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Halting the march of Environment Monster

Monstrity of environment is all because of human misdeeds. So, taming it in our favour is also our responsibility!  — Dr. KK Srivastava


Incessant march towards industrialization, urbanization, and material growth without environmental concerns has led to release of harmful emission of many toxic elements in the atmosphere causing rapid warming of the planet Earth. Global warming and the resultant climate change have become one of the most worrisome concerns in recent times. None of us can be absolved – consumers, businesses and industrial economy – of the responsibilities of contributing to this frightful catastrophe. We are exploiting and destroying nature at alarming rate. Efforts by concerned stakeholders – including the ruling class – to act as guardians of Environment, on the other hand, are woefully short.

Overconsumption, population pressure, intense exploitation of natural resources have led to adverse impact on human well being. Welfare of mankind is being compromised. If exploitation of environment remains unchecked it would undermine the systems that sustain life and livelihood, and for countries like India, derail efforts to improve living standards. According to WWF between 1970-2016 animal population declined by 68%. The UN global biodiversity outlook 5 warns that the world will fail to meet all the 20 targets set in 2010 to slowdown the destruction of wildlife and ecosystem. In this VUCA (Volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world we need to develop sustainably, for which we need to create new paradigms for livelihood, growth and development in harmony with nature. We need to make a transition to develop pathways that take into account the critical role of nature.Failure to do so would undermine the efforts to meet the Paris climate goals and the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. 

All nations, but more so developing countries like India, have development deficit and need to augment economic growth to bridge it. But they must mainstream nature in their development plans from reduced pollination that lowers crop yields and wild fires that ravage communities to the extinction of creations of rare beauty, loss of biodiversity produces incalculable harm. The planet cannot take any meaningful break if we do not regulate chemicals, reduce and eliminate toxins and circulate all materials. Let’s face it, at: present rate of unsustainable consumption fear of annihilation may not be unfounded. 

Woke, a term in modern lingo, refers to being awake, about social issues, including global warming, climate change, sustainable production and consumption.Contrary to popular belief, India is structurally more ‘woke’ than so called developed western world. Thus while we are told that India is polluted, actually it has a per capita emission of 1.8 tonnes, way lower than the global average of 4.7 tonnes and much smaller compared to the US and Australia that pollute 8 times more, at 16.2 and 16.9 tonnes. India’s reduced carbon footprint might be attributed to a lower motorization rate – 18 per 1000 population vs 602 for EU and 747 for the US. It is also due to lower consumption of non vegetarian stuff which produces methane; India has a naturally ‘woke’ diet. Top 18 out of a list of 172 countries have an annual per capital meat consumption of more than 90 kgs; Indian consumption, one twentieth of that. 

India pollutes far less, consumes more frugally, and lives more sustainably than the most. But don’t have a complacent smirk. Climate issues have hit us like pandemic-none is spared due to externalities. There are no artificially drawn boundaries segregating us from other nations. Hence India cannot lie low. As it strives to progress faster in terms of material wealth (Remember the goal of $5 trillion economy?!), through the route of industrialization, sustainability is becoming the first casualty – safety of environment, planet earth, and business itself. Human progress is like a triangle with three arms – people, planet and profit, the so called 3 P’s. If we wish to increase the size of the triangle, then lengthening all the arms of the triangle simultaneously alone will yield result. Thus, while trying to squeeze more profit will only mean ill effects for the planet and human resources, sustainability at the expense of fair profit is equally not maintainable. Both, along with people, are important: sustainability of business and that of mother earth. There prevails no either or choice. Yet the dilemma is real.

India reduced support to the fossil fuel industry, one of the biggest pollutants, by 4% between 2015 and 2019 while countries in the G-20 forum are failing to meet their commitments. The G20 provided $636 billion in direct support for fossil fuels in 2019. A counter factual however, is that we still have 66 coal powered plants. While it is true that India is the world’s third largest carbon emitter (after China and the US) the fact is that we definitely need cheap and reliable power to meet out developmental goals. First, India has to provide clean cooking energy to 800 million people and electricity access to 200 million; second, we have to create jobs and that cannot happen without more and better power; and third, the urban transition will entail huge energy needs. To add to these, the energy transition has to be just because of livelihood implications. To take another example, India discards 15,000 tonnes of plastics daily, of which 43% is single use – a sinister menace. Plastic itself has replaced aluminium, steel, and natural fibers like jute and hemp in many industries. But it remains beyond the pale of established waste collection system for recycling purposes and floats on the surface of earth and ocean for centuries. The choices certainly are not clearcut.

Not that it is not possible to take preventive steps to control environmental damage without compromising industrial progress. This however does not translate into action because of human inertia and apathy. Why does human mind not think consciously and urgently about environment damage, compared with say terrorism? This is because as social mammals, we only think about living beings and their evil designs. If global warming had been unleashed on us by a ruthless despot, we would have been concerned. Second, if a violation fails to transgress moral boundaries, it may not alarm out brain. No human society has moral codes about atmospheric chemistry. Third, the threat it still lurking somewhere in distant future (so we feel). We get concerned about clear and contemporary attack, and not to something which is not even in our line of vision. These, and then some more, reasons have therefore at best led to green washing and Dominic Greens (Remember Quantum of solace, the Bond movie) – the fake environmentalists. Unless we convert ourselves into green consumers, the business will not feel pressured to mould itself. This can be done only if we force the business practices to term green. We need to become ‘active green’ to engage the business. Then we need to tell the marketer what do we want as regards environment friendly substitute products, at what price preference, with what price performance trade off, and with what kind of underlying appeal (functional, emotional or social). Based on these answers the marketer needs to develop better business practices through innovation in material usage, scouting services and marketing itself. Customer intimacy and competitive advantage need to be looked at from new strategic frameworks; and cooperation along the whole value chain needs to be ensuredso as to incorporate the impact of climate on consumers’ changed shopping pattern. Equally, producers have a huge role in transforming the way environment damaging products are produced and consumed. 

In sum, companies must realize that in long run sustainability is possible only if they are sensitive to the needs of the planet. Responsible consumers, business process, products, and government policies and action together can ensure sustainability.   


The author is a noted economist and management thinker.

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