Monday, June 24, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - VI

Technology will always be a part of whatever solution we seek to our various environmental problems. It is claimed that innovations in fields such as synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology will transform every aspect of life. One advocate argues that it would be an “evasion of our ethical duties” to ignore the fact that our human activities have already changed the world to such an extent that we need to engineer a solution.

Technology is so intoxicating that sometimes even distinguished economists speak about it as though it can solve anything. “The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources,” remarked Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Solow. Julian Simon, who writes mostly on economic subjects, goes even further. “Technology exists now,” he wrote, “to produce in virtually inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature—foodstuffs, oil, even pearls and diamonds….We have in our hands now —actually, in our libraries — the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years. (Seven billion years?!)

A joint report published in 2003 by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Commerce, entitled Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, concludes, “The twenty-first century could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment.”  What kind of technologies are such optimists dreaming about? There will be animal protein bioengineered in factories rather than obtained from animals grazing in the fields. We can use genetic engineering to improve on the natural process of photosynthesis in plants. This would allow solar energy to be used on a massive scale without taking up too much land. 

According to theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, the most efficient crops in nature convert just 1 percent of the sunlight they receive into chemical energy. “We can imagine,” he writes, “that in the future, when we have mastered the art of genetically engineering plants, we may breed new crop plants that have leaves made of silicon, converting sunlight into chemical energy with ten times the efficiency of natural plants…. They would allow solar energy to be used on a massive scale without taking up too much land. They would look like natural plants except that their leaves would be black, the colour of silicon, instead of green, the colour of chlorophyll.” In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh wrote: 

Although the Paris Agreement does not lay out the premises on which its targets are based, it is thought that they are founded on the belief that technological advances will soon make it possible to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and bury them deep underground. But these technologies are still in their infancy, and the most promising of them, known as “biomass energy carbon capture and storage,” would require the planting of bioenergy crops over an area larger than India to succeed at scale. To invest so much trust in what is yet only a remote possibility is little less than an act of faith, not unlike religious belief.

When talking about dealing with climate change,  politicians don’t talk of the system viewed as a whole taking into account the manufacture and transportation of every element of a finished good.  For example, take debates over “zero-emission” electric cars helping to fight climate impacts. They are not, in fact, “zero-emission” within a systems perspective. They draw their electricity from an energy grid which may be composed of polluting coal plants. And even if the power is generated in, say, solar farms, there’s the emissions of greenhouse gases in manufacturing the solar panels and the powering of their supply chain. 

For some people, the solution to avert climate catastrophe is Geoengineering. Some schemes focus on reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the earth, floating billions of tiny strips of tinfoil in orbit around the earth to reflect the sunlight, or injecting massive amounts of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. Other ideas include fertilising the oceans with iron slurry to increase the volume of marine life, which would consume excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The primary argument against these proposals is that they could never be effectively tested and, in addition, they risk causing even greater problems in their unintended consequences. If, for eg., you put aerosol particles into the air to cut back sunlight, it’s permanent. You can’t withdraw them. You withdraw them, you have a catastrophe. That means we’re instituting a permanent change in the whole ecology. That’s a tremendous burden to put on future generations. As Walt Whitman said, 'It is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.' But if the geo-engineering solutions are not going to do it, it doesn’t mean we should stop working on them. 

It is natural that people will aspire for better lives. But when we assume that technology can keep solving whatever problems may come up, there is trouble ahead.  One problem about this is simply one of timescale. We have a couple of decades to answer these questions. These developments, even if they’re feasible, even if they’re the right thing to do, are not going to happen in a relevant timescale. There is, also, a concern that if people believe there's an engineering solution to climate change, this would reduce the pressure to curtail use of fossil fuels and give license to continue with business as usual. 

Monday, June 3, 2024

The wickedest of all problems- V

Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere due to human activities not only affects the climate. When water and air come into contact there’s an exchange - gases from the atmosphere get absorbed by the ocean and gases dissolved in the ocean are released into the atmosphere. When carbon dioxide combines with water in the ocean it forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more acidic.  This is called ocean acidification which is sometimes referred to as global warming’s “equally evil twin.”

