Friday, April 5, 2013

Austere ways to avoid crisis - Out of the Box 36

Renton de Alwis

Just take a look around you of the waste... in resources, words, deeds, opulence, corruption the list can go on. This is not a blame game. But a game of  survival. We need to conserve if we are to exist. Period.

I repost this column I wrote in October 2011 for the ‘Daily Financial Times, Sri Lanka’ with the hope that there will be some thought generated to critically evaluate this position I take.  

I like to be an optimist. No matter what may happen around us I would like to retain feelings of hope I have for all human-kind and on a more intimate level for you, for me, the new-born and the to-be-born. Yet, what has already happened around me, happening now and may happen in the future, keeps bothering me and it bothers me deeply. The silver-linings I see are of the keen sense and love for nature a key segment of our youth have. I see this love demonstrated on a daily basis on the Facebook, where thousands participate on dedicated Blogs and Groups, to share their knowledge of our natural heritage while keeping a watchful-eye on wrong-doings as well.

You may have read and may recall the words Chief Seattle left for us in his famous Treaty Oration of 1854. He made a plea on behalf of his ‘Nation’ addressing the land-grabbers who sought it for private ownership driven by pecuniary motive. We were not there then.  Some of us may not even care. Yet given all ‘the water that has flown under the bridge since’, it would do us all good, if we in the least could imagine in our mind’s eye of that historic happening.

Web of Life

His inspiring words were on the value of being one with nature. "Man did not weave the web of life - he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself" he said. He went on to add “You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children what we have taught our children; that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves”. He added “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us (the American Indian nation). If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of the earth is sacred to my people” and made the plea “Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints.”

Before him the Buddha word had it as “To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one's own in the midst of abundance.”

I am also reminded of a line John Steinbeck wrote in his 1954 novel ‘Sweet Thursday’. That also says a lot about us humans and the relationship we have with our environment. It said “Man is the only kind of varmint who sets his own trap, baits it and then steps into it”. There were many others who had similar sentiments and thought I must share some of them with you.

Speed and direction

In Rachel Carson’s words "The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe, the less taste we shall have for destruction" and Mark Twain warned that “Civilization is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities". Mahatma Gandhi’s words “Speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction” focussed on choosing the right way and Arthur Schopenhauer opined that "All truth passes through three stages: first it is ridiculed; second, it is violently opposed; third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

All of the above were words of wisdom from men and women who were not necessarily scientists, technocrats or professionals, as we know them today. As my divide between the two, I share with you two 1982 quotes, first from US political activist Ralph Nadar who aptly said “The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry does not own the sun” and US bureaucrat James G Watt who said “They kill good trees to put out bad newspapers.” They were referring to roles of business and media in positioning long-term issues that impact our environment.

Limits to growth

Now turning to science, I refer to “The Limits to Growth”, the 1972 book by Donella Meadows, the lead author and scientist of the MIT‘s computer model project that analyzed global resource consumption and production. The book was translated to 28 languages and created ripples all over the world at the time. Their results shocked the world and created stirring conversation about global 'overshoot,' or resource use beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows teamed up with Donella again and updated and expanded their original findings backing them with empirical evidence in “The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update” in 2004.

In many ways, the message contained in “Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update” is a warning. Overshoot cannot be sustained without collapse. But, as the authors are careful to point out, there is reason to believe that humanity can still reverse some of its damage to Earth if it takes appropriate measures to reduce inefficiency and waste.

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute had this to say about that work "Reading the 30th-year update reminds me of why the systems approach to thinking about our future is not only valuable, but indispensable. Thirty years ago, it was easy for the critics to dismiss the limits to growth. But in today's world, with its collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, falling water tables, dying coral reefs, expanding deserts, eroding soils, rising temperatures, and disappearing species, it is not so easy to do so. We are all indebted to the "Limits" team for reminding us again that time is running out."

Crisis in oil

We often are unaware of or forget that on a fateful day in October 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries or the OAPEC (consisting of the Arab members of OPEC, plus EgyptSyria and Tunisia) proclaimed an oil embargo. This was according to the OAPEC, "in response to the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military" during the Yom Kippur War. The price of a barrel of crude oil supplied by these nations went up to an unprecedented high of US$ 12 from its levels of US$ 3 earlier to increase even beyond US$ 50 by 1979.

I was then a student in the US and remember the panic it caused all around me. A gallon of petrol sold at prices around 30 US cents had gone up to be over US cents 50. There was panic everywhere. Motor car manufacturers made sudden 360 degree shifts to making smaller more fuel efficient cars. Movies were made of a world without heating, air-conditioning and the usual luxuries most of the rich world is accustomed to. Talk of austerity was everywhere. Small cars came into the market and that was good business. Yet number of the big cars coming into the market did not decline and they were both being sold with the key words being “offer of options and choice to consumers”.


Right now, the world is seeing another financial crisis like it has seen never before. Several countries are unable to pay their back their debts taken earlier to keep their economies moving. The creditor countries are in a panic mode and that has caused widespread uncertainty in the global financial markets. The real estate bubble that burst in the US a few years ago is continuing to trouble that economy with unemployment and inflation still being major issues. Several disasters on the energy front (natural and manmade), has got the world’s energy pundits into a greater mess. Except for Japan, who has taken on the development of energy-saving-technological options, the rest of the developed world continues to disregard their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. In spite of what climate science has determined, they have failed in their efforts at reducing each of their nations’ CO2 emissions. Focus is placed on the gimmicky share market type option of ‘Carbon Trading’ without due emphasis given to real reduction of emissions.

Battle for access to fossil fuel resources continue in the guise of democratisation of political systems of owning nations of these resources. Friends of the past have now turned foes and the battles are fought both overtly and covertly. Sadly they are positioned as do-good efforts by likeminded media. Most of Europe is hurting in the aftermath of riots caused by those agitating for access to social and economic opportunities.  

Is big better

In neighbouring India, where the economy is seeing fast paced growth we hear of fast speed (energy guzzler) Formula type car-races touted as a major event and see TV adverts of Grand sized vehicles being promoted while ridiculing the users of smaller vehicles. At the same time there are adjustments made to the indices of poverty measurement with political statements made of many more Indians getting over the poverty line.    

At a time when we in Sri Lanka are ‘taking off’ on a development trajectory there are many lessons here for us to learn. We do have within us and in our cultural ethos what it takes to go slow and focus on the conservation and protection of our national heritage. Yet, if we go on the premises that ‘Big is better’, ‘More is merrier’, ‘Choice is fine’ or ‘Greed is good’, taking our focus away from meeting our needs, that could lead to our destroying the unique natural and cultural resources and areas we have. That then would be a sure recipe for us to turn down an opportunity we have to be unique and successful. We could perhaps even serve as a model for the rest of the world on the practice of austerity and for our caring ways of Mother Nature.  

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