The tragedy of the commons


The only way out for public policy for environmental damage is to place strong emphasis on individual and social cost of inaction

Residents in the already polluted Capital experienced something of a turning point on Diwali. The belaboured, particulate-loaded air was further bombed with firecrackers. Some described the scene as a war zone with active shelling. People were angry not only because they could not physically breathe, but also because they felt the assault on their senses was wilful. They were emotionally upset because the reality of the cracker was coming through the free will of fellow citizens. Thousands of calls were made to policemen asking for a stop to firecrackers — many felt that lighting the crackers (irrespective of whether permissible noise limits were breached or not) was a criminal act. The act of burdening common air further was almost like an act of violence.

While pollution and other environmental degradation have physical impacts on people, their emotional and psychological costs are often overlooked. In Delhi, for instance, the anxiety of knowing that the air is deadly is adding to the physical challenges of living there. The time to act on air pollution in Delhi and other Indian cities was yesterday. But the time to consider psychological impacts of environmental degradation surely is now.

Inaction costs us

The environment is our habitat, and we make interventions in it for habitation — air conditioning, heating, sunshades, and now, air purifiers and air pollution masks. Dangers in the environment, such as pollution, are usually looked at as medical cases. Sometimes, compensation is meted out for long-term environmental damage or spills. But the very idea of compensation following damage is transactional — it suggests something broken can be healed. However, in the case of environmental damage the issue is more problematic. It is difficult to compute the extent of environmental damage to both people as well as ecosystems. It has also proved difficult to understand the costs society is likely to have in the future. This has given rise to the idea of Precautionary Principle, which suggests not carrying out an activity that is likely to seriously harm the environment. Moving from a traditional view of paying for environmental damage after it has occurred, new approaches are trying to suggest what scenarios would occur if pollution or damage is caused (before it occurs), and subsequently, understanding the costs of inaction on the environmental front.

A 2013 World Bank report said environmental degradation cost India 5.7 per cent of its GDP in 2009. The report concluded that environmental degradation is actively harming the economy. In terms of prevention, it made another equally important observation: after a certain point of environmental degradation, clean-up becomes cripplingly expensive, as we are witnessing in rivers Yamuna and Ganga today.

Collective responsibility

Much of the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign focusses on not just governance and municipal responsibility, but also personal habits. People are extolled not to litter, spit or destroy the environment. To a limited extent, the issue of tackling air pollution is also about individual habits. Getting pollution checks on personal vehicles, not causing garbage fires and not burning firecrackers are some of the most common ways individuals combat air pollution. However, after Diwali, cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow all recorded poor air quality.

While criticism was heaped on people burning crackers, others said people should have the freedom to ‘celebrate festivals’; crackers were burst both on Diwali and Chhath puja (by which time air quality had already reached crisis levels). Thus, those who feel anxious, emotionally stressed or angry following the burning of crackers are up against those who feel they are taking part in celebrations which cause happiness. The environment, of course, is agnostic. It does not know the difference between damage caused by religious activities or otherwise.

The only option out for public policy for environmental damage is to place strong emphasis on individual and social cost of inaction. Further, the psychological costs of inaction have to be better explained. This could be through public announcements, popular outreach and education. I can think of three scenarios. A school decides to wage a war against particulate matter, by watering the leaves of a tree, growing indoor plants, or asking parents to get cars checked, creating a chain of behaviour; citizens stop bursting crackers for their own sake as well as that of the greater public good; and the government works out a Payment for Ecosystem Service or incentive scheme that prevents a poor farmer from burning his crops by using resources from another section of society.

In the 1960s, ecologist Garrett Hardin coined the term ‘the tragedy of the commons’, speaking of how ‘commons’ such as the sea, meadows, or pieces of land get degraded. This is because no one particular section of society or individual takes responsibility. The issue with environmental degradation is that we have historically felt we can afford to wash our hands of our commons, that is, our environmental issues. We can no longer afford to do so, as the tragedy of the commons — from being one that society experienced in some distant and non-corporeal form — has become toxically pointed towards each of us through the very air we breathe.

As we go about the monumental task of cleaning our cities and homes — and bringing better air or water quality — one of the important ways to address this will be through focusing on individual and societal happiness, and the marked lack of well-being through inaction or inertia. This is a reason for governments and communities to act now. No answers can be immediate, and India’s air may well hang heavy for years to come. But ignoring the emotional and psychological costs of environmental damage will be at further collective peril.

Neha Sinha is with Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal.

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Printable version | Nov 22, 2019 12:26:52 PM |

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