Ocean acidification is often expressed in terms of the pH of seawater.  pH is a measure of acidity or alkalinity. The pH scale runs from zero to fourteen. A pH below 7 is considered acidic, and a pH greater than 7 is considered alkaline, or basic. Average ocean water pH is currently 8.1.  For comparison, the pH of pure water is 7, and stomach acid is around 2. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, average ocean pH was about 8.2. The change might not seem like much but the pH scale is logarithmic, so a one point change on the scale means a tenfold change in concentration. 

The oceans have absorbed between a third and a half of the CO2 humans have released into the atmosphere since about 1850.  This has resulted in the acidity of the oceans increasing by 26% since about 1850, a rate of change roughly 10 times faster than any time in the last 55 million years. If greenhouse gas emissions continue as they are doing at present, the oceans will be 150 percent more acidic than they were at the start of the industrial revolution. While this helps to reduce the rate of atmospheric warming and climate change, it comes at a cost. 

The capacity of the ocean to absorb CO2 decreases as ocean acidification increases making it less effective in moderating climate change. It makes it difficult for marine calcifying organisms, such as coral and some plankton, to form shells and skeletons, and existing shells become vulnerable to dissolution. The extra hydrogen in low-pH seawater reacts with calcium carbonate, turning it into other compounds that animals can’t use to build their shells. Most surface waters will be continually corrosive within decades. The impacts of acidification will extend up the food chain to affect economic activities such as fisheries, aquaculture and tourism. 

Most species seem to be more vulnerable in their early life stages. Juvenile fish for example, may have trouble locating suitable habitat to live. Many marine fish and invertebrates spend their early lives as larvae. Larvae are very small, which makes them especially vulnerable to increased acidity. For example, sea urchin and oyster larvae will not develop properly when acidity is increased. In another example, fish larvae lose their ability to smell and avoid predators. The vulnerability of larvae means that while organisms may be able to reproduce, their offspring may not reach adulthood.  

Ocean acidification will change the makeup of microbial communities, it will alter the availability of key nutrients, like iron and nitrogen. For similar reasons, it will change the amount of light that passes through the water, and for somewhat different reasons, it will alter the way sound propagates. (In general, acidification is expected to make the seas noisier.) It seems likely to promote the growth of toxic algae. It will impact photosynthesis — many plant species will benefit from elevated CO2 levels — and it will alter the compounds formed by dissolved metals, in some cases in ways that could be poisonous.

While many species will apparently do fine, even thrive in an acidified ocean, lots of others will not. Emiliania huxleyi, for example, is a single-celled phytoplankton. It is common at certain times of year and it forms the base of many marine food chains. Limacina helicina is a species of pteropod, or “sea butterfly,” that resembles a winged snail. It lives in the Arctic and is an important food source for many much larger animals, including herring, salmon, and whales. Both of these species appear to be highly sensitive to acidification. 

As with many aspects of climate change, the speed of CO2 release is the problem. CO2 levels have changed in the geologic past, with several  episodes being severe, but none with such speed of CO2 release as currently taking place. A useful comparison can be made to alcohol. Just as it makes a big difference to your blood chemistry whether you take a month to go through a case of alcohol or an hour, it makes a big difference to marine chemistry whether carbon dioxide is added over the course of a million years or a hundred. 

If we were adding CO2 to the air more slowly, geophysical processes like the weathering of rock would come into play to counteract acidification. But things are moving too fast for such slow-acting forces to keep up. As Rachel Carson once observed,  “Time is the essential ingredient, but in the modern world there is no time.” By burning through coal and oil deposits, humans are putting carbon back into the air that has been buried underground for  hundreds of millions of years. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - IV

Environmental degradation and climate change have caused societies to collapse earlier also. Mesopotamians gradually brought ruin on themselves through the salinisation caused by their massive irrigation system.  The Maya, too, were brought down not just by drought but by overexploitation of their land. The Harappan civilisation is believed to have collapsed after a loss of the monsoon rains. Many believe that modern civilisation, with its scientific and technological capacity should be able to survive whatever crises ancient and simpler societies found insurmountable. 

Some point out that civilisational collapse is caused not just by environmental pressures alone but by how the society responds to these problems. One anthropologist, Joseph Tainter says, “If a society cannot deal with resource depletion, then the truly interesting questions revolve around the society, not the resource. What structural, political, ideological, or economic factors in a society prevented an appropriate response?” Tainter extensively studied different civilisations in history and published his conclusions in a work called The Collapse of Complex Societies

He describes a generic life cycle that applies, in his view, to every complex society including our own. He says that at their core, societies can be understood in terms of energy flows. If a society is fortunate to discover a new source of energy, it will naturally grow in size and complexity as it exploits that energy. This energy can be from a new technology or be the collective energy of conquered nations. As a civilisation gets more complex, it needs ever more energy to maintain its growth and will generally keep doing what it's done successfully in the past.

