This one planet


Should our development be at the cost of the environment and the poor? Most of us would say an emphatic ‘No.’ Yet, very few among us walk the talk about sustainable development. Rishi Aggarwal holds a mirror up to reflect the Janus-faced human race.

For as long as industrial society has existed, the debate has existed about whether it is okay to foul the environment in the process of carrying out development. This debate did not largely exist before the industrial revolution and the modern way of living because the industrial revolution introduced processes and abilities to handle materials, which produced exceptionally high levels of pollution.

New chemicals, which had never been a part of human existence found their way into mainstream use, and their production generated dangerous by-products which had to be disposed, new forms of fossil fuel were discovered, and their large-scale use became prevalent, leading to higher emissions of poisonous gases. The use of machinery enabled greater exploration and exploitation of natural resources, at a scale and speed which was hitherto unknown.

In the process, nature and environment have faced a painful and scorching brunt. There are some who feel pained by what has been done, and then there are others (what seems to be a large majority), who seem either okay with paying this price, or are unquestioning or lack the ability to question. A nuanced understanding is limited to the very few. And ignorance or limited knowledge is what dominates, allowing for easy manipulation of public opinion.

Is sustainable development possible?
The sheer high number of people who inhabit the earth is astounding, and providing for their material needs in a manner which does not impact the environment, is truly a challenge though there is enough research to suggest that a sustainable pathway is possible, which would provide for the material needs while minimising the impact on the environment. Those who speak for the environment are not providing any finished product, though the entity they speak for – nature – is the backbone for all finished products. They hope that there would be innate wisdom in everybody to understand that. But there is no such wisdom. The other side relies on marketing techniques, which play on the gaps in human psychology, and it works really well.

The industrial economy has enough to keep everybody engaged over the short span they spend on the planet – 60-80 years. It can keep them worried, busy earning a living, entertained, lavishly served with comforts, or the right kind of insecurity and allure that a lavish spread will follow if they just follow the right impetus. The development versus environment debate is an extension. The environment can only be cared about when everybody has taken enough care of themselves is the message, you have a short time on the planet, make the most of it.

What follows is a lifetime which goes quite effortlessly from one stage to another, almost like an industrial processing plant moving on its various tanks and conveyor belts. For the bulk of humanity there is no inbuilt process in this plant called self-actualisation or heightened conscience, which will allow us to look beyond the needs of the self and to investigate from where and how their material needs are being fulfilled.

To me this has always been a false dichotomy in some degree. It is not possible to not damage the environment in the process of modern development. But the impact can be considerably minimised if a feeling of gratitude and responsibility towards the planet exists. There are just so many things which can be done at the individual and community level to mitigate the impact on the environment, which do not get done.

Who benefits?

The waters have been muddied by those who have a vested interest, and whose immediate material benefit cannot be achieved without causing some damage to the environment. Emotional messages emanate from these groups posing seemingly difficult questions about how poverty will be reduced and millions will be saved from starvation if we do not have development. The fact remains that poverty in one form or the other continues to remain steady, and has only become worse for those who are ecological refugees. These people were once sustained by highly productive ecological lands, and now find themselves struggling to eke a living in industrialised society. The development enjoyed by those who shape the paradigm is not the development enjoyed by the victims of the paradigm.

The crisis would not have become so big were it only human needs that were being addressed. Vanity has ensured that subliminal desires and wants which can never be fulfilled, are promised fulfilment in the development paradigm.

There are others who have resorted to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to suggest that we need more, not less form of what is currently understood as development, if we are to move to a stage where we can care for the environment. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was a dominant argument in the 20th century. If anything, the 21st century has completely invalidated Maslow’s theory. One suspects that Maslow may have been co-opted by the industry to propound this theory since it served the industries interests very well.

Why is it that the need for self-actualisation exists strongly in only a few individuals, and they lead happy and contented lives at lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, and then on the other side it is very evident that many who are on the higher side of Maslow’s hierarchy are never able to lead contended happy lives, far less think of serving society?

There are environmental issues which are full blown in the crossfire of the fight between environment and development, and then those where no contention exists.

Dams remain an important testimonial to the fallacy of this debate. In Maharashtra (as elsewhere in the country), the irrigation scam has highlighted how public funds get mis-utilised by those claiming to work for public benefit. The dam making agenda being handled by the relevant government departments, it turns out was more of a front for private companies linked with politicians to get beneficial contracts. Even with such large sums of public money spent to build irrigation infrastructure, benefits continue to elude farmers. The success of traditional water conservation methods continues to be showcased year after year in different geographies. They bring more development at lower or negligible cost to the environment, and yet the overall discourse is that those who oppose the construction of big dams are against development.

Ecologists and conservationists keep highlighting how forests are the best dams (water storage infrastructure) available on the planet, and come free of cost. But in the developmental model we follow, anything free of cost is of no value. Everything must have a price tag and an engineer or two on payroll.

Water conservation measures can considerably reduce the need for water storage by dams like in the case of Mumbai. But if you make a noise about excessive dam construction (which stand to destroy pristine forests), then you are seen as being against development and the interests of India’s financial capital. The talent of those who build dams is valued, the talent of those who can help recycle water through environmental technologies is of no consequence!

In another Mumbai example, the development versus environment debate comes up when we speak of saving its last remaining large urban green – the Aarey Milk Colony. In the most immediate threat, a car shed for Line 3 of the Metro is being constructed on 70 acres of Aarey land which will entail destruction of beautiful grassland, and cutting of more than 2,500 trees. Those opposing this are labelled anti-development. The fact remains that there are more than enough choices for situating the car shed at other locations. Those applying the label of anti-development have either not studied the matter enough, or are on the vested side which is running an insidious game plan of converting Aarey into real estate of which the car shed in only one part.

The last two decades of the 20th century saw heightened consciousness and debate on the state of our environment and the required interventions. The first decade of the 21st century went with the financial markets and the global economy on steroids leaving little room for shaping the paradigm of development. Now possibly is the time for people to start thinking of making the required changes if the planet has to have any chance.

The environment versus development debate cannot be carried out when the bulk of humanity has no interest in it. Most people live their life concerned with either serving basic existential needs, or are too much caught up in serving their hedonistic pleasures. An inherent interest in the state of the planet and its wellbeing arising out of the feeling of being a custodian, is important if the health of the planet is to be achieved.

Rishi Aggarwal

Rishi Aggarwal is Director, Mumbai Sustainability Centre.