The Climate Crisis and India

By Usha Alexander | Jul 2019 | Comments

(A version of this first appeared as the cover story in The Caravan, The End of Nature: Ecological myths and warming climates.)

Hurricane Fani StormFIVE YEARS AGO, there was some speculation as to whether Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, was a climate-change sceptic, after he made a remark that indicated he was unconvinced about the phenomenon. “Climate has not changed,” he said, in September 2014, during a televised address to a group of schoolchildren. “We have changed. Our habits have changed. Our habits have got spoiled. Due to that, we have destroyed our entire environment.” In a remark made to a group of students at Sacred Heart University around the same time, he displayed total incomprehension of the matter: “The reality is this that in our family, some people are old ... They say this time the weather is colder. And, people’s ability to bear cold becomes less.”

These statements contradict Modi’s imperative to readers of his 2011 book, Convenient Action: Gujarat’s Response to Challenges of Climate Change, in which he references Al Gore, the environmentalist and former vice-president of the United States, who has been vocal about the need for urgent action to save the planet in his 2007 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. It is also entirely at odds with some of his other public statements, such as his declaration at the World Economic Forum, last year in Davos, that climate change constitutes the “greatest threat to the survival and human civilization as we know it.” This apparent contradiction is reflected in the disparity between statement and action when it comes to his government’s measures to protect the environment. For example, his acknowledgement that climate change is our greatest existential threat does not align with the present government’s lack of urgency around decarbonising India’s transportation sector or its energy grid. It has created no institutional structures designed to specifically tackle such a grave existential threat. His government has even failed to properly allocate earmarked funds toward environmental initiatives.

Previous governments were resistant to setting targets for limiting emissions, citing development priorities. The Modi administration at least signed on to the much lauded Paris Agreement in 2015, which aimed to get countries to voluntarily reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, with the goal of limiting the rise in global average temperature to 1.5º Celsius above what we call the pre-industrial baseline, or the average global temperature in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, when the mass burning of fossil fuels began to change the atmosphere. In addition, under Modi, India ratified the International Solar Alliance, an agreement intended to nurture cooperation among “solar rich” tropical countries in developing and deploying solar power infrastructure. Such measures that the Modi government intends to undertake are helpful but not substantial. While India’s carbon emissions are expected to rise for some years, far more aggressive steps need to be taken to alter the emissions trajectory that India is currently on.

Hurricane FaniAt the moment, India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. While per capita emissions are below the global average, India’s large human and livestock populations produce over seven percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. And as both population and per-capita electricity use rise, the country’s emissions are expected to keep growing. Despite the government’s willingness to engage internationally on climate change, there seems an unwillingness to adopt aggressive carbon-reduction targets. The prevailing orthodoxy seems to be that more carbon emissions are required to catch up to the development of the West. India, the argument goes, needs to first meet its development goals, which are thought to be in conflict with combatting climate change, as laid out on the website of the Ministry of Forestry, Environment and Climate Change:

Most mitigation of GHG emissions in developing countries leads to diversion of resources, earmarked for development, to meeting a global environmental problem for which such countries are not responsible.

Notably, mitigation actions taken by India will not lead to reduction in impact of climate change on India, as climate change is caused by accumulated emissions since 1850. India has contributed very little to these emissions, and even now emits just 4% of the global emissions with 17% of the world’s population. Emissions from any point in the world has equal effect on the global climate, and even if India were to completely reduce its emissions to zero by going back to the stone age, it would hardly make any difference to the impacts of climate change on India (or anywhere else).

India currently emits not four but seven percent of global emissions, and they are rising fast, growing by over six percent in 2018. But above all, such a strategy sidesteps reality: if India does not find a way to power its development, while simultaneously using new technologies and implementing new strategies to reduce its carbon emissions and reverse other environmental damages, it will have a devastating impact on both the country and the world. In a world warmed more than two degrees above the pre-industrial baseline, India's development targets will never be achieved. Instead, Indians will be burdened with increased food insecurity, poverty, and disease, and bankrupted by floods, rising seas, and lost productivity. By contrast, if India is able to find solutions for sustainable development, the salutary effects can be equally profound. This is one of the mistaken assumptions about climate change, which persist in our daily discourses, including a misapprehension of the nature, speed, and severity of what is to come, as well as how it will affect our lives.

