Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Saving the planet by condemning people

( Can the East have it all? The cars, the houses and the standard of living that the West has? 
I say ‘yes’, but a fellow Asian, Chandran Nair, says ‘no’. Nair is the author of Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet. He is adamant that Asians living in the East should not expect to have the same lifestyles as people living in the West. He is worried that if people in the East keep saying ‘we want it all’, we will only end up destroying the environment, harming natural resources to such an extent that there will be no planet left for future generations. 
Nair argues that the supposedly market-driven economics of the West is solely about getting people to produce and consume more. Yes, he admits, economic growth has lifted people out of poverty - but what’s the point of lifting people out of poverty to consume if there is no decent environment to live in? He calls on Asian governments to forget the market, or rather, to use the market selectively, and devise an alternative form of development to the Western model. 

For Nair, the environment and natural resources come first, people come second. It is indeed a brave argument to make, given that everyone I know in Asia is striving to better themselves and to create a life where they can have more leisure time and buy the luxuries that many Westerners can afford (many of which are now deemed ‘necessities’ in the West). For example, almost everyone wants to own and drive a car. You only had to watch the news reports on Britain’s Boxing Day sales to know that Asians would like a piece of the action. Contrary to Nair’s argument, Asians do ‘want it all’, and if solid economic growth continues in Asia, they will be able to have it all. 

Although Nair also wants people to have good things in life, his preoccupation with natural resources being depleted means he is quite close to arguing that Asians should regress into a more backward style of living. He argues that we should not focus on improving labour productivity and increasing economic growth. We should rather emphasise resource productivity, by which he means replacing large-scale technology and intensive agriculture with labour-intensive farming free from the use of carbon (ie, most machinery) and chemical fertilisers. It reminded me of the British sitcom The Good Life. The central characters, Tom and Barbara Good, decide to escape from the rat race by growing all their own food by converting their garden into a farm with chickens and pigs - much to the dismay of their snobby neighbours.

Yet while that was a comedy, Nair is serious about his proposition for us to forget about the potential benefits from improving labour productivity.
He criticises mechanised tree-felling and also disapproves of cars, even more fuel-efficient ones, given the outcome is likely to be more road building, more driving and more congestion. 

As far as he is concerned, Asians cannot enjoy the gains from labour efficiencies, especially when it is also predicted that Eastern populations are generally expected to grow, unlike in the West, where fertility has fallen and populations are shrinking. More people means more consumption, and that, for Nair, spells danger for the environment. So he says we must turn away from what has been as the essence of human progress: the economisation of the time it takes for human beings to provide all the necessities of life. He seems keen to condemn our fellow Asians to a life of endless labour – something most of us have sought to escape from. 

Nair’s fear of environmental damage has led him to argue that the ‘environmental cost’ of using land, natural resources and fresh air should be included in the price of products. In both the book and this BBC interview, he gives the example of hamburgers. They currently can cost $4 to $5, but Nair says that if the ‘real’ environmental cost of the grain and water that support the cattle is taken into account, the cost of a hamburger should be closer to $100.
He doesn’t spell out that if the hamburger really did cost that much, only a select few could afford to eat one - but then, from Nair’s perspective, anything that helps reduce consumption levels has to be good. His fear of ecological disaster runs so deep that he bemoans the fact that people in India are changing their eating habits, from being vegetarian to becoming meat eaters. 

Nair accepts that many Asians are not going to welcome the style of living he advocates: eating less, wanting less and, for rural dwellers, staying put and tolerating subsistence survival. This is where his authoritarian implications become apparent: he calls on Asian states to intervene to enforce his anti-consumption world. States should set about prioritising the needs of the environment over the needs of the people. 

Nair supports the use of blatantly draconian measures.  After all, he reasons, these days it has become acceptable for states to use blunt measures like bans to stop people smoking (ironically spearheaded by those ‘market-driven’ Western states he’s so dismissive of). So why not go further and start banning people from eating too much meat; stop people driving too many cars; stop people moving from rural areas into the cities? He calls on states to impose a carbon tax, a sugar tax, a meat tax, and to stop advertisements that urge people to buy things. 