Tainter describes this as a society's investment in complexity. However, after the first easy pickings, the next steps in the society's growth become more difficult and costly, offering more miserly returns. At a certain point, the society's return on investment in complexity peaks, and it finds itself spending increasing amounts of resources for ever more meagre returns. In effect, as the society gets more complex, it finds itself having to run harder and harder just to stay in the same place.

This requires even more energy than before, causing a new round of problems that become ever more insurmountable. It becomes increasingly difficult for regular citizens to maintain the lifestyle they are used to, frequently leading to social unrest. With continuation of this trend,” Tainter concludes, “collapse becomes a matter of mathematical probability, as over time an insurmountable stress surge becomes increasingly likely”.

Leaders will keep kicking their problems down the road for later generations to deal with. In a complex system, cause and effect may be more distant in time and space than we realise. “The inflation that would inevitably follow,” writes Tainter, “would tax the future to pay for the present, but the future could not protest”. It would be difficult for someone living in the middle of it to predict how bad things were going to get. 

A modern version of this process has occurred in the overexploitation of fisheries, where stocks decline as a result of being overfished from one generation to the next, but people forget how things used to be and consider the situation to be normal, until the next decline. The term “shifting baseline syndrome” has been coined to describe how people get used to each new level. 

When Tainter turns his attention to our civilisation, he sees nothing to suggest that we can somehow escape the inexorable logic of his grand theory. The primary energy source of our civilisation is fossil fuels. We want to maintain our standard of living so we will keep choosing short-term solutions even though we know it will lead in the future to runaway climate change.  The only thing that can save us, he believes, is a new source of energy to fuel our continued rise in complexity.

When we look at how our society is currently deriving its energy, the facts seem to support Tainter's viewpoint. We are receiving diminishing returns as the oil companies mine the furthest reaches of the globe for fossil fuels. The oil industry's recent desperate rush into tar sands and “fracking” seems to confirm Tainter's thesis, as our global economy invests billions of dollars into technological solutions to extract ever more fossil fuels, even while their carbon emissions are threatening the future of our civilisation.

Can technology save us? Tainter thinks not. He points to what is known as the “Jevons paradox,” which shows that whenever technology makes the use of a resource more efficient, this only increases its use, as consumption goes up to exploit the new efficiencies. As Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. Our rampant use of fossil fuels is at the very heart of the issue.

Friday, April 26, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - III

It’s easy to think of the Internet as a purely virtual world but the reality is very different: The advocates of the digital companies  say that their industry is environmentally friendly but their true costs are never revealed. The tech sector uses much more than databases and algorithms. It relies  on manufacturing, transportation, physical work, data centres and the undersea cables, personal devices and their raw components. These all come at a cost. It is only by factoring in these hidden costs that we can understand what the shift toward increasing automation will mean.

The tech sector heavily publicises its environmental policies, sustainability initiatives, and plans to address climate-related problems using AI as a problem-solving tool. But, Kate Crawford writes in Atlas of AI, '. . .  Microsoft, Google, and Amazon all license their AI platforms, engineering workforces, and infrastructures to fossil fuel companies to help them locate and extract fuel from the ground, which further drives the industry most responsible for anthropogenic climate change.'

Each object in the extended network of an AI system, from network routers to batteries to data centres, is built using elements that required billions of years to form inside the earth. These minerals then go through a rapid period of excavation, processing, mixing, smelting, and transport before being made into devices that are used and discarded. Electronic devices are often designed to last for only a few years. This obsolescence cycle fuels the purchase of more devices, and increases incentives for the use of unsustainable extraction practices. 

While most climate change activists are focused on limiting emissions from the automotive, aviation and energy sectors, it’s the communications industry that is on track to generate more carbon emissions than all of the aforementioned sectors.. Very few people realise this problem even exists. A BBC report says  that the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions.  Some researchers estimate that the tech sector will contribute 14 percent of global greenhouse emissions by 2040,

Every time we perform simple daily actions like browsing a website, sending and receiving email, using an app on our phones, saving a file to our cloud drives or searching Google, data gets transferred between our devices and the servers that the websites or software are hosted on. The more data that is sent and stored, the more electricity and energy is needed. Even though this is relatively small at the individual level, when this is multiplied by the billions of people globally that are now connected to the Internet, it adds up to a substantial amount (according to some estimates, a single email can produce up to 4 grams of CO2 emission). 