CAT-Thermometer-2018.12-3Bars.originalThe most common myth is that the climate will change slowly and predictably, and that its worst ramifications will be seen mostly far away in the polar regions. The corollary of this myth is that the worst effects will not seriously impact us. The truth we must reckon with, however, is that climate change will begin to take a toll far bleaker than unreliable monsoons and will be more calamitous than occasional floods and cyclones. The timeline for this is sooner than perhaps we have been led to imagine. Changes to the Earth’s climate are happening at an accelerated rate, compared to the estimates initially put forward by conservative policy advisors, such as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But as of the IPCC report “Global Warming of 1.5º C,” released in October 2018, even that imperturbable body has begun to register a sense of urgency, estimating that we have about eleven years to bring effective solutions to fruition, which will at the very least entail profound changes to our infrastructures and economies.

But discussions of climate change must also be couched within the context of other environmental failures. It is dangerous to focus too narrowly on this one ecological threat among the many we face. Felling great forests, diverting rivers, fragmenting grasslands and jungles, spreading monocultures—we had long ago begun to destroy our natural resources. But our destructive activities have accelerated with our booming population, intensive farming and industry. We now poison the environment with excess pharmaceuticals, plastics, heavy metals and organic effluents from industry, pesticides and chemical fertilisers from intensive farming.

Two recent books attempt to lay out the scope and timeline of the host of ecological challenges facing us. In his 2019 book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, the journalist David Wallace-Wells compiles assessments of the world’s leading climate scientists into vivid vignettes that describe the direct and indirect effects of rising heat on human society at a global scale, foregrounding the consequences we are likely to experience within the next ten or twenty years. Wallace-Wells’s book, however, does not cover other equally pressing ecological concerns, such as habitat destruction and environmental toxification. A useful complement to Wallace-Wells’s effort, then, is Meera Subramanian’s book, Elemental India: The Natural World at a Time of Crisis and Opportunity. Subramanian’s book focusses on local solutions to a variety of environmental disasters that have accumulated upon the Indian landscape over decades of overexploitation and poisoning. With the spectre of climate change hovering palpably over her investigations, Subramanian takes us into small towns and villages across the country, seeking clues that might help the world forge new ways to combat ecological crises.

UninhabitableEarth Book“IT IS WORSE, MUCH WORSE, THAN YOU THINK,” Wallace-Wells begins, tossing us into the deep end straight away. He has no time to dawdle with his message, articulating his thickly braided arguments in an urgent rush of words. His book takes apart decades of complacence, hubris, and the brittle assumptions that accompanied our growth-oriented economies, signaling the breadth of disruptions that climate change will wreak across all facets of life as we know it, uprooting lives, wrecking economies and destabilising nations. “India alone,” he tells us,

one study proposed, would shoulder nearly a quarter of the economic suffering inflicted on the entire world by climate change. In 2018, the World Bank estimated that the current path of carbon emissions would sharply diminish the living conditions of 800 million living throughout South Asia. One hundred million, they say, will be dragged into extreme poverty by climate change just over the next decade. Perhaps “back into” is more appropriate: many of the most vulnerable are those populations that have just extracted themselves from deprivation and subsistence living, through developing-world growth powered by industrialization and fossil fuel.

The scenarios that Wallace-Wells presents are not scientifically controversial, though his rhetoric is frequently startling, compared to what we normally hear from policymaking bodies or corporate news outlets. But the urgency of what scientists are actually saying is usually minimised or obfuscated in the news. Even when they report the science correctly, climate commentators often seem unwilling to connect the dots for us, or to clue us in on what precisely is at stake. The IPCC report, itself, for example, blandly concludes: “There are limits to adaptation and adaptive capacity for some human and natural systems at global warming of 1.5°C, with associated losses (medium confidence). The number and availability of adaptation options vary by sector (medium confidence).” This bloodless language cloaks the severity of its meaning. In this context, the primary value of Wallace-Wells’s book is that he reports, in a bracing, amplified tone, a corrective to the usual understatement. As he puts it, “This is not a book about the science of warming; it is about what warming means to the way we live on this planet.”

