by Jon P. Dorschner
The Perfect Storm
We once lived in a world of infinite possibilities. It was filled with hope. But the world has undergone a radical transformation. It has reached the “tipping point.” Decisions taken today will determine the future of life on this planet.The rapid ascension of conservative ideology in the United States and other countries has been accompanied by environmental changes of epic proportions, providing a recipe for a perfect storm. Not only does the world face unprecedented environmental challenges due to pollution, deforestation and other deleterious impacts of human activity, another ecological threat to all life on this planet has emerged, climate change. Scientists have been aware of the deleterious effect of carbon on the atmosphere and world climate for a long time, but were unable to attract the attention of the world population until recently.
While world governments have promoted economic development, economic growth and poverty alleviation, the environment was always the elephant in the room. It was always there and always too big to ignore.
Bent on economic growth at all cost, power elites in the United States and many other countries dismiss environmental rules and regulations as “impediments to growth,” that must be downplayed, eliminated, or ignored. They emphasize the economic costs of regulating industries to ensure adequate pollution controls. To them, this money is better spent on “investments” aimed at continued economic growth. In this world view, polluted air, polluted water, and food laced with unhealthy additives are simply the unavoidable costs associated with economic growth and prosperity.
But the elephant remains in the room, and he does not get any smaller. Rather, he grows larger and larger, every day, and now there is climate change.
The industrial revolution fuelled a consumer economy. By the 1950’s this consumer lifestyle was epitomized by the United States. There arose an economic model which now dominates political and economic thinking which equates economic success with “economic growth,” defined as growth in the output of goods and services. To achieve success in this model, consumers must consume more products, so that factories can produce more goods and services. It is an economic model based on infinite growth.
There are inherent problems with this economic model. It equates prosperity with the acquisition of material objects. However, once basic material needs are met, demand begins to slacken. For the system to succeed, it must constantly increase output. Demand cannot slacken. Therefore, industrialized societies must constantly maintain demand. They do this in two ways. They create “artificial needs” by turning luxuries into necessities, and they harness research and technology to constantly create new products, which eventually become the new necessities.
This constant output of goods and services comes with a heavy environmental price. Industrial production processes have always created unwanted and dangerous byproducts, including substances that pollute the air, water, and soil.
Pollution became intolerable in the more advanced industrial countries. Public outcry and growing scientific research on the deleterious impact of pollutants led to calls for their control. Populations realized that unrestricted environmental pollution was too high of a price to pay for economic progress. These countries began to regulate industrial production processes and control pollution.
The publics in these countries were willing to pay the price to clean up their environment. It quickly became evident that private producers would not regulate themselves and that only government could accomplish this task. Some countries began to clean up some of the damage caused by unrestricted economic growth.
Now, however, a new factor threatens the dominant economic paradigm. Industrial systems run on energy. Every industrial process requires energy to convert raw material into finished products.
Until very recently, this energy came almost exclusively from fossil fuels. The original energy source for the industrial revolution was coal. However, coal is a dirty and highly polluting fuel. This spurred the development of new energy sources, and of technology to “scrub” coal of its most harmful pollutants. However, fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, petroleum) remained almost the sole sources of energy. Although hydro electric projects captured flowing water to turn massive turbines to produce energy, and later nuclear power plants provided an alternative to fossil fuel, for many years, these were the only non-fossil, energy sources. As more of the world industrialized, fossil fuel consumption skyrocketed.
Scientists discovered a terrible secret about fossil fuel consumption only after the world had grown dependent on it. Fossil fuel spews carbon into the atmosphere. The carbon is trapped and does not leave. As it accumulates, carbon traps heat, which radiates back to the surface of the Earth, pushing up global temperatures. The increase in heat sparks climate changes of various types depending on individual ecosystems.
