Interpreting the Climate Impasse
The two countries I know best are India and the US. I spent the first 22 years of my life in the former, and the following 24 in the latter, where I continue to live. Recently I returned home, after spending three months in India. The combination of what I saw there in plain view, and what I see here in America, may shed some light on—why we have arrived at the climate impasse.
Soon I’ll get to—what is climate impasse, but first, here is what got me motivated to write this piece, before even I could recover from the jet lag.
As soon as I sat down in the shuttle van outside the Seattle airport, the discussion with fellow passengers turned to the severe snowstorm in the East Coast that killed at least 18 people. That day, all of us had contributed to global warming, in varying amount, through the burning of jet fuel, and then gasoline. It was February 13.
Scientists were quick to point out that the rapid warming of the Arctic will continue to cause longer and harsher winter over North America and northern Europe. The Arctic is warming at a rate of two to three times more than the rest of the planet. This has reduced the temperature differential between the cold Arctic air and the warm air from the south, causing the Arctic jet stream to weaken, and “meander, like a river heading off course.”
That the Arctic is warming rapidly is not news anymore, nor is the melting of the Arctic sea ice, or Greenland ice sheets, or even the subsea methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.
But have you heard about—Fires in February, in the far North?
Alaska gets few hours of sunlight during February—a bit more in the south, a bit less in the north; temperatures stay well below zero. During those cold, dark, long, winter nights, Alaskans are used to seeing, not dancing flames of forest fires, but instead, dancing curtains of—green, yellow, pink, red—aurora borealis. On 5 November 2001, I was lucky to photograph an extremely rare display of red aurora over the Brooks Range Mountains and the Hulahula River valley, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (here). The display was so intense that it was visible as far south as Alabama, Georgia and California. On seeing red in the sky people of the south had thought it was a terrorist attack and called the police department. In the Hulahula River valley, it was minus 50 degrees F; I got frostbite on my nose and three fingers.
Fran Mauer had worked as a biologist with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge office in Fairbanks, Alaska, for 23 years, until he retired in 2002. Over the past 14 years, for all things Arctic, I’ve reached out to him for advice. “There continues to be significant weather events that are out of the ‘normal.’ During January, Alaska experienced very warm temperatures and some all time records were broken,” Fran wrote to me in an email on February 11. “Last week, the weather service had extreme fire warnings out for the Kenai lowlands and Anchorage area. The warm temperatures have melted the snow and dried the grasses and shrubs, creating extreme fire danger, as winds up to 80 mph were forecast. We are not used to having a fire season in February!” The exclamation mark in the end is Fran’s, not mine.
Moreover, with a map (here), NASA’s Earth Observatory has shown vividly how winter heat has swamped Alaska, from the Aleutian in the southeast, to the North Slope of the Arctic. “While much of the continental United States endured several cold snaps in January 2014, record–breaking warmth gripped Alaska. Spring–like conditions set rivers rising and avalanches tumbling,” NASA reports.
The winter heat in Alaska and the snowstorm in northeastern America—are likely linked through the Arctic warming. Additionally, these, and other recent extreme weather events, from around the globe, including drought in California and floods in the UK, should be understood and discussed within the context of a globally warmed Earth, in which extreme weather events aren’t exceptions, it’s the norm. Sequence of extreme weather events across geographies also happened in 2013, and in 2012, in 2011.
What is new this year, however, is the realization that we have arrived at a climate impasse. The US government hasn’t done anything meaningful to address the climate crisis, despite lofty rhetoric from Obama. On the contrary, the government has done, what it can, to foil the international efforts to address the crisis. Recently leaked documents by Edward Snowden revealthat the NSA had spied on the delegates of other countries during the 2009 UN Climate Conference COP15 in Copenhagen. Moreover, last year Chris Williams made an assertion that “it was, after all, he [Obama], who was the lead protagonist in wrecking the international climate talks in Copenhagen.” But why did the US wreck the Copenhagen climate talks? This will become clear a bit later. Additionally, the dismal failure of the subsequent UN climate negotiations has made abundantly clear that most nation states are not interested in solving the climate crisis, either. I’ll call this collective global inaction—climate impasse.
The burning of—first coal, then oil and gas—since the beginning of industrialization in the mid 18th century, has brought us to the anthropogenic climate crisis that we now find ourselves in. We know this already.
