Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Elite Extravaganza: Guest Lecture by Nagraj Adve

If you live in Delhi, or anywhere in India for that matter, you can't miss the fact that some of us consume a lot more than others. And I'm not just talking about people who turn off their CFL light bulbs when they leave the room versus people who run their old fashioned lights all night long! I'm talking about people who live in places like the Taj Mahel Hotel versus people who live in places like the foothpath behind the Taj Mahel Hotel.

In The World is not Fair and the GDP is Stupid: economics for 9 year olds, we took a short look at issues related to consumption and inequality. Today's guest lecture by activist-scholar Nagraj Adve takes this discussion a step further. Adve's piece is not written for 9 year olds; it's a provocative look at one of India's dirty little secrets: the low per capita consumption figures that our government likes to boast about mask a shameful reality. Adve argues that until we confront that reality, we won't be able to make real progress on this issue.

Elite Extravaganza

By Nagraj Adve

Much is made of the fact – most of all by the Indian government – that ‘India’s’ average per capita emissions, roughly 1.3 to 1.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent a year, are lower than the global average, and considerably lower than that of the US or Europe. But the fact is, there is no ‘India’; the government is merely hiding behind the poor. The report by the Committee on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganized Sector revealed that a jaw-dropping 836 million people in India consume less than INR 20 a day, of which 444 million ‘marginally poor’ people consume less than INR 15.

Needless to say, at INR 15-20 a day one cannot contribute much to global warming, however hard one might try. In a tragic irony, such people are contributing nothing to the problem but are already its victims: poor women suffering the consequences of drought that has plagued parts of Bundelkhand since the mid-1990s, Kui Adivasis in Orissa who have lost their cattle and kharif crop, small-scale and marginal farmers and agricultural labourers who are increasingly being affected by erratic rainfall over the last 15 years, and the like.

It is the country’s abysmal poverty that drags down ‘India’s’ average emissions, and hides the fact that the elites – whose wealth or access to it will cushion global warming’s impacts on them – contribute a lot more. Workshops on calculating one’s carbon footprint being conducted by Soumya Dutta, scientist and activist, show that even an average middle-class person in Delhi emits over four tonnes of CO2 every year – two times what is acceptable given Earth’s absorption capacity. He calculates that those taking a car emit over 11 times as much as those who travel by bus over the same distance. A train traveller from Delhi to Bombay, say, emits 30 kg of CO2; someone flying between those two cities emits 180 kg.

The Earth’s oceans, forests, soils, rocks, etc currently absorb roughly 15 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, a slowly declining figure. Meanwhile, we are pumping into the atmosphere about 35 billion tonnes each year, 29 Gt from burning fossil fuels and another six from deforestation and land-use changes. As such, if we wish not to worsen future warming, the world needs to urgently halt the excess 20 billion tonnes of CO2 it is emitting each year, to say nothing of other greenhouse gases. Although this figure of 15 billion tonnes includes oceanic absorption that is several times the natural long-term rate of the carbon cycle – worsening ocean acidification and consequent harm to marine species, and humans in the medium term – let us accept it, for our current purposes, at face value. If one were to then divide this figure by the world’s population, it would imply that each person on this planet is entitled to emit some two tonnes of CO2 a year.

Consumption derives not merely from what one earns, but also from that to which one has access. Practically every upper-middle-class family in India now has one member living abroad, and regularly burns up what George Monbiot in Heat refers to as “love miles”. Every parent from Delhi who visits an offspring in the US emits 2,740 kg of CO2 flying back and forth – more than a year’s acceptable emissions. And the very rich in India, whose lifestyles the visual media and Page 3 writers regularly laud, have emission rates that easily approach European or US levels.