Due to global warming, the world today is already about one degree Celsius warmer than it had remained, fairly stably, for thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution. If it should warm by one more degree, Wallace-Wells tells us, “Cities now home to millions, across India and the Middle East, would become so hot that stepping outside in summer would be a lethal risk.” This is a stark way of saying, for instance, that exposure to deadly heat waves across India, already on the rise since 1950, is indicated to increase eightfold between 2021 and 2050, and nearly triple that by the end of this century. This is one conclusion reached by a 2017 paper, “Heat wave exposure in India in current, 1.5 °C, and 2.0 °C worlds,” in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The authors used the computer modeling of weather patterns to predict the local warming effects of a 1.5º or or 2º Celsius temperature rise, as it would be experienced in India. Humidity, which is commonly felt in several parts of India during certain months of the year, increases the mortality risks of heat waves.

Central and northwestern India seem to be consistently the hardest hit by heat waves, although the eastern coast and Telangana suffered an episode in 2015 that resulted in at least two and a half thousand deaths. In 2016, Kerala recorded a heat wave for the first time in its history. Unsurprisingly, increased risk of death in a heat wave is correlated with low income, but can be mitigated by interventions such as access to cooling, proper hydration and medical care. The Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology is advising the government on prediction and mitigation efforts, while the government of Andhra Pradesh is developing a concrete Heat Wave Action Plan for heat-disaster response. But more action will be needed. According to an IndiaSpend report, the number of Indians exposed to heat waves increased by 200 percent between 2012 and 2016, and India lost 75 billion hours of labour in 2017 because of the heat. Farm-labour productivity has been shown to decrease linearly as the weather gets hotter.

An additional complication is the loss of food production. International teams of scientists, published in the journals Climate and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, over the past two years, have found that in hotter weather, cereal crop yields are known to decline between 3% to 10% per degree for wheat, a little over 3% percent per degree for rice, and 7.4% for maize, given adequate water. Drought conditions or other extreme weather events can be expected to further diminish yields. In the 2018–19 crop year, India is estimated to have produced a surplus of wheat and rice at a total of about 436 grams per person per day for its population of 1.35 billion. But as monsoon cycles shift, heat waves increase and the population grows, India should not be blithely overconfident about food security at 2º of warming.

Global wheat production dropped this year—a result of droughts, heat waves and unseasonable rains that conspired to ruin harvests across northern Eurasia during the same crop year—while global wheat consumption steadily rose. Under similar conditions of shortfall in 2010, West Asia suffered a food crisis that sparked the Arab Spring, a popular uprising that led to political destabilisation. In Australia, already long hit by climate change, wheat production had remained stagnant since 1990, despite various new technologies Australian farmers have deployed to overcome it; since 2017, it has begun to decline, as have several other Australian crop yields. The United Nations reported that after years of steady decline in global malnutrition rates, the number of undernourished people began to tick upwards again for the first time in 2014. This is largely the result of climate-related events, conflict and economic slowdown in Africa and South America. In India, the steady downward trend in undernourishment has slowed in the past few years.

Meanwhile, the world’s oceans, too, are swiftly heating up. Marine biologists expect that by 2050, warm-water coral reefs will be extinguished, if nothing is done to mitigate the current trajectory of global warming. The annihilation of these coastal corals would trigger the collapse of marine food webs, affecting a quarter of the remaining life in the sea. The loss of coral ecosystems will substantially exacerbate worldwide undernourishment and hunger.

Even at the 1.5º Celsius limit of warming agreed to in Paris, extreme weather events will occur regularly, killing thousands and creating millions of refugees; sea levels will continue to rise; inhospitable air temperatures will threaten lives and productivity; global crop yields will suffer; and some ocean ecosystems will collapse. But whatever the effects at this limit, the IPCC report insists that they will be significantly less extreme than at 2º. Most importantly, limited to 1.5º, the effects may develop somewhat more slowly, hopefully allowing time for people and natural systems to adapt and better cope with their changed environments. The difference between the two extents of warming could be the difference between life and death for millions of people.

However, sticking to any temperature target requires international cooperation. It mandates achieving worldwide carbon neutrality no later than 2050. But at least one major polluting nation, the United States, led by its president Donald Trump, has explicitly reneged on the Paris Agreement. Only a handful of well-meaning nations are even on track to meet their Paris goals. In fact, global carbon emissions have continued to rise since the signing of the agreement.