Anything, no matter how intrusive and harsh, seems acceptable to Nair so long as it can change people’s behaviour. He admires the Singaporean state because it has brought in strict rules such as stopping people from chewing gum in public, and he even warms to the Chinese state to the extent that it may be beginning to downplay its focus on economic growth in its push for a ‘harmonious’ society. 

Because protecting nature is his first priority, Nair does not see the denial of civil liberties in these countries as problematic. Individual rights for him should be subordinated to ‘collective rights’.
The state should prioritise looking after the collective rights of communities, especially of future generations, and be willing to stop companies or people impacting on the environment. He bemoans the fact that Asian governments are too much in awe of the West, so he calls upon them to start devising Asian models of development and values

For many of us, Asian states are already far too interventionist. There are many freedoms that Asian governments deny us – freedom of the press, freedom to protest, freedom to move freely from one place to another, freedom to form opposition parties without harassment. The mind boggles that Nair can call upon such governments to be even more authoritarian. 

The kind of ‘prosperity’ that Nair recommends, one without economic growth, condemns Asian societies to return to backward stagnation. And in an era of globalisation, where West and East are more closely interlocked in trade and development, such a future equally condemns the West to decline, too. Nair would celebrate such a state of affairs, but for mankind it would be a disaster. Nair might preserve more of his hypothetical natural environment but at the cost of reducing people’s living standards. How that’s a benefit to people beats me.  

Para Mullan is a project manager at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Jug Suraiya: Go to extremes

(Times of India) Why are we sleeping in the refrigerator? I asked Bunny. We`re not sleeping in the refrigerator; we`re sleeping in our bedroom, as we normally do, she replied. This conversation took place during the recent cold wave that swept north India, and many other parts of the world. In Haryana, where we live, the temperature went down to 0.6 C, making not just the bedroom but all the rooms of the house feel like the inside of a fridge. The freezer compartment of the fridge.

Teeth chattering in morse code I marvelled at this unique phenomenon of global warming. How had this global warming — which was melting the Arctic ice cap and giving polar bears heatstroke — all of a sudden become a global colding? What next? Would they schedule the skiing and ice-skating events of the forthcoming Winter Olympics in the Thar desert in mid-July?

However, environmentalists soon came up with a phrase which explained why the planet was freezing over even as it was heating up; it was an example of what they call Extreme Weather Events (EWEs). Thanks to global warming the Earth would increasingly experience extremes of weather; unusually hot hot waves, unusually cold cold waves.

As we huddled in front of a feebly glowing electric heater, both of us bundled up in woollies, Mili the dog and i mused on the wondrous laws of Nature which could turn global warmth into global freeze, all as part of the day`s work and no overtime either. How cool — or how globally warm? — was that. How cool indeed, Mili yowled in acknowledgment, an icicle forming on the tip of her nose.

As we shivered and shuddered in sympathetic unison, it struck me that it wasn`t only the meteorological climate that was susceptible to EWEs; if anything, the political climate was even more susceptible to EWEs, except that in its case the W in EWEs stands not for Weather but for Whether, as in whether or not particular politicians are or aren`t going to do whatever it is they`ve said or not said they will do or not do.

Take the Congress-led UPA government. When it first assumed office, it had gone about initiating economic reforms like bushy-tailed squirrels gathering nuts in May, putting roller skates on the Hindu rate of growth and sending it zipping along at 9% a year. Then all of a sudden it had sat down on its thumbs and gone into hibernation, letting the HRG (Hindu rate of growth) fall back to a limping 5%. Economy? Reform? What dat? Then, again without warning, it had once more perked up and gone into reform overdrive. FDI in retail. Rail fare increase. Fuel price hike.

