Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Green activists and environmental bogeys

It is remarkable that a surprisingly high level of utter ignorance masquerade as informed opinion in public debates on important issues of civic concern. As opinion makers and public servants, it is unpardonable, indeed an act of hypocrisy and duplicity, that we debate on public issues with assumptions that are a figment of our imagination and have no basis in fact and reality. Over the past few months, I have been a more than interested observer to a few similar public debates in Vijayawada on issues like water meters, Public Private Partnership (PPP), outsourcing civic services, and cost recovery/user charges. The latest addition to this impressive list is the issue of property tax increases.

In vigorous public debates on all these issues I have come across many instances of surprising lack of basic understanding of the issue, and more than a few instances of taking liberties with even facts. When confronted with the facts, the common refrain is that this was the information gleaned from newspapers and from other sources in the public domain (which by some definition cannot be incorrect). There have also been instances of dogmatic refusal to accept facts and persist with half truths and outright lies.

But such ignorance of facts is not the exclusive privilege of local debates. Even in national and international level debates, such misconceptions are common. Environmental issues are a fertile ground for such debates and the attendant misconceptions. After Bt Cotton, and GM Crops, biofuels is emerging as the new demon for environmental activists across the world. Given the growing importance of issues related to use of biofuels, I am convinced that the debate is about to reach its crescendo.

There is an interesting article by James Woudhysen, Why greens don’t want to ‘solve’ climate change, where the author seeks to explore the reasons for the environmental groups reluctance to accept technological fixes to problems that are a natural by-product of the process of development. Woudhysen's description of the Green's position on climate change is not very different from their position on other similar issues:

"For many today, both green activists and leading politicians, climate change is a moral and political issue rather than simply a practical problem. They see the ‘issue of climate change’ as a means to changing people’s behaviour and expectations, rather than simply as a byproduct of industrialisation that ought to be tackled by technological know-how."

Significant sections of the Green movement are consumed by a desire to achieve the ideal solutions to the many environmental problems thrown up by the process of development. They focus their energies on either trying to bring about wholesale attitudinal changes, an impractical task, or completely roll back the process responsible for generating the negative externality, an impossible task.

Such debates therefore most often emerges as a dialogue (or lack of it) between two extreme positions, with no effort whatsoever to find a modus vivendi. Each side rejects the other side wholesale, thereby boxing themselves to ideological corners from which there is limited space to manouvre. Thus Animal Rights activists like PETA categorizes all non-vegetarians as anti-environmentalists and sees vegetarianism as the only way to save the environment and the world from hunger. The "peak oil" theorists claim that the global oil resources are getting depleted fast and the time has come to seek out other alternatives. The Luddite anti-development extremists claim that if development as we define it today is allowed to continue apace, the day of environmental armageddon is not far in coming. The opponents of each of these positions reject it, and in turn go the other direction in completely denying the possibility of such disasters.

Take the case of the debate on bio-fuels. The environmental and human rights groups claim that the biofuels production would involve diversion of scarce land and other resources presently utilized in foodgrain production. They prophesize a doomsday of "massive world hunger" if biofuels are to replace conventional petroleum products. The biofuels debate has thrown up interesting alignment of interests - Greens and oil producers, Hugo Chavez and the Texan oil companies! In fact, if an international conference on biofuels were held today, we could have the remarkable sight of environmental activists and oil companies uniting in attacking biofuel producers. It has also divided opinions among the Green movement.

The Brazilian President Luis Inacio "Lula" De Silva, defended the Brazilian biofuels programme before the UN General Assembly in September. Responding to a UN report that calls for a five year moratorium on the production of ethanol fuel, Lula vehemently rejected the allegation that Brazilian sugarcane producers are diverting land from foodcrops and have also started deforesting the Amazon basin. He claimed that only a fifth of Brazil's arable land is currently under cultivation and of this less than 4% is used for ethanol.

Issues like global warming and its impact on sea level rise, bio-fuels and its impact on foodgrain production and its efficiency as a fuel, genetically modified crops and its impact on health and food security, etc have been well researched by academics from across the spectrum. But unfortunately the debate on these issues are rarely illuminated by incontrovertible facts. Facts and figures are distorted to serve ideological positions. Global warming sceptics quote dubious and obscure studies to deny the overwhelming evidence in favor of global warming and its consequences. How can any informed debate accommodate opinions that completely deny global warming?

Unfortunately the dogmatic all-or-nothing opposition of environmental campaigners to these problems, provides the ideal smokescreen for their opponents and deniers of any environmental damage, dominated by various corporate groups, to hijack the agenda and tailor policies to suit their interests. Given the impossibility of turning back the development clock, and the outright refusal of the Greens to accept technological fixes and market solutions, the decision making process is handed over to the environmental damage deniers in a platter.

The result of such blind ideological sloganeering and rhetoric is that essential debates on the efficacy of practical, real world solutions to various environmental and other issues get sidelined and often ignored. Thus the Green scepticism, and often outright rejection, of carbon trading has meant that even the genuine environmental concerns are not reflected or taken into account in adequate measure while policies are formulated.

There is no use clinging on to the ideal solution, when faced with the exigencies and problems of the real world, and in the process ending up achieving the worst of both worlds. The challenge for us is to engineer solutions that account for the reality, utilizing the latest technologies and processes, and the market, and mitigate the harmful effects of global environmental degradation thrown up by the rapidly moving dialectic of development.

George Monbiot has written, The western appetite for biofuels is causing starvation in the poor world , on the topic.


gaddeswarup said...

There is a long post by mrajshekhar in his blog 'fracuredearth' titled "a process of confrontation" (part of his master's thesis). Some of his conclusions seemsimilar to yours.

amit said...

I wasn't aware that the Greens are like Catholics - with a centralized Pope whose message all Greens are supposed to follow. By focusing on a certain section of greens who hold an extremist position, how are you helping the discussion? Wouldn't it be more progressive on your part to build bridges with greens who do believe in technological solutions? Or maybe you haven't looked hard enough as you have an axe to grind too. ;)