I have been as fervent as the next guy in my belief about notions such as the power of love and the importance of always speaking the truth. These are fundamental beliefs that, like all middle-class kids in the world, I had imbibed with my mother’s milk. Love conquers all; love makes the world go round; truth must, and will always, prevail.
But as my life unfolded I realised, as must have you, that notions such as love and truth are not as simple as they appeared in our childhood. We learn, for example, that love can have degrees: a mother’s love for her child is unconditional; that of your college sweetheart for you may not be the same. Also, that speaking the truth can sometimes be hurtful and a white lie may be better.
“Sustainability”, for me, has been one of those things like love and truth. Ask me whether humans ought to live life in such a way that they leave enough of the world’s natural resources for future generations, and I, like you, will immediately and unconditionally agree. Press me a little more and ask whether I am ready to give up my daily one-hour car commute and instead use Bombay’s public transport system, and I will start to squirm and add conditions — if only trains and buses were less crowded, if only there was air-conditioning, if only they were more frequent, if only... I have discovered that, like love and truth, sustainability is a complicated matter.
Which is why I had my fingers tightly crossed when I was invited to a convention on Management Education for a Sustainable Tomorrow at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIM-C), this week.
I heard many “inconvenient truths” (Al Gore got a well-deserved Nobel prize for coining this lovely phrase). The United States apparently leads the world in spewing into the earth’s atmosphere the carbon dioxide that makes us all sneeze and suffer from headaches. Chinese and Indians, I understood, are impatiently waiting in the wings to take over the leadership from the US. The PPM (parts per million of pollutants in the air) is as much a badge of super-power status as the GDP. Buildings apparently are the biggest culprits, using up as much as 40 per cent of the energy consumed. Like at all such conferences, frightening pictures were painted about the consequences of ignoring sustainability: given that a billion people today face water scarcity, imagine what will happen when the world’s population increases by another billion by 2030.
Solutions and counterpoints to them were debated by a galaxy of international speakers. Capture the vast outpouring of carbon dioxide and store it in underground tanks, some said. But what would we do with these tank farms in the future, others asked. Switch to solar energy, but isn’t the energy we expend to produce solar panels much more than that saved by them? Use algae to carry out photosynthesis, but how much energy can algae produce? Increase taxes on polluting processes, but are politicians ready to risk inviting public ire against tax increases?
The conference took an interesting turn when the technocratic solutions were exhausted.
Why not solve the problem of depleting natural resources by merely consuming less, asked Paul Shrivastava, an IIM-C alumnus, and Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at Concordia University. “De-grow,” he said, accept a life of voluntary simplicity.
Stuart Hart, best known for co-authoring The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, was sceptical about wind farms, solar farms and clean coal. These large-scale and centralised efforts in the United States are based on government incentives and, according to him, are not inherently viable. The answer, he said, lay in small-scale, de-centralised and locally self-sustaining efforts.
Dipesh Chakravarty, an IIM-C alumnus, and a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Chicago, solved the puzzle for me. When people can’t solve a problem, he said, they tell stories. For example, in the 19th-century Bengal there was no cure for smallpox, so villagers made up stories about the disease. In some ways these stories comforted them. He said that something similar could be at work about environmental degradation and depletion of resources — these are real issues but we don’t have solutions to them yet. So, in true human fashion, we tell stories about them; stories that, for example, paint visions about a billion people running short of drinking water ten generations from now. The only problem with such stories, he said, was that people discounted them simply because they were so busy with the struggles of life that they had no time for such gigantic problems that might occur after ten generations. We need stories that work on the emotional level, much like the ones that film makers and novelists tell us.