What I’m urging us to consider now, is why we have arrived, not at the crisis, but at the impasse. There are three agents—the governments, the corporations, and the human animal—all are implicated, and interlinked in intricate ways, in the drama of this impasse.
The climate impasse is rooted, not simply in our dependence on a fossil fuel economy, but more broadly, in our love affair with mass consumption, made possible by global capitalism, and in our faith in Progress—that science and technology will forever improve the conditions of human life.
In this piece, I’ll discuss mass consumption—with a view from India. I must admit though, that what I’m sharing with you here is not an in–depth social science analysis of mass consumption in contemporary India, but instead, what I saw during my three–months long sojourn there; a kind of breezy travelogue you might say.
India’s road to—roads everywhere!
During my stay in India I had a chance to visit a few places—to see birds and animals, coffee and tea plantations, attend wedding receptions. Northeast, southeast, southwest, everywhere I went, I saw brand new roads, completed or being built. In Maharashtra, I saw dividers on four lane highways that were lined with plants, packed with magnificent flowers. Line of bullock carts carrying sugarcane on the highway, however, reminded me that I was indeed in India.
New roads everywhere—is the face of economic development in India, I was reminded, again and again. “What’s an XUV,” I inquired. “Don’t you know? It’s bigger than SUV,” I was told. Fair enough. With great excitement a young person told me that before the end of this decade, India will become the third largest auto—producer or consumer, he wasn’t sure which—in the world.
Where will India get the oil to fuel all these cars, the LUVs, SUVs, XUVs? It seems, among other places, from the US.
“The United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer” by around 2020, according to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2012; and with the shale production in the US and tar sands in Canada, “North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.” The US wants to sell oil to the rest of the world, not keep it in the ground and solve the climate crisis. This is as good a reason as I can give for why the US wrecked the Copenhagen climate talks.
“[B]ilateral cooperation in energy has acquired an expanded significance on account of America’s shale gas production and US liquefied natural gas exports,” K. P. Nayar wrote in The Telegraph in India. The US energy secretary Ernest Moniz, a champion of fracking, was to visit India in January for the Indo–US Energy Dialogue. The meeting was nixed, however. As part of a larger retaliatory measure against the US’ humiliating treatment (that included a strip search) of the Indian Diplomat Devyani Khobragade, New Delhi called off the meeting. The Indo–US Energy Dialogue is now set to resume on March 10.
The Argumentative Indian is an important book by Nobel–laureate economist–philosopher Amartya Sen. “I wish we in India will recognize our strength which comes from the argumentative nature of our country,” Sen said in his keynote speech at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January. Fearing I might loose my fair share of maach and misti, however, I didn’t become too argumentative with my family members and friends, about materials consumption, global warming, resource wars. During those three months, I didn’t find any Argumentative Indian debating these issues in the national press, either.
Unlike the US, in India, the circulation of newspapers—national English–language daily papers, and dozens of regional papers published in numerous local languages—is enormous. Lot of people from across the economic strata get (buy or borrow) newspapers, read some of it, and then argue.
“Why is there such a silence about pressing environmental issues, including materials consumption and global warming in the Indian newspapers?” I asked a New Delhi–based environmental journalist friend. “Mainstream Indian newspapers report on three things: cricket, politics, and sleaze,” he told me as a matter of fact. There is a fourth element that he could have added. It’s not reporting though, but it gets the greatest prominence—offerings from the Merchants of Desire. The big newspapers, for most days, open not with the front–page filled with news items, but with a full–page ad about—cars and flats that you can buy. And it’s not just the front–page, but like a book cover, where the front, the back, and insides of both, are also full–page ads about—cars and flats that you can buy. Sometimes you get two such covers, glued to the main newspaper.
Let’s dig a little deeper into—India’s road—to roads everywhere! Why are these roads being built and what would their eventual purpose be?
These roads are being built as part of Indian’s larger project of economic development. India needs economic development—to pull the masses (hundreds of millions) out of abject poverty, to provide basic education to every children, to provide basic preventive medical care to every citizen, to provide equality among men and women, to feed every undernourished children (“not to mention the most undernourished in the world”), to provide toilet to every house so that half the population won’t “have to defecate in the open.” Such is the egalitarian vision of economic development that Amartya Sen, who has great empathy for the world’s poor and the dispossessed, has been advocating for decades. Furthermore, he sees development as a means to increase “freedom,” as the title of his immensely influential book, Development As Freedom, suggests.
With my naïve eyes what I saw in India, however, doesn’t seem to match Sen’s vision. Let me discuss by asking the question: Who are the likely beneficiaries of India’s ‘roads everywhere’?
One justification for building roads everywhere goes like this: A better distribution network would enable better distribution of foods to the masses, across the country. There is some validity to this argument. Take for example, the devastating cyclone Phailin last year, destroyed $4 billion worth of crops in the states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. During extreme weather events, and have no doubt that there will be plenty of those to come—a better distribution network can indeed help in bringing much–needed food from elsewhere, for those in dire needs. But let’s now turn the coin and look at the other side.
When I was growing up in India, we would get all our food, at the local market. Almost everything came from the local farmers and fisherfolks, from within a small radius—2 km, 10 km, 50 km, maybe even 100 km, at most. Such daily, fresh foods, isn’t enough though, if you desire for—Kellog’s Müeslix with Silk Kesar Pista Soymilk, for breakfast. The Merchants of Desires are busy creating a whole host of desires in India. But who would deny the devastating social and economic consequences for the small–scale farmers and fisherfolks, and ecological consequences of materials consumption (plastic, aluminum, for packaging) and contribution to global warming (large trucks spewing carbon in the air, massive air conditioning to keep foods edible)—caused by the juggernaut of transport–of–industrial–foods–by–road? Indeed, one of the biggest beneficiaries of India’s ‘roads everywhere’ is—the industrial Big Ag—both multinational and Indian corporations.
In contemporary India, there is a chicken–and–egg dilemma. Which one arrived first: the new Road or the new Mall? It seems to me, defying biology, both arrived at once, and growing together symbiotically. I saw people talk about “going to the mall”, with as much enthusiasm and (almost) reverence, as previous generations used to talk about when going to a temple. Malls are popping up in the Indian urban jungle with as much rapidity as fracking rigs in the American rural landscape. These malls have to be filled with stuff; the stuff has to be brought in from far away places, by blowing a lot of carbon puff. We need roads, we need roads, everywhere—is not the cry of the loon, but the sweet music from the bamboo flutes of India’s consumerist boom. The phonetic sound of the word, mall—mol—in Bengali, literally means—poop, feces, shit. Inside a mall, corporations from far away and near, are selling—a lot of shit. It is debatable, in this context, who is the bigger beneficiary—of India’s ‘roads everywhere’—the citizen who is accumulating stuff, or the corporation who is selling it? But where do the hundreds of millions of India’s poor, fit into this discussion—of the mol?
I found it quite difficult to get a train ticket in India these days. The tickets often sell out months in advance. But when you can drive your own XUV, on newly built roads, why bother trying to get a ticket on a public train? And, with your XUV, you can go to places, where few Indians have gone before—the National Parks—to see–and–shoot (with a camera) the magnificent Indian megafauna: the Indian one–horned rhinoceros, the Asiatic elephant, the Bengal tiger. One of the highest pursuits of a wealthy society is—to engage in leisure, philosopher John Gray has suggested. So it is no surprise that India’s economic development has given rise to a significantly large ‘leisure class,’ who has no time to think about the ecological consequences of an XUV—the massive materials that go into making one, or its massive carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Among the beneficiaries of India’s ‘roads everywhere’—are the ‘leisure class’ and the auto manufacturers. But where do the hundreds of millions of India’s poor, fit into this discussion—of leisure?
Where will India get the raw materials to fuel all aspects of ‘roads everywhere’? Inside India, mostly it is from the territories inhabited by the Adivasis (indigenous people of India). Unsurprisingly, there is resistance. Take for example, the Adivasis of the state of Chhattisgarh are extremely poor, but their land is extremely rich, both in terms of minerals and forests. The state government has been trying to take away their lands. Physician and human rights activist Dr. Binayak Sen, who should win the Nobel Peace Prize for his life–long work with India’s poor, as I have suggested before, instead, has spent years in prison on charges of sedition.