Political EWEs, Extreme Whether Events, all of them. You don`t know — and neither does UPA-II whether it`s serious about reforms or is going to drop them again before 2014. Similarly, the BJP doesn`t know whether it`s for or against NaMo as PM. Mayawati and Mulayam don`t know whether they`re pro or anti UPA-II. Mamata doesn`t know whether it`s the Marxists, the Maoists, the capitalists, or the cartoonists who are the biggest conspirators against her, so she`s declared all of them Poriborton Enemies No. 1. Extreme Whether Events, the whole lot.

Back in Haryana`s Extreme Weather Event, i decided to sleep in the refrigerator. It`d be warmer. I opened the fridge door. Someone was already inside. It was Mili, snugly warm in sleep. I shut the fridge. It could have been much worse. Instead of Mili, it could have been our neighbourhood neta, seeking shelter from the vagaries of Extreme Whether Events.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Chillai Kalaan is challenging

(Daily Kashmir Rising) As Altaf explains to me that winter in Kashmir is not an easy experience; the nasty cold forces most to remain burrowed in a warm blanket or hold close a fire pot under the cloak to keep warm, For a Kashmiri, the mornings do not bring comfort and it is difficult to wake up in the early morning under such harsh weather conditions.
People become lethargic making it hard for them to move to the outside from their cozy blankets and warmed rooms.  The electricity is on short supply, for many there is an interrupted supply of water and the roads are not properly maintained he explains. Under such harsh and difficult conditions most people of Kashmir hibernate during the winter. If money allows, they move outside Kashmir to warmer locations such as Delhi where temperatures remain moderate. Although most of the population cannot afford to move outside, many remain in the valley to face the harsh winters’.

Snowfall enhances the demand of firepots, when the temperature dips boldly and the Kangri is the cheapest and portable way to warm the body from the nasty cold in winter. One goes out only with proper clothing to keep themselves warm, most using the Kangri pots under their blankets and under their capes. Small electric or gas heathers are also used in Kashmir but the electricity remains just for a few hours a day. 

He explains that recently with the cap on LGP, people have avoided the frequent use of gas heaters to keep themselves warm. Traveling by road becomes difficult as the only connectivity between Jammu and Kashmir gets closed due to heavy snowfall and landslides. With these conditions and limitations, the local traders increase the prices of common amenities. Dumping of stock is most common in Kashmir and when the highway gets closed, prices of commodities touch the sky.  

As soon as the winter commences, schools are closed and the students are more likely to be seen at their coaching centers with hands in their pockets and breathing cold air. People are rarely seen on roads after the dusk has crept in. In these days of severe cold, people enjoy Harissa at the breakfast time, to keep them warm and happy for the day. Harissa is commonly consumed along with Kashmiri bread. This gives the combo a unique identity. Few families prepare Harissa at their home; the majority of the population get it from the Harissa shops in their local vicinity or areas in downtown. The shops are traditionally designed and are dark, less ventilated that are all madly rushed and crowded by the Harissa lovers.   

He explains that the winter brings many hardships to life in the valley, from the Harissa shop to Kangri sellers. The days of Chilai Kalan are the hardest days in Kashmir; the phobia of Chilai Kalan is eminent among people of Kashmir. Most people talk about the worst face of Chilai Kalan. Roads are lined with thin frost and usually slippery, the snow is pleasant but when the roads become frosted it makes life difficult.

I am an American who lives in the far western USA and I am fascinated with the beauty and the snowfall in Kashmir. I consider it a paradise on earth and my view is one of a picture perfect winter wonderland.  Here the schools let out for two weeks in December for the Christmas celebration, for the rest of the winter the schools for the most part stay active. Most homes are equipped with a gas or electric heat, sometimes wood burning stoves which make life cozy and warm.

