29 September 2018

Notes for a Manifesto: environment, development, caricature and extremism

There are no two ways to think of the environment. This doesn’t mean there’s only one way. There are in fact countless ways of understanding and engaging with the world around us. The environmental cake, so to speak, can be cut in many ways: according to the ‘needs’ of the moment, envisaged futures, cultural habits, philosophical frameworks, theories of being etc. It’s a cat, so to speak, that can be skinned in many ways and in fact is being skinned in many ways as we write. 

We need not go into all that here. What needs to be done is to examine the extremisms with respect to the environment. Broadly speaking there are two kinds of extremisms. One could characterize them as follows. 

There’s the human-centrist school which sees everything outside the species as dispensable or as having potential to serve human interests. ‘Human’ here needs to be fleshed out a bit; many things are done in the name of entireties but in fact they serve the interests of one or few and usually a particular category of people. Theories are constructed to justify carefully suppressing or footnoting the uncomfortable. For example, the term ‘imponderable’ is used and so too ‘externality’. Throw those out and we get neat equations such as demand and supply curves which intersect at ‘price’.  Sure, pressure from objectors have forced such theories to be refined and be accorded a veneer of inclusivity, but they are not fooling too many people.

Justification comes in the form of utopias that are aggressively marketed. The ‘poverties’ of the present are used as alibis and goodies called progress and development are swung like carrots in front of the impoverished. The entire story is not told. Not all costs are talked about. Instead we are sold ‘imperatives’.  And if anyone dares talk about uncomfortable truths such as global warming or climate change then the entire discourse is shifted to scientific exchange where those with bucks and power get to commission and thereafter market ‘value-free truths’ supposedly obtained scientifically.  

It’s all in the name of ‘The People’ and Mister Progress. 

Then there are those at the other extreme who sometimes operate as though human beings should not disturb the natural process at all. They protest (nothing wrong in that), they litigate (nothing wrong in that) and they talk of dire consequences. They too, ironically, bring in ‘the future’ but of course in a more worried tone. 

Human being have always had to deal with the world around them. In fact no creature is self-contained. The trick is to figure out a mode of engagement that is wholesome, something that of course detracts by the very fact of engagement but at the same time consciously supports regeneration. Let’s return to this later.

There are people who argue, cogently, that a certain degree of economic prosperity is necessary before a nation can shift to a green economy (another easy and abused term by the way). A country like Sri Lanka, even if it retired environmental concerns for the next decade, cannot impact the global environment in any significant way (let’s ignore for now the story of little drops of water and little grains of sand).  It can be argued also that if development is dumped in favor of environment, the price will have to be paid by the poor and this will invariably transform into environmental costs that are worse, at at best, pretty much the same. 

These arguments are articulated in discussions on a wide range of subjects, especially when it comes to energy, waste disposal, industries and agriculture. Costs, benefits, renewability and recovery rates feature significantly in the debates. 

Lost in all this is an overall framework of what ‘development’ truly means. Where are we heading or rather what kind of destination would we like to walk towards? What are the costs we are willing to pay? What kind of benefit-package would we be satisfied with? What are the parameters and who gets to decide and impose them? 

Strategy is what’s missing. We have the laws and regulations. They are framed by political prerogatives and ideological preferences. They are in effect footnoted. They are taken in isolation. By the way, that’s part of the process of control and extraction; compartmentalization is a neat term for divide and rule after all. Set developmentalists against environmentalists and systems of destruction and exploitation remain secure — it can suffer some hair-splitting at the periphery and indeed needs such hair-splitting.

There’s no bottom line. Well, there is, but it’s thick. It has to contain the health of the planet (no, not just the nation), the health of the people currently alive and those who are yet to arrive. We need to talk about decent, healthy and environment-friendly lifestyles. We need to revisit the discourse of freedom and limitations of the same. We have to recognize that politics (and therefore power) is part of the story and devise strategies that consider such factors instead of meekly submitting to them or pretending they don’t exist. We have to factor in the reality of corruption. There are loopholes and there’s bulldozing through barricades. We cannot legislate against all these, but we can find different ways of empowering rational, civilized and responsible objection.

This is the only planet we have. This is the only life I have. It’s all you have too. Life would include concerns and aspirations, not just for self but for friends, families and larger collectives we identify with. All this is part of the story. The people, the nation, the present and future are subverted by caricature, extremism, compartmentalization and distraction. Potential candidates need to be clear, comprehensive and committed. 

Over to you, Messers Nagananda Kodituwakku, Rohan Pallewatte, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maithripala Sirisena and any other individual entertaining hopes of becoming the next President of Sri Lanka.

Other articles in this series: