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Mary Adams

Mary Adams

From Growth Agnosticism to Prosperity for All

Last week we published an interview with Vivek Gilani conducted recently in India. Vivek, an environmental engineer, along with his team at cBalance, is attempting to change the system from within by working with an entire ecosystem within industries, notorious for their environmental footprint. Industries held hostage to a global market that rewards profit at any cost, and financially punishes ethical practices. Vivek exemplifies what he calls grass roots postmodernism, which he sees as having traditional origins and being critical to guiding the future. Like others, Vivek is committed to radical systems change from the bottom up. But what is different lies in his and his team’s success in working from within the system itself. In this second instalment, we explore the role of grass roots postmodernism in effecting change. And how to deal with the challenge of a global elite who believe they are entirely insulated from the climate crisis.

3rd Space: Welcome Vivek. We have spoken in depth about the revolutionary work you and cBalance are doing within two major climate-impacting industries.

Now we would like to explore the level of awareness in India regarding the climate crisis. For example, amongst farmers the impact of global warming is evident. But what about those living in cities?

Vivek: Anything anyone says about India is simultaneously not true. [smiles] There are so many ‘Indias’ that coexist, responses are heterogeneous. What’s interesting though is that climate awareness is almost inversely proportional to the level of formal education a person has had.

For example, I’m trying to grow vegetables on the rooftop of my apartment building. I’m doing it partly to demonstrate food resilience. A survival skill that will be required going forward. I’m also demonstrating that home waste management, in the form of composting, can be a meaningful activity. But the affluent residents in my building who own cars the size of small ships, and whose homes cost millions of dollars, have no appreciation or even recognition of how this makes life better.

But in a world where there’s less to go around i.e. of the watchmen, and the people who clean the building, they understand this intervention. Even if they cannot tell you about the science behind it, they know that the harvests are more precarious in the villages where they come from. They know that an unseasonal rainfall can occur any day and they will lose their wheat crop. They understand the sort of tenuousness of everything. And they are wholeheartedly behind my rooftop project.

The so-called ‘uneducated’ clearly understand the merit of such an idea. Whereas those who are supposed to be the ‘educated’, and therefore have a critical awareness of our situation as a society, are often indifferent and sometimes antithetical.

3rd Space: Why do you think this is so?

Vivek: Well, even if the wealthy are aware, to get them to change is a challenge. Not only are they hard to reach in terms of their mind-set, they’re also impossible to affect because they don’t care.

Their world is primarily a privately controlled space. They can buy their way out of any crisis. If food is a problem, ‘I can just buy it from places like New Zealand, or wherever’.

By buying their way out of any problem, the elite don’t need collective public political solutions. Whereas those who are not affluent don’t have that safety net. They know that solutions must be rigorous, must be public, must come from the bottom up and be affordable. And that solutions have to work!

So, I have found that climate change awareness and the desire to do something about it, is actually inhibited by the education and privilege of people in India.

3rd Space: That’s probably true everywhere. Definitely true in the West.

Vivek: What makes it difficult to work with this affluent demographic is that economic incentives don’t work. The amount of money they’re spending on energy and water is so paltry in relation to their wealth, that even if I were to raise the price three or four times, they would remain completely impervious to these kinds of market mechanisms.

Whereas I can alter the behaviour of a rickshaw driver by saying ‘listen, you can drive a more fuel efficient CNG rickshaw’ and they will get behind it. But this economic argument won’t work with the rich for whom the cost of energy is a fraction of their total assets.

3rd Space:  It’s a global problem. Oxfam’s recent Inequality report  showed that 1% of the world’s population took 63% of the $42 trillion of new wealth created! And they created emissions equivalent to 5 billion of the poorest people on the planet. That’s a very big problem.

Vivek: Exactly. So, it depends on which class we’re talking about. With the affluent elite, market logic cannot work. Their purchases are not a market phenomenon. They’re a luxury phenomenon whether it’s an electric SUV, or a wall-sized TV.

3rd Space: How does one reach this sector?