Externalising impacts

Many of the high-income, high-emission lifestyles exploded in India during the 1990s, catalysed by policy directives in the interests of large capital. For instance, cheap flights, easily financed cars, air-conditioned malls, high-income jobs in private banks and other multinational companies – these were hardly accidental developments. Simultaneously, the near-zero employment growth that took place through the 1990s, the longer working hours and faster work by factory workers even when employment grew this decade, the increasing contractualisation of work, stagnating real wages, the fall in agricultural incomes and the agrarian crises – all of these only accentuated the enormous disparities in incomes and consumption. Though the Indian government’s submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in August 2009 states that “each human being has an equal right to the common atmospheric resource,” central and state governments undermine this principle internally in practice. After all, the actual consequences of their policies are disparate incomes and consumption, differential energy access and use, and vastly unequal carbon emissions.

There is no doubt that industrialized countries bear an overwhelming responsibility for historical emissions, which is germane because about a quarter of carbon-dioxide emissions stays in the air for hundreds of years. But nationalist responses (based on the low averages argument) to what India’s stance should be at the upcoming summit Copenhagen miss the essential fact that class and industrial capitalism are central to understanding – and tackling – global warming. This is a systemic problem: it is revealing that CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which had inched up by merely 20 parts per million (ppm) over the 8,000 years prior to the Industrial Revolution, have shot up by 110 ppm since, much of this in the past fifty years. People are correct to point fingers at China, now the world’s largest emitter. But most simultaneously ignore the obvious fact that this took place because so much of world manufacturing has shifted to China, driven by capital’s inherent drive for cheap input costs of energy and labour power, and for profits, by externalising environmental costs.

Those many who view global warming purely in terms of nation states have not defined the problem correctly. As such, it is hardly surprising that little progress has been made in climate negotiations for 15 years. Little of significance – given the scale and urgency of the problem – will also emerge from Copenhagen, since each major nation state is merely jockeying for atmospheric space, sections of industry are hoping to make money from carbon offsets, and small island nations watch desperately but helplessly.

However, certain things follow if we are to focus on the huge disparities in carbon emissions and the systemic nature of the problem. The only way we can bring world emissions to levels the Earth can absorb is by urgently enforcing reduced emissions by the elite, whether in India or abroad. Reduced elite consumption enlarges the space for higher emissions by the poor and future generations. But given the job losses, due to falling consumption in the developed world during the ongoing economic crisis, experienced by migrant workers in towns such as Surat and Moradabad, we need to think through the question of consumption and employment. A starting point in our context would be making agriculture viable, since 650 million people are dependent on it. Linked to this would be an industrialisation strategy that highlights people’s basic needs and eschews production for wasteful consumption by elites.

Unfortunately, we are not going to be able to force the issue fast enough to prevent dangerous levels of warming. Whether we are able to or not, due to the lag in the oceans warming up, a further warming of 0.6 degrees Celsius is automatically built in, beyond the 0.8 degree average warming we are currently experiencing. James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climatologists, has pointed to even further warming in the pipeline due to additional slow feedbacks. Basically, much worse impacts today seem unavoidable. As such, in addition to the struggle for a more just and sustainable development trajectory, we need to identify current impacts better, anticipate future impacts, and prepare for them in advance. Not doing so will have huge implications for the lives and livelihoods of millions of poor, in Southasia and beyond.

Nagraj Adve is an activist with Delhi Platform, a non-funded organization active on issues linked to global warming. Contact him at: naga@bol.net.in


  1. A thought provoking post - how much responsibility does each of us have. As he points out, the only sustainable path is lower consumption. Unfortunately that means less demand and lesser growth. Even with clean energy technologies, we can hardly afford to produce as much as we are now - as shown your earlier post with the "Story of stuff" video.

    My gut feel is that the only practical solution is smaller communities where things are produced locally and sustainably where each community is responsible for it's own power generation, manufacturing etc using raw materials from their own land to perhaps trade with other communities - and once the raw materials in a community for a particular mineral is used up, they can't go elsewhere and plunder anew - in other words, no global companies like there are now.

    Another solution is of course to make companies and therefore people pay for the real cost of what they produce and consume - including the cost of disposal of not just the final product, but of the waste generated to create it...