Cloud storage requires a significant amount of energy to power and cool servers.  Cloud data is stored in buildings — massive structures filled with thousands of hard drives - using a mind-boggling amount of energy. There are many data centres around the world, some taking up nearly 200 acres of land apiece. There are miles of fibre optic cables, studded with other fixtures of internet infrastructure that all require power. At the centre, your data is stored multiple times on hard disks, and the constant activity of all those disks creates a lot of heat, which necessitates energy-intensive air conditioners to protect the equipment from overheating.

A Carnegie Mellon University study concluded that the energy cost of data transfer and storage is about 7 kWh per gigabyte. Compared with your personal hard disk, which requires about 0.000005 kWh per gigabyte to save your data, this is a huge amount of energy. Saving and storing 100 gigabytes of data in the cloud per year would result in a carbon footprint of about 0.2 tons of CO2, A single data centre can consume the equivalent electricity of 50,000 homes. At 200 terawatt hours (TWh) annually, data centres collectively devour more energy than some nation-states. 

The polluting qualities of data centres are far less visible than the billowing smokestacks of coal-fired power stations so they escape attention. Current statistics show that only half of the world’s population is connected to the internet and therefore contributing to this data deluge. Despite this, IDC noted that the number of data centres worldwide has grown from 500,000 in 2012 to more than 8 million today. The amount of energy used by data centres continues to double every four years, meaning they have the fastest-growing carbon footprint of any area within the IT sector.

The most common method for producing crypto-assets requires enormous amounts of electricity and generates large CO2 emissions. It is estimated that the two largest crypto-assets, Bitcoin and Ethereum, together use around twice as much electricity in one year as the whole of Sweden. Crypto-production's high energy consumption is due to its mining process, which is called proof of work. Anyone who wants to mine assets competes to solve an encryption puzzle, and the winner receives new crypto-assets as a reward. The only way to solve the puzzle is by repeatedly running computer programs that guess the right answer. When a large number of crypto-producers' computers work simultaneously, the demand for electricity soars.

Another environmental impact of cloud computing is the electronic waste produced by the industry. In 2018, 50 million metric tons of e-waste was generated globally as equipment is often replaced as soon as more efficient technology becomes available. Other environmental impacts of data storage include the coolant chemicals used in the server rooms, which are often hazardous, and the battery back-ups of the data centres. The components of these batteries are often mined unsustainably, and the disposal of both toxic batteries and the chemical coolants could have a devastating impact on the local environment if not properly managed.  Cloud storage facilities require a significant amount of water for cooling purposes. This water usage can put a strain on local water resources, especially in areas that are already experiencing water scarcity.

Going to a physical store rather than making purchases online is a more eco-friendly way of shopping. The main reason is because of how people shop online: Many buy items online frequently – but they only buy a few items per purchase. When they shop in a store, they aggregate these purchases in a single bulk purchase. Frequent online purchases produce more packaging waste, and online items tend to come from different distribution centres. Both factors result in higher greenhouse gas emissions per item.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - II

Climate change is passed off as a matter of individual responsibility and consumer choice. The notion of the per capita carbon footprint is a good example. It is calculated by dividing a nation’s total carbon emissions by the sum of its population. This measure is used to attribute climate change to the usage of gas-guzzling cars, wasteful usage of domestic energy, meat-heavy diets, and so on. Such a framing excludes institutional emissions, like those related to the US military and to the projection of American power. 

In The Nutmeg’s Curse, Amitav Ghosh writes that the literature on climate change mysteriously ignores numbers regarding emission of  greenhouse gases by the military. This is because a decision was taken, at the behest of the US, that emissions related to military activities would be excluded from the negotiations for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Ever since then the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has continued “to treat national military emissions, specifically international aircraft and naval bunker fuels, differently than other emission types.”