Our main roads are mostly maintained, power is continuous except for small problems that may arise and our water supply is clear and moving. We also get icy roads and in winter on main highways many early mornings, trucks spread sand thinly along the road to help combat slipping with the vehicles. We are very organized, have good roads and signage warning of icy corners and unsafe road conditions, and each year everyone gears up for the safety and warmth of the people. In really snowy and harsh regions, one prepares for the winter by cutting wood and stacking close to the home for easy access or having their propane tanks filled. So our experience can be a bit different than that of the residents of Kashmir.

Altaf Bashir is a great communicator and writer and has shared some great insights with me, for a greater understanding of Chillai Kalan and daily winter life in this far off land of Kashmir, India. In mulling this all in my mind I think that Kashmir has great charm, a love for tradition and the love shared between the Kashmir families that help them endure in these times of extreme weather.

Ultimately, I really believe this makes for a delightful meaningful life. They are not dependent so much of the outer comforts but have learned to live simply. For many here, it would be hard pressed to have to endure the troubles daily with power and light which is just normal everyday life in Kashmir, the comforts we expect and have become so dependent on.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Independent: Why the big chill is such a culture shock for Britons

How badly are you feeling the chill? Have goose pimples lent your skin the texture of a cheese-grater? Have your eyeballs frozen over and your nipples retreated inwards? Are you wearing so many layers of clothing that the only thing that separates you from the crazy bird lady in Mary Poppins is, well, the birds?If so, you might have found comfort of sorts in Radio 3's A Brief History of Being Cold. While it's worth pausing over the sleight of scheduling that prompted Alexandra Harris's examination of "the culture of cold" to pop up on the one day of the year that the country has ground to a snowy halt, there was considerably more to this programme than good timing.

The British don't do cold well, of course. If the last week has taught us anything it's that a few inches of snow in an urban environment equals the apocalypse; that a supermarket "bag for life" makes a surprisingly effective sledge; that ballet pumps are not adequate footwear during a cold snap. 

We have learned that we are spectacularly ill-equipped to cope with the winter weather what with our draughty houses, our frozen pipes, our knackered transport systems and dodgy Peruvian hats imported all the way from Topshop. We have learned that snowfall must be greeted first with child-like glee and later, as it turns grey and damp and perilous, with constant and ferocious carping that won't let up until March, at which point we can start moaning about floods instead.

Harris, however, was more interested in the effect of the cold on language, literature and the course of human history, even if she was rightly scornful about Britain's
"middle-ranking sort of cold that hovers around zero".
During a week when we have been overwhelmed by yellow snow warnings (oh, how we laughed), school closures, railway meltdowns and pictures of children standing proudly aside sinister snowmen, Harris's version of the cold seemed gloriously poetic. She spoke of haunting landscapes, of mid-January as
"the still-point before life starts up again" and of Keats's description of our condensing breath appearing "ghostly... like a soul rising without a death".
On one hand, Harris was content to peddle the romantic view of winter as depicted on the front of Christmas cards and, from beneath my woolly layers, I was content to listen. She talked to the poet Simon Armitage who recalled the childhood moments when he pulled back the curtain to find an unexpected blanket of snow.
"I've always associated snow with a clean slate, a kind of innocence," he said. "I think coldness and everything that's allied with it takes you back to being young."
But the presenter was also keen to show the dark underbelly of the cold season where, in centuries gone by, humankind was engaged in a battle with the elements and, in the absence of Thinsulate fabric and combi-boilers, many perished. It was noted that comparatively few of us have experienced real, deathly cold –
"there are generations now who never get a chilblain," remarked the novelist A S Byatt in disgust – while Harris remarked that "we are the most heated generation in history."
The essential message in all this was that we're now a bunch of sissies who, rather than manfully grappling with extreme weather, would rather throw on a onesie and crank up the central heating.

It was with audible discomfort that Armitage was deposited on a snowy Marsden Moor in Yorkshire to read a poem. Asked if poetry could help a person overcome the cold, he admitted, through chattering teeth,
"If you end up on a glacier somewhere with a poem in your pocket, ultimately it's probably not going to pull you through."