As scientists began to measure the affects of carbon in the atmosphere, they became more alarmed. The increase in temperature results in dramatic changes in climate. Ice caps melt, the ocean level increases, inundating low lying areas. As glaciers disappear, rivers dry up. Populations dependent on rain fed agriculture begin to experience drought and then famine. Climate becomes more extreme. Tropical storms become Tsunamis that sweep through coastal areas killing hundreds of thousands and causing unprecedented economic damage. Floods become more frequent and more extreme, especially in areas that have already been deforested.
These dramatic climate changes come at a time when the world’s population continues to climb. Although birth rates have declined dramatically in much of the world and many countries have reached zero population growth (ZPG), with some actually experiencing population declines, population in the developing world continues to increase at a rapid pace.
In some developing countries, especially in those with conservative social systems, much of the population continues to reject family planning and birth rates remain at pre-industrial levels. In these countries the birth rate remains unchanged, while infant and child mortality rates are vastly reduced by modern medicine. These societies endure unsustainable population growth rates that double their population in as little as 25 years.
In other developing countries, family planning has gained wide acceptance, and a two or three child family has become the norm. However, there is a lag between the introduction and acceptance of family planning and the stabilization of the society. There are large numbers of couples in these societies in their childbearing years. Even if these couples have only two children each, a huge residual population increase will continue for several generations after family planning gains wide acceptance.
These societies face a race between available resources and population. As their population density increases, it puts a greater strain on all available resources. Soon, they experience growing shortages of housing, education, water, food, and medical care. The expanding population eats into available farm land, and destroys wildlife habitat. Animal species become extinct at a rapid rate. Pressed for space, human populations settle into areas previously deemed uninhabitable. These include flood plains, coastal areas, and high mountains, precisely the areas most affected by rising ocean levels and flooding. This vastly increases the death tolls for these natural disasters. Large areas have become uninhabitable due to pollution that has never been cleaned up, (salizination of fresh water caused by digging too deep into the water table is one example). Spreading desertification destroys land once used for food crops.
The scene is now set for the perfect storm. These high density populations, already experiencing the impact of uncontrolled pollution, must now endure the impact of climate change. This poses a basic threat to human survival in these countries. Their infrastructures are already inadequate. Their political systems lack the will and/or the capability to deal with this challenge, and they face a “population bulge” of young men entering the job market with no prospects for employment.
It has now come down to a question of survival. If dramatic measures are not taken immediately, these states face an apocalypse of Biblical proportions. Millions of people could die due to plagues, famines, and wars. We already see a model for this kind of breakdown in South Sudan, where over two million have died and there is no end in sight. A number of Islamic states (Syria being most evident) face this scenario.
Is it too late to avoid disaster? Scientists tell us that there is still a chance, but the window is closing fast To limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Fahrenheit, every country on earth must agree to a radical carbon reduction program. This would necessitate the selection of a date for the total elimination of fossil fuels. Coal would have to be eliminated first, as it is the most polluting fuel. The world would have to change its current growth at all costs system to a “Green Economic Model,” based on sustainability, reduction of the impact of human economic activity on the environment, and the replacement of fossil fuel technology with more viable sources of energy.
The chances for implementation of this basic survival strategy are bleak. This is because two powerful blocks oppose it. Between them, they have sufficient political and economic power to prevent change.
The most extreme block is that represented by the Republican Party of the USA. Although a minority party with its vote share decreasing due demographic shifts, the GOP continues to use all resources at its disposal to ensure that the US remains an environmental outlier in the world system. Its true believers are capable of causing unprecedented damage before they leave the scene.
For example, the Republican Party has just named Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe to be the next chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe, considered the GOP’s leading “thinker” on environmental issues, has declared climate change to be “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind,” and has stated that “it doesn’t matter” that 97% of the world’s scientists agree that climate change is a scientifically verified fact. Inhofe is the author of “The Greatest Hoax — How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”1 On November 12, he described the recently initialed US/China agreement to curb carbon emissions, “a non-binding charade.”2
The other major block is proponents of economic liberalization, many of them Democrats. Willing to implement environmental policies to maintain their political credibility, they are unwilling to make the radical changes required to seriously address environmental and climate change issues. This block will resolutely reject and oppose environmental policies they deem too radical.
