• By Faizan Farooq
If I were to be asked ‘What is the most pressing problem faced by the world today?’ I would not say Covid-19. Not terrorism or nuclear proliferation either. No, not even the Hollywood’s favorite end-of-the-world events: alien invasions, zombie apocalypse etc. It is the problem regarding which we are most inadvertent: the irreversible damage we are causing to this delicate balance called environment of our planet.
Sooner or later though, humans will overcome corona virus owing to their ingenuity of preserving their immediate existences. Terrorism is a political offshoot and can be fixed by disentangling political-quagmires. Nuclear power can be put to appropriate uses like power generation. But this very delicate fabric of our environment which is holding our existence intact once damaged cannot be undone.
It was in the year 1985 that the scientific community for the first time announced it to the world that ozone layer is getting depleted and has developed in it a ‘hole’. Following years many environmental conferences and summits were conducted in which world leaders deliberated over plans of overcoming this crisis, most notable among which is the 1992 ‘Earth summit’. The conferences also led to the development of many protocols for environmental preservation but over the years many product manufacturers and MNC’s seem to have developed methods of “evading” those rules.
In this article, we will try explaining those problematic environmental concerns which we find are embraced not only by the product-manufacturers but also by the consumers. In a post we-know-we-are-damaging-the-environment world where degradation of the environment is happening concomitant to illusion of its preservation.
The first problem is in shifting the onus of preserving the environment disproportionately onto the average common man, a mere consumer whose economic behavior/purchasing decisions are decisively impacted by a strong and manipulative advertisement campaign owned by big cooperates. And giving full autonomy to the manufacturers for producing the same environmentally hazardous products in rampant. That is, the damage done to the environment by capitalists/manufacturers (those who can do something about it) is somehow thought to be rectified by consumers (those who can do nothing or little). Here I do not intend providing impunity to us, the consumers, to degrade the environment (the protection of which is a duty we all are bound by) but rather explain the double standards ‘from above’ which ultimately seeps down into them as well.
A problem as serious and universal as the environmental degradation requires a ‘top down’ approach with rectifications first being initiated at the highest levels, like MNC’s, World Trade Organizations, State-governments, Bureaucracy and other such top hierarchies. But in practice our approach is ‘bottom up’, with all emphasis being put on ‘changing lifestyle’ of the end consumers only with very little being done from the ‘above’. Yes we need to change our lifestyles (for instance end our dependencies on environmentally harmful products like, say, polythene) but that’s not all because consumers merely shunning polythene usage is not going to help if polythene continues to get manufactured and no alternative is developed. Think about it like this: people did brought groceries before polythene existed, it is its manufacturing which made people dependant on it and the problem cannot be rectified without the governments interfering to stop its manufacturing altogether and not just ‘appealing’ people not to use it. Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek once jokingly said in a lecture that world leaders meet to discuss environment, in the meeting they decide the venue of next year meeting and this they deem as a ‘success’. But jokes apart, the higher we go up in politico-economic hierarchies the incompetency tends to increase. “It is easier and more common to macro-bullshit than to micro-bullshit” as Nassim Taleb puts it. The ‘cash value’ of these global organizations and meetings is not as beneficial as they should be.
The problem also lies in exhortations often coming from big cooperates regarding the environmental preservation, particularly by those who are directly involved in its degradation. For instance, many of you would have come across ‘Trees are man’s best friend’ sort of supposedly educative adages on cover pages of widely used notebooks here in India which is very ironic because the company endorsing such slogans basically survives and earns huge profits not by preserving but cutting more and more trees (howsoever you recycle it, the good quality paper which the civilized world is accustomed to use would, nonetheless, be made directly from wood pulp). We do not intend underestimating the complexities of modern economy or truly powerful consumerism. Nor are we unaware about the value which paper possesses in today’s society. But it is the behavioral pattern of modern capitalism today which we want to highlight and which is far more manipulative than its colonial background.
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Corporate, capitalists and states need to reanimate the concept of ‘Skin in the Game’. The phrase simply means ‘own the risk that you introduce into this world’. One of the earliest known codes of law pertaining to human social interactions the Babylonian ‘Hammurabi’s code’ contains a legal provision that if a building collapses, the builder should be killed as the punishment. This is one of the simplest applications of Skin in the Game concept in civil law, whose application we can find in diverse fields in almost all traditional societies. In modern capitalism however, the principle of risk sharing has been twisted the other way round with corporate introducing the risks into the world and the commoners bearing its consequences. The concept needs to be resurrected.
If the world countries had responded earlier to the corona virus and taken steps right on time to contain its spread then the world might not have been engulfed by the pandemic the way it did. “It is better to panic early than to panic late”-as Nassim Taleb puts it. Same can be said of environmental protection as well. If we want to prevent our future generations from bearing catastrophic consequences of our actions, irreversible damage to the planet and to the world economies, then we must ‘panic early’.
The mental attitude created out of the shallow understanding of environmental protection not only discourages the public from thinking about real solutions to the problems but also makes them, in a way, inadvertent towards them. ’Crush the bottle after use’ wouldn’t just vanish the bottle from existence, (Plastic being non biodegradable) it would remain there crushed or not crushed adding to the collective trash of the most intelligent species of the planet. Plastic leaves its impact on the environment even if it is burned, so mere ‘crushing’ the bottle or using the dustbins cannot save the environment. It merely satisfies our aesthetics. Environmental degradation in our time is an issue of utmost seriousness which simply cannot be left on the generous involvement of common man. Those at the helm of power simply cannot leave this momentous issue merely on the goodwill of the public. It’s a primal problem pertaining to the very existence of our species and as such requires radical efforts. The solution which we propose to the crisis is the same as the solution we would have offered to counter increasing cases of lung cancer due to smoking. Instead of advertising and appealing people not to smoke on “moral grounds” why not ban the industry itself right away? How ethical is this current approach of earning taxes from smoking industry on one hand and preaching on humanitarian grounds its ill effects to society on the other? How logical is it to impose fines on small retailers for using the polythene-bags and allowing industries producing it to flourish and supply the same? Why can’t the government ban the industry and take to itself the task of manufacturing (or outsource the task) on a very large scale bags made of cloth/paper or other such biodegradable material? Doesn’t the modern nation state bear the task of welfare state as well? Why should government confine itself to mere exhorting the people to plant more and more trees? Why can’t the government itself initiate the task? By not throwing garbage and polythene on streets and using dustbins is merely satisfying our aesthetics and not protecting the environment, why not come up with genuinely helpful measures of doing the same? The state cannot eat the cake and have it too.
The writer is a student of management at Aligarh Muslim university and can be mailed at email@example.com