Vivek: We realised the argument we need to make to them is that this is an inequity issue. You might not care about the environment but the fact that your consumption is leaving less for others is an equity debate.

3rd Space: But do the super wealthy even care about this?

Vivek: Within the growth-oriented, affluent mindset, the conversation we’re having is a resource inequity debate. If one agrees that earth’s resources are limited, we need to be aware that when we take more than our share, this will also inhibit growth. For a person who believes in GDP growth, the relationship between limited natural resources and the need for equitable carbon consumption in terms of growth, makes sense.

It’s purely an economic growth argument.

3rd Space: Do the elite respond to this?

Vivek: In some cases. But shocking as it is, there are some who feel that the climate crisis is an expression of social Darwinism. It’s a dangerous Malthusian argument that says population is the problem.

3rd Space: This kind of thinking is not confined to India. It’s an expression of the profound level of cut-off-ness from empathy, from Life itself that exists today.

Vivek: For sure, at that level it’s not just in India. It’s also the Elon Musks supercharging their consumption who will wreck the planet.

3rd Space: Yes, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Charles Koch…the line-up is growing.

Government Intervention:  Who Gets to Frame it?

3rd Space: Isn’t this where we need government intervention? The affluent elite controlling global industries have the power to destroy. If they’re boiling the planet, no matter how much mitigation or regeneration is happening, don’t we need some form of government intervention to protect this? 

Vivek: Yes. I completely agree. One can’t survive without the other. However, the form that government intervention takes and the animating spirit of it, to me should be decentralised – that is, rooted in locally political solutions.

 So, yes, government intervention. But one that is in conversation with civil society, a very vibrant civil society that can hold government intervention to account.

 For example, green policies are being used right now in India to depopulate certain areas for conservation purposes. There’s an ‘anti-poor’ version of climate policies. To build your solar park, you are driving out indigenous people. That solar park is being used to power electric cars. This needs to be questioned, right? 

3rd Space: Definitely. I guess it depends on the government’s motivation, vision, and the vested interests involved?

Vivek: Yes. We need political interventions, but the question is who gets to frame those policies, and whose interests are being protected in the green growth model? These are the kinds of things that need to be discussed.

And today national politics in most resource-rich countries are getting more and more right-wing. I think we need to fight the battle at a much more grassroots level, what’s called ‘grassroots post modernism’. That’s the kind of politics that I think we need to be engaging in, so there’s more local involvement in one’s community, or city’s affairs with respect to climate and resources etc.

Then, if you have an appetite for more work at the regional or the state level to make these systems beneficial for all concerned, absolutely!

Growth Agnosticism

3rd Space: Many recognise the need for entire systems change. Would you say to those people that the only way this can happen is from the bottom up?

Vivek: By choosing the ends over the means I think we are still stuck with growth. I would almost say we need to become growth agnostic. Whether growth happens or not, is not important. Do we achieve the end goal of what growth was supposed to achieve, which is prosperity for all?

I like the work of Tim Jackson, a UK based economist of prosperity without growth. There are many examples of societies that achieve much higher scales of human and non-human well-being with very low levels of growth, or almost no growth. The view we are made to believe is that these economic models don’t exist, or never existed.

Amitabh Ghosh in his book, The Great Derangement, says, ‘the greatest accomplishment of the West is its insistence on its uniqueness’. That it alone came up with a modern theory of human equality. That’s all great. But there have been many iterations of this where societies with no hierarchies existed.

3rd Space: Yes. It’s hard for the West generally to imagine that there’s something else of value going on outside the West. Ways of thinking, being, and doing that have been lived, worked, and developed for thousands of years in other civilisations.

 Vivek: Yes. But I see a very hopeful intersectionality developing. A lot is emerging from the recognition of the practices of indigenous peoples and the seventh generation thinking.

We are learning more and more about past cultures that have had relatively equitably distributed prosperous societies, thriving economics which served society, and not the other way around. So, if we can have technologies that serve society, rather than society serving them, I think this is the kind of world we want to really achieve. One that is growth agnostic, and yet achieves the end goal of prosperity and well-being for all.  

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