  2. All this talk about consuming less and finding ways to reduce, reuse, recycle hides the basis for the real problem: overpopulation. Six billion and counting is not sustainable no matter how green we become. We can and should conserve, but our resources will be depleted.

    This is why I've gone back to living in a cave and only have the two Plastikids. While there are economies that depend on children to support parents - that is an economic issue - not an environmental one. My friend, Sasqui, has decided to forgo procreation altogether. A true martyr for the cause of environmentalism.

  3. @the plasticgraduate

    The problem with identifying population as the cause of problems is that it's fairly meaningless. For example, China started forcing population controls down it's people's throat in 1969. The effect will not be felt till 2030. Needless to say, a common law country like say India cannot indulge in such a measure.

    Ultimately population control comes automatically and voluntarity only with greater education, and economic development. That takes time. I would give a large country like India around 180 years or so.

    So in truth, talking about population isn't actionable even in the medium term. As of now, the population is what it is. Short of mass systematic genocide, there's nothing we can do about it. We have to explore alternatives like reduce, reuse and recycle..

  4. @Bhagwad, I agree that one of the first things we need to do is make companies pay the full cost of their products. That needs to happen yesterday! It may be that technological advances will allow us to develop sustainably and humanely without the local solution you point at--but we don't know. And since the price we'll pay for getting is wrong potentially very high, we have to explore all ideas. I do think no matter what, we'll need to move to a much more local society--and we'll need to consume less stuff.

    @Plastic That population issue is very complicated. A lot of smart people have said a lot of stupid things about it over the years (present company excluded, of course). At the present population, there may not be enough caves--you were wise to buy when you did!


  5. @B & @HB: The wonderful thing about the internet is that from the safety and security of the Plasticave (I'm thinking of getting fios), I can pontificate on subjects on which I am completely ignorant just by doing a few google searches and ignoring the links that don't support my point of view. (BTW, @B: I know you're a Linux fanatic, but I'm Chrome is slowly becoming my browser of choice).

    Anyway, a good point by a Rand Corp study is that the developed world's voracious appetite for resources and population growth, primarily in the developing world, encroaches on forests, arable land, etc., indicated a two pronged approach, and of course, the famous..."more research needed..." with this population/climate thingy.

    As for India, I'd hope 180 years is rather pessimistic. According to the National Family Health Survey, India in the past 15 years or so, fertility rates have decreased from 3.4 to 2.7. (I also got confused about the different types of fertility rates and said,"screw it, this is a comment, not a post." No, I don't expect people anywhere to have fewer children to save the planet when they can't even separate their trash for recycling (though it's illegal not to in Japan, and from from what I read the informal economy takes care of much recycling - albeit not hygienically or safely - in India). They will have fewer children because it makes economic sense to them. Because it is culturally acceptable and desirable. Because they have all of their needs met with fewer children.

    Finally, years from now, when I'm sitting in my rocking chair, wondering where I am, without a full set of teeth and no longer consuming solid food, I will still have enough to eat, but because of distribution and diet choice problems (Didn't Francis Moore Lappe tell us this 40 years ago?), the developing world may be facing a famine of massive proportions.

  6. Thanks for these links, Plastic. I think that the biggest issue we will face is food. I met someone recently who said we'll have to give up dal sabzi roti (aka beans, vegetables and bread) in return for little pellets of nutrition. I'm skeptical. Not just because I like food, but because I don't trust science to come up with all the answers. If they can make a tasty pellet, hoo ray! But if they fail, I don't want my grandchildren starving.

  7. Most on the Left tend to disregard population completely which I think is a mistake we make. For instance, there is a link between deforestation over centuries and population growth, as new settlers, even if poor, clear forests for settled agriculture, with its own consequences for local ecologies and wider ecologies.
    Having said that, population is mostly overemphasised as a factor. In almost every indicator of resource use, even a large poor population cause less damage, leave a smaller footprint than the rich few.

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What do you think?