This is an edited version of a panel discussion moderated by Rohini Nilekani, hosted by ATREE Bangalore. The panellists included Veena Srinivasan, K Vijayraghavan, Sameer Shisodia and Harini Nagendra, who discussed the role of science and technology in the environmental crisis and sustainable economy in the future.
We know by now that all the problems we are facing relating to the environment, ecology, the economy, and society are going to need the cooperation of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. You know how they say, if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail? I produced a book called, ‘Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar’ and now everything to me looks like a topic to be dealt with under this umbrella. So, from all three sectors, we need to understand what they need to do more or less of, to ensure that we reach our sustainable development goals that we are all so keen on achieving as a society and as a global community.
Firstly, we hear from Anshu Gupta, the founder of Goonj and Gram Swabhimaan. In his opinion, development can happen in a very sustainable way if we listen to the people and treat them as stakeholders. If we leave our arrogance and listen to the people, we will find solutions because the people who understand these problems the most are the ones who are experiencing them. Therefore, they also understand how to find the solutions. He is always troubled by the very basic concept of ‘unskilled,’ as we often say, and asks what makes us think that the farmers, who have been able to innovate and come up with some 10,000 different varieties of rice, are unskilled? Meanwhile, people like us, who will go on Google, prepare a lecture for 10 minutes, and deliver these talks are considered ‘skilled’. What makes us think that they are only skilled after we bring them to the cities and give them a week-long plumber training? That is an additional skill, but the fact remains that they have been farmers and therefore understand farming far more than other people, and they are extremely, extremely skilled people.
So if we really want to go for sustainable development and economic development, it is extremely important to stop calling them ‘beneficiaries’ and start viewing people as stakeholders, he argues. We can celebrate the resilience of people, but we often forget that people who are called resilient, are the biggest sufferers of all the wrongdoings of the different parts of Samaaj. For the last few decades, we have been talking about circular economy, we have been talking about repurposing this stuff. And he wonders what would happen if we start talking about optimal utilization, if different parts of society start using the same stuff in turn? It reduces the burden on the landfills, and it creates many, many more opportunities. So when he talks about development, he says that he always feels that the optimum utilization of anything is much more important, and must come prior to even thinking of repurposing or recycling.
To Dr. Anshu Bharadwaj, India’s recent net zero pledge is an attempt which could rationalize the contradiction between sustainability and growth. It is not just a mitigation pledge in his view, it is a fundamentally different economic development model from the one which the West followed for over close to two centuries. What India has effectively said is that we are at the point that the West was a hundred years ago. We have a huge developmental agenda ahead of us, to lift millions out of poverty. We are also facing the adverse impacts of climate change. Yet, we will achieve our developmental goals by progressively decoupling from fossil fuels and not relying on them. Dr. Bharadwaj points out that the West is trying to decarbonize after they achieved a very high level of development. What India is doing is decarbonizing as we develop, and not after achieving development. He believes this is a fundamentally different economic developmental paradigm.
If India can get its act right, it will be a beautiful example for the rest of the world to follow, especially the developing world. Is it going to be easy? Definitely not. Nothing comes easy. It is a new experiment, a new model, he says. So, a lot of preparatory policy work is required. India will require a lot of investments. Largely, they will have to come from the private sector, and therefore they will be expecting returns and a conducive policy environment. He says that we will require money both for technologies and for adaptation. There will be a plethora of policy questions to be examined. Should we go for electric vehicles? Should we go for hydrogen? Should we go for biofuels? How do we manage the social aspects of this transition? So it has to be carefully planned through, because it is an economy-wide, fundamental shift in how we produce and consume goods and services.
The big insight with which we started work two years ago, says Anshuman Bapna, was that the climate economy is going to be bigger than the internet economy. The fact that we are transforming sectors as massive as energy, agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, construction, and even horizontals like finance, means that a lot of new jobs will be created and many of the existing jobs will need to have a very strong climate and sustainability lens to what they do. Just like 20 years ago, when we were all beginning to learn digital skills regardless of what we were doing, we now need to learn sustainability and climate skills, he says. And that will happen across every skill, across every sector, and of course, across every geography. India is at the forefront of both the climate crisis, and in his opinion, also the climate opportunity.
If you look at areas like nature-based solutions, where India could potentially be one of the world’s largest source of the right kind of forestry solutions, offsets, and so on, it seems like there is a massive opportunity to build something there in India and ATREE recognizes that better than almost anyone else, he says. The other thing to recognize and remember in India’s context is the climate justice angle, and it is entirely possible that we might solve the climate crisis without solving for the underlying inequalities in our economic system. And that is where the opportunity is. As we build out new climate solutions and deploy them, the desire and the ability to get individuals, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, from minority backgrounds, into the climate and sustainability space is critical.
A New Approach Using Science and Technology
In some parts of the world, there is a lot of optimism about the role of science and technology in conquering some of the massive problems that we are going to face on the ecological front. We need to understand from the Sarkaar’s point of view what are some of the challenges that we are facing in India from a science and technology lens. In Professor Vijay Raghavan’s view, science and technology can be the fulcrum for social and economic change. This requires that the fulcrum should be strong, it should be correctly positioned, and those who are lifting heavy weights decide what weights are to be lifted. And those heavy weights are social and economic changes – what those weights are and how they should be applied are decided by the government and society. So, all these three have to come together. Historically, science and technology have been the fulcrum for dramatic change, he says. Again, on this principle, we have seen how economic benefit, industrial benefit, and social benefit have been the driving forces for big change. However, major positive changes in some societies have come at the cost of the exclusion of certain components of that society and/or other societies. So in some regions, order has come because of the creation of disorder outside, he says. He gives the examples of energy like fossil fuels being required to create order, or machinery like the spinning jenny during the industrial revolution, which required workers to operate it. But are they well paid, he asks. This has been the tradition of industrial growth – where it is used and how it is used is a big challenge. Now, with sustainable development being a critical aspect, he sees many technologies readily available both for adaptation and mitigation, and for developmental use. Whether they will be used in our context or not is a huge question, but the opportunities are there.
Historically, when something was running out, human ingenuity apparently came to the rescue, says Professor Raghavan. But he thinks that the world has come to a tipping point now, where we can no longer assume that tech will save us while we continue with our current consumption and production patterns. This is no longer possible, not because human ingenuity is lacking in any way but because the scale of the challenge is absolutely enormous. So this requires a different kind of approach, he argues, which is not tech alone. Of course, hydrogen and renewable energy are important, but we also need to consider how rapidly we can implement changes in a context dependent, sustainable manner. And that requires technology, policy, politics, economics, all to come together.
From the Bazaar’s side, says Veena Srinivasan, we need to openly recognize that there is a fundamental contradiction – we talk about circularity with the underlying assumption that the energy that is required to fuel that circularity will be hydrogen or renewables. But that is not how it works. If we actually look at the last 30 years, the same technology which has been beneficial for millions has also left out large segments of society from accruing those benefits. In fact, what it has done in many places is create the extreme polarization that we are seeing today. So from the Bazaar’s side, we need to realize that we have a very simplistic image of what technology can do, she argues. If we do not create an inclusive economy as well as a sustainable one, we will continue to cut off our own feet by alienating large segments of Samaaj in the process.
She also points out that often, the reason why we cannot opt out of the bad paradigm of the consumption economy, despite attempts at sustainable transitions, is because the subsidies are all directed towards enabling that system. Unless we have a complete redirection, those fundamental shifts cannot happen no matter how hard we try to innovate. The Bazaar cannot work completely independently of the Sarkaar, she says, and we need the Samaaj to be demanding accountability from the Sarkaar. However, Srinivasan says she is optimistic that there is a recognition that we cannot afford to not get it right. There is a lot of innovation happening, along with a lot of positive energy from various levels of government to engage and build those ecosystems to make that happen. For example, one of the exciting things we are seeing from the urban perspective is a recognition of wastewater as a resource. The three sectors are coming together – in Bangalore, she says, they are working with the Bangalore Apartments’ Federation and plumbing standards agencies like IAPMO [International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials] from the Samaaj-side; a number of startups like TankerWala and FluxGen which are from the Bazaar; and with government bodies like BBMP [Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike] and BWSSB [Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board]. So all these agencies are coming together to say, “None of us can do it alone, but together, if we all agree that this is a sensible thing to do, and we all throw our feet behind it, what we are able to then achieve is exponentially greater.”
To Sameer Shisodia, sustainability is understood best in its negation. ‘Unsustainable’ means that you cannot keep going to the ATM and withdrawing cash if nobody is refilling the account. That is where we are headed with all the materials and resources that we depend on. The inside view is that we do not have a decade, so if we do not invent new pathways and new approaches, it may be too late. We are reaching a lot of planetary tipping points and we have been wrong in our estimates again and again, he warns. If there were more systems thinking and understanding of emergent systems, and if people were looking beyond the quarter, they would see that we need to act now because this reality is not very far away.