In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rate of consumption of fossil fuels was sixteen gallons per soldier per day. Amitav Ghosh says that today the Pentagon is the single largest consumer of energy in the United States — and probably in the world. The US military maintains vast fleets of vehicles, ships, and aircraft, and many of these consume huge amounts of fossil fuels. A non-nuclear aircraft carrier consumes 5,621 gallons of fuel per hour; in other words, these vessels burn up as much fuel in one day as a small town might use in a year. 

A single F-16 aircraft consumes 1700 gallons of fuel in one hour of ordinary operations. The US Air Force has around a thousand F-16s, and they are but a small part of the air fleet. Add to this battle tanks, armoured cars, Humvees, and so on which also require large amounts of fuel. Nor are these machines idle in peacetime; many of them are in constant use, not just for training and maintenance, but also because the US’s nine hundred domestic military installations need to be connected to its network of around a thousand bases in other countries.

In the 1990s the three branches of the US military consumed approximately 25 billion tons of fuel per year. This was more than a fifth of the country’s total consumption, and “more than the total commercial energy consumption of nearly two thirds of the world’s countries.” In 2017, the Pentagon’s total greenhouse gas emissions was greater than all CO2 emissions from US production of iron and steel. During the years of the Iraq War, the US military was consuming around 1.3 billion gallons of oil annually for its Middle Eastern operations alone. That was more than the annual consumption of Bangladesh, a country of 180 million people.

The operation of military equipment requires the use of many kinds of toxic chemicals like thinners, solvents, pesticides, and so on. As a result, the Department of Defence “generates 500,000 tons of toxic waste annually, more than the top five US chemical companies combined", and it is estimated that the armed forces of the major world powers produce the greatest amount of hazardous waste in the world. This does not include the emissions and waste products that are generated in the process of constructing weapons, warships, and warplanes. 

The armed forces of China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, and India are expanding very rapidly, and they are all spending huge amounts of money on energy-intensive systems. “Militarization,” it has been said, “is the single most ecologically destructive human endeavor.” Yet the subject is so little studied that, according to three leading scholars in the field, “research on the environmental impacts of militarism [is] non-existent in the social sciences.”

At the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, it was agreed that wealthy countries would channel $100 billion a year to poorer nations, to help them cope with the impacts of climate change. But the Green Climate Fund set up by the UN succeeded in raising only $10.43 billion and is now running out of money: it never came close to being funded at the level envisaged at the summit. In that same period the world’s annual military expenditure has risen from slightly above $1.5 trillion to almost $2 trillion.

What is ironical is that the US military knows the reality of climate change. Yet, the Pentagon does not acknowledge that its own fuel use is a major contributor to climate change.  The military’s climate-related plans are mainly oriented toward dealing with the conflicts that global warming will create or exacerbate: for instance, struggles over water; regional wars; terrorism; and mass movements of people caused by hurricanes and desertification, droughts and flooding. They assume that the effects of climate change as a “threat multiplier” will only continue to grow more severe, requiring more and more military interventions.

Every year governments around the world justify $1.7 trillion in military expenditure for protecting citizens against entirely uncertain and ill-defined threats. This is supported by many people who, in other regards, would strongly oppose government spending. They argue against climate change on the basis of uncertainty but use uncertainty as a justification for militarypreparedness. 

Mitt Romney, the first presidential candidate to openly deny climate change, justified increasing spending for the military because “we don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty.” Former vice president Dick Cheney, another outspoken denier of climate change, said that “even if there is only a one percent chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.” 

Saturday, March 23, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - I

Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities begins with the observation: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.'

The description fits the period we are living in very well. There are a class of problems called 'wicked problems' which are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad because there are ideological, cultural, political and economic constraints which keep changing over time.  These problems have a lot of ambiguity and the consequences are difficult to imagine. Most wicked problems are connected to other problems. Trying to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. 

Climate change is such an issue and it is caused by our great need for energy. Society runs on energy and materials, but most people think it runs on money. As GDP increases globally, energy needs to increase in lockstep, i.e. for additional economic activity, we need more energy. Study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year. We face increasing effort and cost to extract minerals from lower grade ores. This will have a corresponding effect on benefits to societies while increasing carbon emissions. 

As Timothy Mitchell says in Carbon Democracy, modern mass politics was made possible by the development of ways of living that used energy on a new scale. Without the energy derived from oil, the current forms of political and economic life would not exist. People have developed ways of eating, travelling, housing themselves and consuming goods and services that require very large amounts of energy from oil and other fossil fuels. More than half the total fossil fuel consumed in the 150 years or so between the 1860s, when the modern petroleum industry began, and 2020 was burned in the four decades after 1980. 