India — The Tip of the Spear
Before climate change came into public consciousness, pollution was already a serious problem in India, and remains so today. India is a primary example of the perfect storm. It is the tip of the spear of planetary disaster. It exemplifies the problems facing the developing world, but on a massive scale.
India is set to become the most populous country on Earth. Although it has made serious progress on reducing the birth rate, and the two child family is rapidly becoming the norm, it suffers from an enormous population bulge, a legacy left by the previous generation, when six and seven child families were common. This means that India must feed, clothe, educate, and most importantly employ, a vast bulge of young people who are simultaneously entering the workforce and the childbearing years.
India is also among the poorest countries in the world. The World Bank’s 2010 report on world poverty estimated that 32.7% of India’s population lives below poverty, with an estimated daily income of $1.25 or less. Much of the remainder lives at poverty or near-poverty levels. India’s middle class is much discussed in Western media as the engine of development, but remains small. A reliable estimate of the size of the Indian middle class has proven elusive. Much depends on the measures employed. A liberal measure names anyone with an income of $2 to $30 per day as middle class, and includes as much as 30% of the population. However, when more realistic measures are used, the number slips. For example, one measure counts only families that own four items, TVs, computer, telephone and scooter/car. When this measure is used, the middle class shrinks to a paltry 4.6%.3
Regardless of the economic indicators employed, a member of the Indian middle class, must attain a standard of living above poverty level, and no longer be subject to the malnutrition that plagues the general population. There are varying estimates as to the size and composition of the Indian political/economic elite groups. The most common estimate is 5% of the population. Elites, by definition, maintain hegemonic control over the Indian economy and political system and enjoy the most rewards.
Much has been written regarding the benefits of economic liberalization to the Indian population, and the trickling down of wealth from Indian elites through the middle class to the poor and near poor. Most observers agree that there has been some increase in social mobility since economic reforms started in 1991, although there is considerable disagreement regarding how much. Education drives social mobility in India. At independence, the socialist government headed by the Congress Party and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru earnestly intended to provide universal primary education and basic health care to the entire Indian population. Despite its best intentions, the Indian government failed to meet these goals.
Government provided public education and health care are consistently substandard. Those on the bottom of the Indian economic ladder have essentially no access to either. This is why illiteracy, while declining, persists, with up to half of the Indian population functionally illiterate.
While economic development based on the liberalization and trickle down has brought more Indians out of poverty than any previous economic strategy, the absolute number of Indians living in poverty continues to grow. This is because of the radical increase in the size of the overall Indian population. The absolute number of Indians living in poverty is larger than ever, and India now contains more poor people than any country on Earth.
This same demographic dynamic plagued earlier socialist efforts to reduce poverty. Although proponents of economic liberalization condemn India’s socialist Nehruvian economic policies, they did alleviate poverty. Under Nehru, India made solid inroads in combating both illiteracy and malnutrition, both of which were rampant at the time of independence. Nehru also constructed basic infrastructure in a country where it was largely absent and provided the bases for an industrial economy.
Population growth has been India’s greatest impediment to poverty reduction. Economic growth rates achieved by the Nehru government were respectable. If India had ZPG, these Nehruvian growth rates would have made significant inroads into poverty. However, Nehru’s growth rates succeeded in only keeping up with population growth. His polices prevented an increase in poverty, but did not significantly reduce it, leaving India merely standing in place.
When the population is not growing, the benefits of a growing economy can theoretically be distributed to society at large, and it is possible to make serious inroads into poverty. However, a quickly growing population negates economic growth. India found itself fighting mightily against poverty but succeeding only in preventing poverty growth. Its most significant achievement during the Nehru years was the elimination of the persistent threat of famine and the gradual increase in nutritional levels. Nehru succeeded in feeding a vastly expanding population, something the former colonial regime did not do.
Proponents of economic liberalization are urging India to abandon socialism and take another tack. But a capitalist economy, despite all of its promises, runs into the same demographic imperatives. Population growth worsens India’s problems, as it vastly increases the numbers of human beings that must be fed, clothed, housed and educated. India’s population has increased 400% since independence and the absolute numbers are now so huge that they are pushing against the very capacity of the environment. India is now densely populated, with its expanding population streaming into mega cities.
All pervasive poverty is readily apparent everywhere in India. Because of poverty, and the vastly increasing population, infrastructure cannot keep up and is uniformly insufficient to meet basic needs. Thus, simple tasks like driving an automobile became gargantuan challenges, as roads are overcrowded and chaotic and traffic enforcement is impossible. For many reasons, laws are not enforced in India, leaving a vacuum filled sometimes by anarchy, and sometimes by extra-legal organizations that operate with impunity.
The combination of all pervasive poverty, lack of basic infrastructure and crowded conditions caused by overpopulation and a very high population density, results in a very low quality of life. This is compounded by insecurity and constant stress. Competition for scarce resources is never ending. Thus, while the middle class enjoys some level of economic security, it is plagued by the constant fear that this security could erode or disappear at any moment.
The population at large is frustrated. It wants some redress, some hope of social mobility, economic advancement and economic security. India has now joined the international mainstream and has embraced economic liberalization as the latest formula for poverty reduction, just as it once embraced Nehruvian socialism. This enthusiasm resulted in the historic win by Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in this year’s parliamentary election.
Economic liberalization calls for India to provide a free hand to its capitalists, industrialists, and entrepreneurs to work their magic. The goal is to mimic China and achieve a high rate of economic growth that could lift millions out of poverty. This “free hand” includes the relaxation of government restrictions, the removal of red tape, the encouragement of foreign investment, the removal of duties on imports to encourage “free trade,” and curtailing the power of labor unions.
The most enthusiastic believers in economic liberalization believe anything that prevents capitalism from functioning freely should be removed. This also extends to environmental controls writ large, which they view as a brake on economic growth. In this paradigm, climate change is indeed an “inconvenient truth,” because it challenges the ideological underpinnings of liberalization.
The goal is to achieve the highest possible rate of economic growth as quickly as possible. To accept the reality of climate change, to acknowledge that it threatens to cause havoc with all life on this planet, and the need for drastic and imperative action to deal with it. This is not part of the game plan.
India is acting out of desperation. India must do something drastic to curtail and reduce staggering poverty. This has become the sole driver of economic policy. Liberalization is now viewed by India’s power elites as the magic formula that will finally allow India to achieve economic success and true poverty reduction. The power elites are particularly enamored with this ideological stance as it poses no challenge to their dominance of the economy. It does not call for them to share power with India’s impoverished masses. India’s sclerotic democracy will continue to function as before. They are now free to discard the entire concept of resource reallocation, the duty of the government to provide a measure of egalitarianism by reallocating resources from wealthy elites to the poor masses. Instead, capitalism must only be freed of all constraints and everyone will benefit, with elites benefitting most of all. This ideology will not allow pressing factors to interfere with this agenda, and this includes environmentalism and the need to limit climate change.
Compared to India, the US is a prosperous society. Although poverty levels are increasing in the US, it does not have India’s staggering poverty levels. Basic infrastructure, although decaying, is in place. The US has a functioning public education system and enjoys universal literacy. These factors allow Americans to frame environmental issues in a totally different light than in India. They also prevent American elites from ignoring the environment. Some in the Republican Party would like to implement such a system, but this is virtually impossible, as very few Americans outside the GOP base would accept it.
These factors no not apply in India. Indian power elites are free to implement a naked capitalist strategy, which they believe will ensure high economic growth rates. Promising that they will deliver significant poverty reduction, they have been given a free hand by a quiescent population that has to date shown little interest in environmental issues.
