmental destruction, or the climate crisis.
Economic principles allow us to reward bad consequences that destroy the sacred, show irreverence, are uncaring, even disrespectful, or even destroy life. They allow us to remain trapped in the short term over the Short NOW, the lifetime of a child born now.
Is the environment more important than the economy? The choice is ours to make.
#All views expressed in this column are those of the author and/or individuals or institutions quoted within it and Pune365 does not necessarily subscribe to them.
He can be reached @AnupamSaraph