In the early period of human civilization, human activity was limited by the muscular power of animals and the speed of regeneration of woodlands. When freed from these limits, the supply of energy began to grow at an exponential rather than a linear rate. You can think of fossil fuels as forms of energy in which great quantities of space and time have been compressed into a concentrated form. This means that organic matter equivalent to all of the plant and animal life produced over the entire earth for four hundred years was required to produce the fossil fuels we burn today in less than a year. 

A human labourer can perform about 0.6 kWh in one workday while one barrel of crude oil can perform about 1700 kWh of work. This means that a barrel of oil has the same work potential as a human working for over 9 years (taking 300 working days a year). This energy/labor relationship was the foundation of the industrial revolution. Most technological processes require hundreds to thousands of calories of fossil energy to replace each human calorie previously used to do the same tasks manually. And fossil energy is much cheaper than human energy. These fossil ‘armies’ are the foundation of the modern global economy. We didn’t pay for the creation of these armies of workers, only their liberation. 

According to modern economic theory if the price of one input gets too high, the market will develop an alternative. However, energy does not cooperate with this theory because different sources of energy exhibit critical differences in quality, density, storability, surplus, transportability, environmental impact, and other factors. For instance, there are many medium and high heat industrial processes (for textiles, chemicals, cement, steel etc.) using fossil fuels that have no current (or even under development) alternative using low-carbon technology.

One factor that would prevent any meaningful action on climate change is that it would result in changing the power relations between countries. The world’s most powerful countries are also oil states, Timothy Mitchell notes, that “without the energy they derive from oil their current forms of political and economic life would not exist.” Nor would they continue to occupy their present positions in the global ranking of power. The increase in the consumption of fossil fuels in China and India has already brought about an enormous change in their international influence.

Everybody talks of climate justice. This would require a fair apportioning of the world’s remaining “climate budget.” But if the emissions of some countries were to be curbed while the emissions of others were allowed to rise, then this would lead inevitably to a redistribution of global power. From the point of view of the American security establishment that wants maintenance of global dominance, this is precisely the scenario that is most greatly to be feared; from this perspective the continuance of the status quo is the most desirable of outcomes. This was clearly stated by George Kennan, one of the architects of the postwar strategic order (quoted in The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh):

We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relations which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives.

Friday, March 8, 2024

Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh

Picture a man named Lal Bihari, born in 1955, a farmer from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. He was told by a government officer in 1976 that he was dead. The land record said that the previous year, after the death of Lal Bihari, his one bigha (one-fifth of an acre) of land had devolved to his cousins. He was officially dead. The fact that he was a familiar figure standing before them made no difference: government records showed that  he was dead so he was dead. He had no proof that he was alive. Now how to get such a proof.

Lal Bihari renamed himself Lal Bihari Mritak (dead man), and went about proving himself alive. This would take him 17 years. One method was to organise his own funeral which would give him a receipt proving that he was alive.  Others were to apply for compensation for his ‘widow’, throw stones at a police station so that he is arrested and his existence recorded, kidnap his cousin, and finally, stand for election. He took on VP Singh from Allahabad in 1988 and Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi in 1989, but didn’t win.

By this time, he found that there were many others in the same plight as him, and founded the Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh, an association of legally dead people. At last count, they had 20,000 members, of whom four had managed to come back to life. One of them was Lal Bihari. From 1994 he was no longer Mritak. This tactic of declaring a person dead and grabbing his land seems to be a common practice. One person from  Azamgarh says, “My own son had killed me off. If it had not been for Lal Bihari, I would still be dead.”

Another person had left his village for some years and found that his brother had declared him dead. Following a dharna by the Mritak Sangh he was declared alive. He then lost on appeal, won on further appeal, but another officer pronounced him dead again. “I have died thrice. At present, I am dead but have a stay on it by the court,” he says. Another person and his four brothers were all shown dead in one village but alive in three other villages where they own land. 

You cannot make this up. Kafka was born in the wrong country and the wrong century. In present day India, he would have been a reporter writing about truth stranger than his fiction. There is a brief mention of the walking dead in the film Jolly LLB 2. Two movies that show the strange ways of the bureaucratic and legal systems in India are Chaitanya Tamhane's Court and Shyam Benegal's Well Done, Abba