The results of this policy orientation are obvious everywhere in India. Pollution is universal. India’s river systems are polluted, as they are used as open sewers and depositories for massive amounts of industrial waste. India relies on coal to provide it with cheap energy. India has few fossil fuel resources of its own other than coal. The widespread use of coal has polluted the atmosphere, and made India the third largest carbon polluter on Earth after China and the United States. India’s cities are plagued by air and noise pollution. India is producing ever greater numbers of internal combustion vehicles and makes little effort to enact or enforce emission controls. Many Indian vehicles are noisy and highly polluting two stroke vehicles that fill the air with noxious pollutants. Regardless of the anti-pollution measures in the law books, Indian industrialists have carte-blanche to pollute at will with little fear of negative consequences.
India has publicly stated that it will not participate in worldwide efforts to curb carbon emissions and climate change. On November 12, 2014, China and the US initialed an agreement requiring both countries to curtail their greenhouse gas emissions. China, the world’s most prolific carbon producer and the US, the second largest producer, pledged to reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuel, starting with coal, opening the door to full participation by the US and China in future global climate change negotiations.
This leaves India as the odd man out and the world’s next outlier state. The country with the world’s second largest population and one of the world’s largest economies has simply chosen to ignore climate change and the deleterious environmental impacts of unrestrained economic development.
Should the world fail to address climate change and other pressing environmental factors, the window will shut, and global climate change will unleash a wave of disastrous consequences on the human race. The extent of the suffering could prove unimaginable. This is particularly true in South Asia, where hundreds of millions could die. India could potentially experience more death and destruction than any country on earth. At that point, the rosy promises will come to naught. Instead of economic development and poverty reduction, India could experience disaster. If this comes to pass, India will go down in history as the country that consciously chose to bring death and disaster not only its own population, but the world at large.
The Need for an Environmental Opposition Party
At present, India is in the increasing grip of the BJP. This party in many ways overlaps with the Republican Party in the United States and shares a similar agenda. Like the Republican Party, the BJP is committed to full implementation of economic liberalization. Modi has promised to deliver India from all pervading poverty by removing all restraints on capitalism. He believes that economic liberalization will solve India’s many problems.
As part of this agenda, India has embraced an American style consumer economy, based on expanding consumption to stimulate high rates of economic growth. Modi has promised to shrink the role of government in the economy, and deregulate economic activity.
Unlike the GOP, however, the BJP does not deny the reality of climate change. Instead, it has chosen to willfully ignore combat climate change efforts, along with environmental laws and regulations. The BJP promises to continue the status quo under which environmental laws are ignored with impunity. The BJP also does not face an opposition with a compelling environmental agenda. No political party makes the environment or combating climate change a priority. These issues are simply not mentioned.
The environment is simply not an issue in Indian partisan politics. To date, India’s major political parties have embraced the position that India must obtain high economic growth rates regardless of the environmental consequences. Indian policy makers and power elites argue that Western countries were free to rapidly industrialize during the industrial revolution without adhering to any environmental regulations whatsoever and India should have the same opportunity. They claim that the West, having taken advantage of a regulation free environment, cannot now hobble India’s economic development by demanding it implement an environmental agenda.
In this context, it makes no sense that India’s political opposition has no environmental agenda. The BJP has embraced a radical anti-environmental stance. The opposition platform should present an alternative that includes economic policies better suited to the Indian context, and a radical pro-environment agenda.
If no opposition party is willing to take such a position, concerned Indians should start a new opposition party to promulgate it. It would form part of an opposition alliance including India’s left wing parties and the Congress Party. This block would oppose continued BJP rule and serve as the voice of the Indian conscience. It would decry anti-environmentalism as a betrayal of India’s inherent cultural values.
What shape would such a party take, and what would it espouse? It would be a uniquely Indian party that reflects the highest values of Indian culture, for environmentalism is an inherent Indian value.
The BJP’s current economic policy, including its anti-environmental stance, is a foreign ideology imported from the United States. It is inherently duplicitous for the BJP to claim to be a Hindu nationalist party, when its views and ideology are imported from the West and do not reflect true Hindu values.
