Many sins are committed in the name of development. We are becoming aware that much of what were hailed as achievements over the past few centuries were actually “sordid boons.” Curiously, the words ecology and economics have a common root, oikos, which means ‘habitat’ in ancient Greek. But dialogues between economists and ecologists/environmentalists on how to achieve development with the least incomprehension of, and violence to, habitat have been of recent origin.
The strain imposed by development has been measured using a number of Indicators. In its report released on September 27, 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal — oceans have warmed, snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen and greenhouse gases have increased — and there is a 95 per cent chance it is all manmade. The living planet index based on a number of indicators of biodiversity has fallen in the poorer countries. Materials Footprint is increasing by 6 per cent for every 10 per cent increase in GDP. Earth Overshoot Day is the day every year when we have consumed natural resources at a rate beyond what our planet can replenish and have produced more waste than can be reabsorbed. In 1970 it fell on December 29. Advanced by two days every year, it fell on August 20 in 2013.
Physical and social sciences
Physical and social sciences together must address the problems of growth and its implications. To the growing community of scholars who are equally at home in both sciences, the book’s emphasis on “the role of entropy law of thermodynamics in making the basic assumptions regarding a development model” is encouraging. Frederic Soddy (not mentioned in the book), a Nobel-prize winning chemist, was the first to introduce thermodynamics into economics. Working with Rutherford, he split the atom and was the first to produce and name isotopes. Aware of the destructive power he unleashed, he wanted to improve the economic system, which was not in a position to act on scientific advances. So he shifted his career to economics and came up with radical ideas in the 1920s. He was derided by economists and none of them quoted him for 70 years, but he was rediscovered recently.
The book makes the point that development increases entropy, and asks: “Can growth of human knowledge and technological progress reverse the effects of entropy law and delink economic growth and rise of entropy?”
The role of knowledge and human values in directing development cannot be over-emphasised. Our economic activities are becoming information-dependent and many products and technologies process only information and so consume less energy. The internet changed the way we consume energy. To what extent can we uncouple economic growth from energy growth? How soon can we have a grid of wind, solar, geothermal and tidal energy, and next-generation nuclear fission and fusion, and energy from nuclear waste? Advanced diesel engines with low compression ratio and the consequent benefits resulting in much higher fuel efficiency, and electric transport, can prove game- changers. We can prospect for materials in space colonies. These involve uncertainties and we must also get better at technology forecasting.
Clean technologies with minimal reduction in productivity are the concern of all countries: a rise of 2.5 per cent in global temperature will reduce agricultural productivity by 6 per cent in America but by 38 per cent in India.
The author covers comprehensively 14 interrelated topics relevant to the title of the book. A background in mathematics is needed to understand the concept of sustainable development and the ideas of Partha Dasgupta and Nardhaus. There is even a mathematical model to choose an optimum family size (my next wedding present!). The data in the book refer mostly to India, although a few tables draw information from the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the UN.
Among some minor blemishes, the description of photosynthesis is sketchy. In the accompanying chemical equation — the only equation in the book — a chemical formula is written without saying it means glucose. It is hoped that the next edition will have more recent data in the tables. In the current edition, some of the data go back to the 1990s.
The book will appeal to researchers in the area of development economics and policy analysts /makers and succeed as a textbook . Hopefully, it will stir the conscience of a new generation.
(N. Balasubramanian is Advisor, Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, Bangalore)
Creating Space: Ecological Limits and Economic Development;
Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001.
The article has been edited to incorporate the following correction:
A sentence in The real price of development (Book Review page, Oct. 29, 2013) read: “Curiously, the words ecology and economics have a common root, okios, which means ‘habitat’ in ancient Greek.” It should have been oikos.