In 2005 the state of Chhattisgarh had set up a vigilante army called Salwa Judum to counter the Maoists and forcibly take away lands from the Adivasis. “In Chhattisgarh, the Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has been in the forefront of exposing the atrocities of the police. … The PUCL has acted as a whistleblower in the matter of exposing the true nature of the Salwa Judum,” Binayak Sen, the vice–president of PUCL said in 2011, and continued that “an investigation led by the PUCL and involving several other Human Rights organizations revealed that it was in reality a state sponsored and state funded as well as completely unaccountable vigilante force, to which arms were provided by the government. The activities of the Salwa Judum have led to the emptying of more than 600 villages, and the forced displacement of over 60,000 people.”
In summary then, it seems to me that the biggest beneficiaries of India’s ‘roads everywhere’ are—Big Oil, Big Mineral, Big Auto, Big Ag, and the ‘leisure class’; but certainly not India’s poor, unless you consider the crumbs that they too will get from all these. The biggest looser, however, is life on Earth. The ecological impacts, including contribution to global warming, from all aspects of India’s ‘roads everywhere’ is incomprehensible.
I’d be called a Luddite (or much worse things in various Indian languages), if I now invoke Gandhi. Nevertheless, in 1928 Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Young India, an English–language weekly paper that he edited between 1918 and 1932 (when he was arrested and the paper folded): “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. … If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” India is making Gandhi’s nightmare come to reality. What is most disturbing, however, is that there is a complete silence in the Indian press about the ecological consequences of this massive materials consumption.
The Indo–US Energy Dialogue points to something new for America. During the last half of the 20th century, the US acquired much of its oil from around the globe through petro imperialism, which has caused deaths and devastations in far away landsthat most Americans know little to nothing about. Now the table is turning; petro imperialism is returning home to America. India is attempting to acquire oil from the US. On the American soil, this will cause much suffering. As the US inches towards becoming the largest oil producer in the world, like mushrooms in a temperate forest, drilling and fracking rigs will pop up all over, on land and in the oceans, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic, from the western desert to the eastern forests, locking us into another one hundred years of fossil fuel digging in North America. The extremely uneven burden of this 21st century American petro imperialism will fall on the Native American, rural, and the underprivileged communities. There is resistance in the US also, from the Arctic to the Cove Point.
The 21st century petro imperialism in America has the potential to fuel in part the mass consumerism in India. As you can see the climate impasse—binds India and America.
How much should a person consume?
“But you drive a car, in the US, right?” a friend from New Delhi asked. “Yes, I do,” I said, and continued with some hesitation, “but I put only a few thousand miles on the car each year; bicycle is my primary mode of transportation.” I wasn’t convinced with what I said, and began to wonder: Am I a hypocrite? On the grayscale of hypocrisy I certainly have my place secured, but let’s take this discussion a bit further.
A nonhuman animal consumes what is immediately available to it—for survival. At times, though, but very rarely, it consumes more than its need. Sometimes a wolf may kill a few more caribou than it eats, for example. I have seen it in the Arctic. We humans also consume what is immediately available to us (a car that runs on gasoline)—for survival. We, however, differ from the nonhuman animal, in our appetite for consuming much more than what we need, and more importantly gargantuan amount of that which we do not even need, or use. This form of consumption—‘mass consumption’—is unique to the human animal and is the fundamental building block of global capitalism, like the nucleus of an atom.
In the Modern–era ‘mass consumption’ is human nature. In this regard it is more fundamental than burning of fossil fuels. “If mass consumption is human nature, can it be tamed, like anger?” you might ask. To do so we need to ask, not what we consume, but how much we consume. And that question, historian Ramachandra Guha writes “will come finally to dominate the intellectual and political debates” of the 21st century, in his magisterial book, How Much Should A Person Consume?
To break the logjam of the climate impasse, it is imperative that we not only ask: How Much Should A Person Consume? but also, and more importantly, practice—living with less. Many in India and America, however few, and marginalized from the mainstream society, are quietly practicing—living with less.
“If we replace fossil fuels with clean, alternative technologies, won’t we be able to solve the climate crisis?” you might ask. Not so fast. The other half of the climate impasse, Progress, is coming soon.
Subhankar Banerjee is a photographer, writer, and activist. His most recent book is Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (Seven Stories Press). He was recently Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Distinguished Visiting Professor at Fordham University in New York, received Distinguished Alumnus Award from the New Mexico State University, and Cultural Freedom Award from Lannan Foundation. For more information visit his website www.subhankarbanerjee.org.