The environmental opposition party would be Gandhian, as Gandhi’s economic development vision fully incorporated Indian and environmental values.
What would an Indian environmental agenda look like?
Here are a few suggestions:
- India should quickly join the US/China agreement to restrict carbon emissions and combat global warming, and call for all three countries to develop a joint strategy.
- India should identify coal for elimination by devising a concerted national strategy to replace coal with renewable energy as quickly as possible. The strategy would include subsidies to renewable energy producers, and targets for renewable power generation.
- India should implement a radical new transportation policy to leapfrog internal combustion technology. Internal combustion vehicles are starting to disappear in the developed world. India should stop wasting precious resources on this out of date technology. India will never have sufficient infrastructure to support a private automobile system. The current policy is causing transportation gridlock, air pollution, noise pollution and ever-growing fossil fuel consumption.
- India should phase out motorcycles. India is producing vast numbers of motorcycles, which are trumpeted as the poor man’s family vehicle. Motorcycles are not family vehicles. Motorcycles are inherently unsafe. In India’s unregulated traffic environment their use poses a serious safety hazard. The addition of millions of motorcycles to Indian roads is polluting the environment, killing thousands of people and compounding the current chaos on the Indian roads.
- India should phase out private vehicles (with the possible exception of electric vehicles) and create a state of the art, world class public transportation system, heavily subsidized by the government. The system would feature highly efficient subway systems, and electric busses. The cost to passengers should be nominal.
- India should curtail investments in expensive highway and road projects. Travel should be by subway, rail, and electric bus, with public transportation extending anywhere in the country. India should create a world class subway and railway system, including the introduction of high speed bullet trains
- India should curtail investments in Air travel. India should adopt no policy option that does not meet the needs of the common man. Air travel only benefits the affluent and is inherently bad for the environment. It uses vast amounts of fossil fuel and contributes to pollution and global warming.
- India should eliminate American style packaging. This includes plastic bags, the almost indestructible packaging used for processed foods, and the widespread use of plastic bottles. India has no system in place to remove and process this vast amount of nonbiodegradable packaging. All packaging should be biodegradable.
- MNC’s are introducing American style soft drinks, processed snack foods, and fast food chain stores. These dietary changes are harmful to the Indian population. India should discourage these dangerous additions to the Indian diet and encourage consumption of healthy Indian alternatives
- India should discourage the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and seeds, chemical fertilizers and insecticides, and encourage organic agriculture while assuring ready access to healthy organic food for the common man.
- The Modi government claims it will clean up the Ganges. This sole emphasis on the Ganges appears nothing more than a move to attract Hindu votes. The government should ensure that all Indian waterways are cleaned up.
There are fundamental reasons why the Indian population should support an environmental opposition party.
- Such a party is inherently Gandhian and the standard bearer for a genuine Gandhian policy approach abandoned by India’s other political parties.
- Such a party reflects Indian cultural values. Indians revere the environment and should support any political party that protects it.
- The BJP has a radical anti-environmental agenda. Only radical environmentalism can counter it.
- India faces the direst consequences from climate change. More economically developed nations have the capability to adopt expensive adaptation and amelioration measures. India will not be able to do so.
1. Jim Inhofe, “The Greatest Hoax – How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens your Future,” WND Books, 2012
2. “Meet the Republicans’ Top Guy on the Environment – Jim Inhofe,” The New York Times, November 12, 2014
3. “The Myth of the Great Indian Middle Class,” Indian Mail Online, November 14, 2014
A native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona. He currently teaches South Asian Studies and International Relations at his alma mater, and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects. From 1983 until 2011, he was a career Foreign Service Officer. A Political Officer, Dr. Dorschner’s career specialties were internal politics and political/military affairs. He served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington. From 2003-2007 he headed the Internal Politics Unit at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. In 2007-2008 Dr. Dorschner completed a one-year assignment on an Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Tallil, Iraq. From 2009-2011 he served as an Economic Officer, in Berlin, Germany.