Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Environment and Poverty: two worlds or one ?

focus on the poor brings us solidly into one of the most important connections -that between poverty and the environment - which deserve much greater attention right now. Central to this linkage is the question that I have tried to capture -very imperfectly I am afraid, for it is a hugely complex connection - in the title of my talk, environment and poverty: two worlds or one?

That was Nobel laureate Amartya Sen speaking at the International Conference on Energy Environment & Development held in Bangalore last month, organized by TERI, Veolio Environment Institute & IDDRI.

The proponents of poverty reduction through economic development have always been squared off against the greens who rally for environment and conservation. The greens are seen as anti development. The vast majority of blog spats these days are just that. Dr Sen says there is no reason to fight.

This extraordinarily confrontational view is I believe, fundamentally erroneous and misconceived. This becomes particularly clear if one sees development in adequately broad terms, seeing it foundationally as the expansion of human freedom. In this broader perspective, the assessment of development cannot be divorced from the lives that people can lead and the real freedoms that they can enjoy.

Development can scarcely be seen merely in terms of enhancement of inanimate objects of convenience, such as a rise in the GNP (or in personal incomes), or industrialisation, or technological advance, or social modernization. These are no doubt valuable - often critically important -accomplishments, but their value must depend on what they do to the lives and freedoms of the people involved. We have reason to distinguish between what, ultimately, we have reason to esteem and what we derivatively value as being helpful for what we have reason to esteem


If we are ready to recognise the need for seeing the world in this broader perspective, it becomes immediately clear that development cannot be divorced from ecological and environmental concerns. For example, since we have reasons to value the freedom to lead a pollution-free life, the preservation of a pollution-free atmosphere must be an important part of the objectives of development. Seeing development as enhancement of human freedom involves diverse concerns, but incorporating expansion of social opportunities and the quality of life, which are integrally dependent on ecology and environmental preservation, must be among the central
concerns in development thinking.

The part above was probably for the bottom-line minded free market economists. The part below is aimed at the purist greens.

The environment is sometimes seen – I believe over-simply – as the state of “nature,” including such measures as the extent of forest cover, the depth of the ground water table, the number of living species, and so on. To the extent that it is assumed that this pre-existing nature will stay intact unless we add impurities and pollutants to it, it might, therefore, appear superficially plausible that environment is best protected if we interfere with it as little as possible. This understanding is, however, deeply defective for two extremely important reasons.

First, the value of environment cannot be just a matter of what there is, but also of what opportunities they actually offer. The impact of the environment on human lives must inter alia be among the relevant considerations in assessing the richness of the environment. To take an extreme example, in understanding why the eradication of small pox is not viewed as an impoverishment of nature ("the environment is poorer since small pox viruses have disappeared!”), in the way, say, the destruction of useful and lovely forests would be, the connection with lives in general and human lives in particular has to be brought into the understanding.


Second, the environment is not only a matter of passive preservation, but also one 0f active pursuit. Even though many human activities that accompany the process of development may have destructive consequences, it is also within human power to enhance and improve the environment in which we live. In thinking about the steps that may be taken to halt environmental destruction, we have to search for constructive human intervention. Our power to intervene with effectiveness and reasoning can be substantially enhanced by the process of development itself.

For example, greater female education and women's employment can help to reduce fertility rates, which in the long run can reduce the pressure on global warming and the increasing destruction of natural habitats. Similarly, the spread of school education and improvements in its quality can make us more environment conscious. Better communication and a richer media can make us more aware of the need for environment-oriented, thinking. It is easy to find many other examples of interconnection. In general, seeing development in terms of increasing the effective freedom of human beings brings the constructive agency of people in environment-friendly activities directly within the domain of developmental achievements. Development is fundamentally an empowering process, and this power can be used to preserve and enrich the environment, and not just to decimate it.

I don't find this concept of interconnectivity hard to understand. One can only hope that enough people come together in time to avoid irreversible environmental damage. Read his entire speech here.

The conference had several interesting research papers presented. You can find the entire listing here. I haven't gone through all of them yet. One in particular, caught my attention. A proposal to shift to using yearlong daylight saving time in India, by Prof. Dilip Ahuja and Prof. D P Sen Gupta of National Institute of Advanced Studies, India

To shift IST from 82.5ºE (Jarwa, UP) to 90ºE (Dhuburi, Assam), i.e., from being 5 hours 30 minutes ahead of UTC (=GMT) to being 6 hours ahead of UTC; Will provide an extra half hour of daylight in the evenings, when it is more useful, all year long for the entire country. Annually 1.7 billion units, @ Rs. 5 per unit, the estimate of electricity savings is ~Rs. 850 crores per year
Read the full proposal here.

I was a little disappointed to see very few presentations from the Indian Industry. There was one from Coal India and there was one from a startup company called That was about it.


sushil yadav said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sushil yadav said...

The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.
Subject : Environment can never be saved as long as cities exist.

Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

Emotion ends.

Man becomes machine.

A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.





To read the complete article please follow either of these links :




Sunil said...

Amartya Sen's thoughts are almost always great to read. Its mostly good "common" sense, articulated beautifully.

blue dot green said...

The environment and the economy
(and consequently poverty reduction) is inter-related and this has been time and again proven by many. One of the best reads for this is Jared Diamond's "Collapse".

Ideally, poverty eradication should be addressed by encouraging, sustainable communities which ensures the well being of all the members, with the help of both social and economic development, in an ecologically sound environment.

Riot said...

blue dot green,
I remember reading a book review about Collapse. Thanks for reminding me. Have to put it on my list