Sloth, indulgence and hedonism have become second nature to us and have spawned many industries to cater to them, all of which have reached unsustainable levels. Consider the food we eat. As incomes rise, so does the craze for meats, a non-vegetarian diet. Global meat consumption in 2014 was a mind boggling 350 million tonnes, up from 55 million tonnes in 1961; per capita consumption has gone up from 20 kg to 43 kg in the same period. Livestock rearing alone accounts for 14.50% of all green house gases. In addition, 100 million tonnes of fish are harvested from the oceans every year, and 75% of all fishing grounds are exhausted. Rearing of livestock for the meat industry is taking a heavy toll on our forests, farmlands and water. In the USA alone 2/3rd of all cropland is devoted to growing grains and soya for cattle, even as 2 billion people, mainly children, don’t get two meals a day. The destruction of the Amazon rain forests and tropical forests of Malaysia is intended to increase the area for cattle farming. One kg of meat requires 13000 liters of water, as against 100 liters for one kg of potato. The world wide transportation of meat from the producing regions like Argentina, Brazil and India to consuming centers leaves a massive carbon footprint. The transportation of “luxury foods” from growing to consumption areas- champagne from France, Wagyu beef from Japan, caviar from the Caspian sea- leaves an enormous carbon footprint. It is high time we eschewed exotic foods from far away and “eat local”.
The United Nations has cautioned that meat consumption has to be reduced by half by 2050 if its deleterious ecological impacts have to be reversed. Although this is not likely, there are still some hopeful signs. Surveys abroad indicate that 25% of millennials are either vegetarians or vegans. Many more are ” flexitarians”, eating meat once in a while while abjuring it as a staple part of their diet. The manufacture and sale of PLT or”plant based meats” is slowly picking up thanks to the research of companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Even that burger bastion McDonalds has begun testing out PLT burgers in the USA. But it’s a long haul to the UN target.
The other end of the alimentary canal is also a cause for ecological worry. A little known fact is the deforestation being caused by our insistence on using toilet paper instead of water. The world consumed 36.70 million tonnes of toilet/tissue paper in 2017 and the figure shall reach 50.51 m/t. according to industry estimates. Americans are by far the biggest users of this bum wrap- annual per capita consumption of 24 rolls or 12 kgs. The sad part is that 27000 trees are felled EVERY DAY to produce this modern convenience which we have done without except in the last hundred years or so only. How does it make any sense to flush whole forests down the toilet, just because we find it convenient ?
Mass tourism is ravaging the environment on an unprecedented scale. 1.20 billion international and 5.60 billion domestic tourists every year are the new scourge, most of them going to the same overloaded destinations rather than exploring new ones. The new concern globally is “overtourism” and countries- their citizens rather- are hitting back, forcing their governments to regulate this swarm. Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, Paris, Kyoto, Bali, Phillipines, Rio d Janeiro- all are now imposing restrictions on numbers,seasons, timings to “detourist” these places. Some are even shutting down destinations altogether, as in Borcay and Maya beach in Thailand. In Europe an organisation called SET (Network of South European Cities against Tourism) has come up to wage the battle against “tourism terrorists.” More emphasis has to be given to “destination management” or else the hordes from the cities and towns shall decimate what little is left of our natural assets. The 9.5% of global GDP and 10% of jobs that tourism provides cannot be the end-all of economic planning.
And then there is the internet and the digital universe, an alternative to the real world which most of us now prefer to live in, little realising its ecological impacts. With more than 4 billion users hooked on to this virtual world for 8-10 hours a day, the power required to run the world wide web is astronomical, and growing exponentially- the USA alone consumes 70 billion KWH of energy annually, equivalent to 8000 MW of power, more than the peak consumption of New Delhi, according to the Berkley Lab. The per capita annual emission of CO2 on this account alone is 300 pounds. The global power consumed by the internet is 200 Terra Watt Hours- more than the total energy requirement of Iran!
According to a recent report by the French think tank the Shift Project, just online streaming of videos – Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and porn – produces emissions equivalent to that of Spain, and this will double in the next six years. Just watching a half hour show results in emissions of 1.6 kgs of CO2 equivalent, equal to driving 6.28 kms. Most of us never even think of deleting the thousands of email and other data that we no longer need, little realising the enormous amounts of power needed by servers and data centers to store them.
And now countries and IT conglomerates are pushing for 5G, just so that we can make our couch-ridden lives even easier with IOT (Internet of Things) – every thing which can have a chip embedded in it will now be connected to the net. Why? Why can’t we open the fridge to see if the milk or eggs need to be replenished, instead of a chip in it sending an order direct to your grocer? Why can’t we come home from office and turn on the air conditioner, instead of sending it a digital command from ten kms away? It is estimated that 5G can triple or quadruple the demand for power for the net, it will need a transmission tower every 100 meters, the risks of radiation will go up exponentially ( in a recent experiment in Europe hundreds of birds fell out of the sky, killed by the trial radiation). And I am not even mentioning here its other deleterious effects on human rights, privacy, state surveillance, freedom of speech. Suffice it to ask: Why do we need 5G at all ?
It is more than time to start adding up the environmental and health costs of this obsession with making our lives easier and easier and indulging our appetites more and more. Technology and wealth should be employed to feed the hungry, eradicate poverty, improve health, provide education and jobs- not to satiate the gluttons, create more multi billionaires, or inject ourselves with botox to emulate porn stars. We have worshipped for too long at the altar of GDP. If growth falls, so be it; if unemployment rises so be it. Governments have enough funds to take care of those effected, and enough options to raise more if only they think rationally and not indulge the rodomontadish urges of some leaders. One foregone bullet train (which nobody but a few jewellers in Ahmedabad needs ) can provide Rs. one lakh each to 10 million families, or a population of 50 million. Add to this the multitude of statues being built to satisfy egos and win elections, the wholly unnecessary waste of Rs. 13000 crores to demolish the legacy and heritage of the central vista of New Delhi, Rs. 5.60 lakh crores proposed to be spent on the hugely disastrous and unstudied River-linking project, the Rs. 12000 crore on a Char Dham highway that no genuine pilgrim desires, and other such grandiose projects, and one will realise that the money is not a problem to compensate those worst hit by stricter environmental and ECOnomic planning. The world is already beginning to explore some of these while we are still obsessed exclusively with Kashmir, NRC and arresting everyone who dissents. There are, for example, UBI ( Universal Basic Income), Inheritance Tax, Carbon Tax, Inequity Tax. In other words, raise the moneys from those who have cornered most of the planet’s resources ( the top 20%, by one estimate), those who consume more, leave a larger ecological footprint, want to indulge their senses to extreme limits. It is time, in other words, for our economists to discover an alternative paradigm for planning. They have spent the last 150 years devastating the environment, it’s time now to find a way to save it.
They will, of course, do nothing of the kind because they cannot agree on anything. Even as the Indian economy has been hurtling down the slope for the last three years our economic pundits still cannot decide whether the problem is “cyclical” or “structural.” Governments too will not do anything if the ordinary citizen does not force them to. And the citizen will remain somnolent till the realisation dawns that, in the final analysis, the solution lies only with him or her. At the end of the day the only answer is for us- you and I- to simplify our lifestyles: the way we eat, dress, travel, entertain ourselves, spend, consume scarce resources like water and energy; respect natural eco-systems and other life forms. The power to save the planet does not lie with governments- it lies with us.