The energy transitions and the green hydrogen that we keep hearing about are maybe necessary pieces to a certain extent, but we need to change this problem from an individual perspective to a place perspective, he says. We have ignored ‘place’ too long. We have solved it for eight billion people on this planet and completely ignored the planet. So we need people in their bio-region to have a better understanding of their place and develop local, contextual responses based on geography and diversity.
We know that climate change is going to be a game changer, says Harini Nagendra. If children can not go to school because it is too hot, education is going to collapse. When the tar on the roads melt and it is too hot for people to walk outside, what kind of cities will we have? What kind of transport will we have? Can we even live as a society? No culture, no economy, no society is possible, unless we fix climate change. And we will have to do that at scale and fast.
As someone who studies systems change or transformations, Nagendra points out three positives that she has noticed recently. One is looking at the kind of citizen movements around the world, like the Sunrise Movement and the Fridays For Future, and how elected representatives are now responding to citizen activism and grassroots movements. The second thing is to refocus the conversation on climate change. So far, we are looking at using nature-based solutions to capture carbon and transition to renewable energy. However one third of our emissions come from manufacturing things like cement and ammonia, and countries like India are only going to need more of these materials over the next 10 years. So there is an opportunity for the state supporting research exploring how to use old concrete and repurpose it, or how to use cement itself to trap carbon dioxide. The third positive, she says, comes from new kinds of economics that tells us where we will be able to see system change. If you are a philanthropist who wants to put in a small amount per month to fund something, we are actually seeing that you are better off funding climate activism because you are driving large system change. The numbers give us an insight on where you can actually drive levers for change and what those levers are. At the core of it, says Nagendra, we need more interdisciplinary information that stretches across humanities, social science, economics science, and technology. So the big game changer would be education. We need a groundswell of citizen-based understanding, interdisciplinary understanding, education and knowledge. Eventually the force that is going to create the maximum change is public pressure from around the world, which is when the Bazaar and Sarkaar will respond.
Building Our Resilience
When we talk about resilience, we need to keep in mind that it must happen at multiple scales, says Veena Srinivasan. If we are talking about individual resilience, it is in terms of whether they can bounce back from shocks and whether we can minimize the shocks they are experiencing in the first place. From the farmers’ perspective, we know that monoculture farming means they lose everything with just one pest attack. And Covid-19 has shown us that one virus could bring the whole world to its knees. So how do we make sure we are not as vulnerable? From a systems perspective, she says, we are talking about not putting all of our eggs in one basket, as a country. For example, if we look at food production systems, we know that the shift we have made to rice and wheat-based diets in regions where rice and wheat shouldn’t be grown, is a non-resilient system. So we need to create diversity at the individual and systems scale.
Vijay Raghavan points out that we cannot expect people to deal with forthcoming catastrophes when they have got extraordinarily pressing interests and problems happening in the present. Therefore, he says, our entire resilience has to be planned in a manner that is similar to ‘Transformer’ toys, where systems are catering to something that is currently needed, but when there is a crisis that toy can change its shape and purpose into something else. So we need transformable infrastructure of various kinds, whether in education, industry, or other sectors. Building on this, Harini Nagendra says that there are new mental models looking at resilience to slow and fast changes. For example, the pandemic or floods are fast changes, whereas rising temperatures are slow changes. The findings show that people will transform as societies or bring in new laws if they see slow change, but a sudden crisis like Covid involves shocks that people forget about soon after. So how can we talk about long term changes, slow changes, and how to be resilient to those over time?
To Sameer Shisodia, this relates to the multi-dimensional view of a place – any place is resilient when a shock on any one of the parameters does not take it out. The parameters could be water, air, income levels, etc. For example, you could have great income levels but there may not be diversity in livelihoods and that might create a shock. It could come from the level of carbon you are emitting or health and nutrition levels. So he says that we need to quickly figure out what the set of indicators that give us a sense of place are, which will vary by context. Today, we optimize for only one of those variables in our public problem solving, whether in governance or markets, without understanding the adjacencies and what else we are impacting. We are seeing this with climate change, which has been born of a series of bad trade-offs. So we need to start making better trade-offs, he says.
People have begun to realize how much the whole globe is going to be dependent on India in the decades to come. India’s innovation, India’s economy, India’s talent, India’s biodiversity – I think ATREE’s 25 years have been a lot about researching some of these issues in a long term way, and it is going to continue to do that for at least 25 years more, which is going to be quite a tipping point for this planet. So all of us in this country have a significant role to play, not just to bring all our people to some level of abundance, but also the rest of the world.