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Why technological solutions cannot combat ecological challenges


From The Hindu: More fuel-efficient cars usually mean that car owners take many more trips, in effect nullifying the saving of fuel from the technical innovation. This simple example shows why any advocacy of a lasting technological solution to ecological challenges is only destined to set the stage for the next generation of ecological problems.

Not green, but greenwash

Aseem Shrivastava & Aryaman Jain, The Hindu

From producing artificial meat to using renewable energy, businesses seem to be driven by concern for our planet. But are they really? Or is this all an attempt to gain a sense of credibility for a project otherwise driven by the mundane, old profit motive? In this age of misinformation, it can be difficult to distinguish between green and greenwash.

In Mumbai, despite a sustained and widespread citizens’ campaign, the Aarey forest has been chopped down. Despite a number of alternative available sites for the Metro car depot, the agency has remained stubborn on the forest land. The push for the capital-intensive Metro has come at a time when the city’s bus service is in tatters. Still, it is argued that the Metro is the only option to improve the city’s public transport.

Addressing the ecological crisis

Amidst the grief over the felling, there are some who are justifying the move. Their argument is that building a Metro will prevent an increase in emissions. They are comparing car and bus emissions saved by the building of Metro transport with the carbon absorbed by a forest. It is as though the sole purpose of a forest is to serve as a carbon sink for human emissions. Would the forest have been able to defend itself better had its carbon-absorptive capacity been higher? Or if the Metro could attract a smaller number of commuters away from private cars?

Here you can see the cognitive failure at the heart of our ecological crisis. Public transport infrastructure does not absorb carbon dioxide. It cannot provide habitat, recharge groundwater, or safeguard our soil. The ecological crisis is much bigger than just carbon emissions. Apart from deteriorating air quality and climate, this is a crisis of many things: the loss of biodiversity, freshwater, soil, forests. It is a crisis of the loss of our souls.

If we are to really address the ecological crisis, especially climate change, we need a fall in emissions, not a slower-than-projected rate of increase of emissions. It is only within the caged logical framework of slower than otherwise ever-increasing emissions that this argument has even the most limited merits. Still, those justifying the move make a leap of logic and compare the saved emissions against the graph of ever-increasing emissions from mathematical models (which have their own political-economic assumptions). But the only relevant graph to compare against is the rate at which carbon emissions must fall in order to avoid catastrophe.

Lastly, we must ask a crucial question: does the Metro really replace cars? Or is the class of urban Indians who take the Metro not a few rungs below the ones who ride daily in cars? That is to say, isn’t it true that most of the car-owning metropolitan elites would not ride the subway with the public even if it was cost-effective? There isn’t much evidence that when a Metro arrives in a city or the bus system gets better, car sales drop. If the Metro really replaces cars, Metro infrastructure should take up the space that cars take up in the city’s landscape. But instead, the Metro consumes trees, soil and aquifers, even as we keep getting new flyovers and expressways. Are these going to be our ‘solutions’ to the ecological crisis? If so, let us prepare for new problems, especially air quality worsening further and the contribution towards climate change becoming yet greater.

Unfortunately, it is easily forgotten that it is possible to keep increasing public transport and personal car transport at the same time. Indeed, that is exactly what has been happening. People in India have to travel more and more because jobs are being offered further and further from homes, since capital is being accumulated in a handful of metropolitan centres of wealth — by dispossessing the rest of the country. This process is also known by another name — ‘development’. And all political parties support it.

Opportunities in the marketplace

Technological solutions work by effectively increasing the supply of goods and services. This increase may alleviate shortages for a brief time. Consumption rises, but does not abate in the long run. The greater supply is absorbed by the market. In an acquisitive society, demand takes no time to catch up with supply. Before the Asian Games in 1982, there were a handful of flyovers in New Delhi. People complained of traffic problems. Scores of new flyovers were constructed, felling thousands of trees in the process. In the end, traffic congestion grew much worse.

Likewise, more fuel-efficient cars have meant that car owners take many more trips, in effect nullifying the saving of fuel from the technical innovation. This is the simple reason why any advocacy of a lasting technological solution to ecological challenges is only destined to set the stage for the next generation of ecological problems. Crucially, new problems also mean that innovative entrepreneurs get fresh opportunities in the marketplace. We forget that in the bargain we approach catastrophe quicker.

Aryaman Jain is an environmental engineer and Aseem Shrivastava teaches Ecosophy at Ashoka University

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