'It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them ... but of their advantages.' Thus argued Adam Smith, in his magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The book was published in 1776, but the quote has stood the test of time. Indeed, stretched ever so slightly, it lends support to the doctrine of free worldwide trade, with the self seeking butchers and brewers acting willy-nilly as torch-bearers of happiness across the entire planet.
Nonetheless, irritants, such as the piece carried by The Telegraph (Nov 9, 2004), titled 'Scalding News from the Arctic', keep questioning established beliefs. 'The biggest survey to date,' the report runs, 'of the Arctic climate...said...accelerating melt could be a foretaste of wider disruptions from ...emissions of heat-trapping gases in the earth's atmosphere...' It states further that the melt is blamed mainly 'on...fossil fuels burnt in cars, factories and power plants...'
This is corroborated by the World Wide Fund for Nature. World consumption of fossil fuels increased eightfold between 1961 and 2001. The present concentration of carbon dioxide in the terrestrial environment stands at 380 parts per million, having risen 21 per cent since 1958. It is estimated to reach a figure somewhere between 540 ppm and 970 ppm by the year 2100. Experts predict devastating climatic changes to occur above 550 ppm.
From recent events though, the threshold appears to be much lower. The United States of America experienced cataclysmic hurricanes, China faced torrential rains that ruined areas adjacent to the Yangtse river. A record number of 10 typhoons hit Japan this year. Bangladesh, Nepal and north-eastern India were flooded, creating havoc for 50 million people. Rising sea levels threaten to depopulate islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Economists have long been aware of the phenomenon of negative externalities, in whose presence market signals lead to socially suboptimal decisions. Textbooks cite the case of smoke discharged by a steel mill affecting adversely a laundry's production of clean clothes. A merger of the mill with the laundry would benefit society as a whole by reducing the output of steel below what is warranted by the steel firm's competitive calculations. The fundamental weakness of a market though is that it fails to internalize communal losses into the account books of individual firms. Hence, competitive efficiency coexists with a warped vision of society's needs. With globalization taking root, the international scenario is fast transforming into a battlefield of warring nations, each vying lustily to outgrow the other. Rapidly rising GDPs are lending respectability to economies which carried a stigma of untouchability even in the recent past. And as the economies sprint forward, civilization gets trapped in a quagmire of atmospheric filth.
To keep the slime in check, economies must, contrary to Smith's prescription, rely more on the 'benevolence' of mankind than on its 'own interest(s)'. And there exactly is the rub. Self-promotion calls for boundless growth, while benevolence recommends a finite bound. One is faced here with a contradiction in terms, a paradox if you will.
Can it be resolved' The Kyoto protocol was signed in 1997, committing industrialized nations to reduce emissions by at least 5 per cent below 1990 levels within the period 2008 through 2012. A 'pollution ceiling' was fixed for each country, thus giving rise to an allowable aggregate for the signatories as a whole. A country was permitted to exceed its specified upper limit only against the payment of a price to one that had a saleable excess of unused rights, thus keeping the world total under control.
The protocol would translate into a treaty once ratified by a group of nations jointly responsible for 55 per cent of total emissions. However, as The Telegraph noted, 'President George W. Bush pulled the US, the world's top polluter, out... arguing (that) curbs on greenhouse gas emissions were too costly...' Matters accordingly came to a standstill for several years, till Russia agreed to sign in a few weeks ago. Russia would have found it in its interest to subscribe to the treaty much earlier. It had hoped to gain hard currency by taking advantage of America's profligacy. With the US backing out, the incentive disappeared, till very recently, when a new incentive in the shape of European Union support for entry into the World Trade Organization helped to ensure that Russia stopped playing truant.
The protocol thus stands ratified. Yet, ironically enough, the circumstances that led to the ratification imply that Russia intends to boost its industrial growth by relying on the good offices of the WTO. If successful, that country too would sooner or later turn into an active contributor to celestial garbage. Besides, one should not ignore the fact that Russia, being a major petroleum producer, cannot afford to go gaga over emission control.
Self-serving behaviour that causes social harm cannot be kept in check by pretty, polite measures. The economically powerful nations need to go for harder options. One of these would be to subsidize industries across nations that invest on cleaner energy sources by taxing those that do not. Solar energy of course is still a wild dream. But bio-diesel, a recycled fuel made from organic oils, or waste vegetable oils like used chip fat, is not exactly so. It can be burned in normal diesel engines, and causes far less environmental damage than fossil fuels. Moreover, it converts a disposal problem into a non-polluting fuel source.
History has it that this is precisely what Rudolf Diesel had intended when he patented his 'diesel engine' in 1894. He planned for his engine to be powered by vegetable oils (including hemp, ' that is, cannabis) as well as seed oils. Indeed, in a World Fair held in 1900, he ran it on peanut oil. Henry Ford too recognized the utility of the hemp plant. He built a car of stiffened hemp fibre and ran it on ethanol made from hemp.
Malicious though are the ways of Smith's butchers, brewers and bakers. A special interest group that had invested heavily in timber and petroleum resources pulled a fast one on the powers that be, causing industrial hemp to be confused with marijuana. In 1937, it pushed a 'marijuana' prohibition bill through Congress in less than three months, thus ensuring the collapse of the hemp industry in the US and charting out the course of events that has led to one of the worst crises to befall humanity.
Once fossil fuels are exhausted, alternative energy sources will no doubt be accessed, but wisdom dictates quicker action. Even if one were to discount atmospheric damages, plastic, a petrochemical product, will disappear along with petroleum. And plastic is only one of the many benign uses of fossil fuels. The price, alas, of mindless economic progress is the demise of the economies themselves.
Wishing away the price precipitates absurdities like the one narrated by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Mazumdar in an enchanting tale for Bengali children. A peripatetic sadhu and his greedy disciple landed by accident in a kingdom where all commodities were available nearly free of charge. The Guru found this incongruous and advised hasty retreat. The novice though, unmoved by the counsel, proceeded to hang on. A commotion soon ensued, at the end of which the fool discovered himself handed a death sentence. Fortunately, the sage intervened in the nick of time to ensure that the king of the land himself demanded first right to emigrate to heaven. Or else, the story would be at least as cruel for the kids as global warming threatens to be for humanity at large.