Yet, even if everyone comes through on their Paris emissions commitments, this would not be enough to keep the temperature increase below 2º. The IPCC plan also recommends the deployment of novel technologies aimed at actively pulling the excess carbon out of the air. Unfortunately, these technologies remain mostly within the realm of science fiction; they do not yet exist. The most sensible of these ideas, Direct Air Capture and Sequestration, which draws excess carbon dioxide out of the air and stashes it underground, has at least been conceptually demonstrated at a pilot scale. But how well it might really work and what unintended consequences it might produce at the large scales required to make a difference remains unknown. This is perhaps the largest infrastructure project ever envisioned or undertaken in human history—requiring a distributed land footprint of 15,800 square kilometers—at phenomenal speed and astronomical expense. Nothing remotely like this has ever been attempted. And yet, we are absolutely betting our lives on it. There is a slim chance that such fabulist weather machines will be realised in time. Meanwhile, according to the IPCC projections, at our current rate of fossil-fuel combustion, we will meet the 1.5º limit sometime between 2030 and 2052—and then shoot right past it. Given the present state of affairs, there is a good probability that our world will warm by more than 2º, and potentially much more. Wallace-Wells presses this point home.

At 3º of warming, some parts of the tropical and subtropical world, possibly including India, will become so plagued by heat waves that locals could not reliably hope to accomplish outdoor labour during several months of the year, rendering them effectively uninhabitable. Southern Europe and the American midwest are expected to start drying into desert. The last time the American bread basket turned into a dust bowl, the widespread failure of crops across the region produced an economic crisis that reverberated for years and diminished US grain exports. Today, world economies are even more tightly interconnected than they were at that time, and there are billions more mouths to feed.

In a world warmed by 3º, hundreds of millions of people worldwide would be displaced. How will such a flood of migrants affect global politics? Wallace-Wells turns our attention to recent scenes of Syrians and North Africans desperately trying to escape to Europe. The roiling political upheavals that sparked the disastrous Syrian civil war were induced by climate change, by the creeping aridity across the region, leading to five years of severe drought, food stress, mass internal displacements, and then broader political unrest. There were only one million Syrian refugees, Wallace-Wells reminds us, whose desperation unfolded a gut-wrenching humanitarian crisis, even as it provoked a surge of nativist sentiments, especially across the Western world.

It is, of course, impossible to say precisely to what degree any given political event, upheaval, or migration is influenced by anthropogenic climate change. However, people do attempt it—papers produced by international teams of scientists, conclude that climate change significantly contributed to the Syrian refugee crisis. Arguments carry on about how much of the devastation of this cyclone or that flood was its direct result. Wallace-Wells suggests that these are the wrong questions to ask for our times:

For those hoping to better understand precisely how a monstrous hurricane arises out of a placid ocean, these inquiries are worthwhile, but for all practical purposes the debate yields no real meaning or insight ... But climate change is not a discrete clue we can find at the scene of a local crime—one hurricane, one heat wave, one famine, one war ... [It] is parsimonious to the point of triviality to argue over whether this one or that one was “climate-caused.” All hurricanes now unfold in the weather systems we have wrecked on their behalf, which is why there are more of them, and why they are stronger. The same is true for wildfires: this one or that one may be “caused” by a cookout or a downed power line, but each is burning faster, bigger, and longer because of global warming, which gives no reprieve to fire season. Climate change isn’t something happening here or there but everywhere, and all at once. And unless we choose to halt it, it will never stop.

Exactly how much warmer the world might become is not certain. However, scientists fear that even before it's climbed by 2º, dangerous tipping points may be triggered, leading to runaway warming that cannot be stopped by curtailing our carbon emissions. The IPCC report notes:

Marine ice sheet instability in Antarctica and/or irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet could result in multi-metre rise in sea level over hundreds to thousands of years. These instabilities could be triggered at around 1.5°C to 2°C of global warming (medium confidence)’ and ‘Limiting global warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C is projected to prevent the thawing over centuries of a permafrost area in the range of 1.5 to 2.5 million km2 (medium confidence).

That is to say, the summertime loss of the Arctic ice sheet and the rapid thawing of permafrost—two of the most concerning known tipping points—may get triggered at, or before, 2º of warming. When the Arctic ice is gone, the heat of the summer sun falling directly onto open Arctic waters will accelerate warming, leading to swifter losses of ice from Greenland and Antarctica. Then the sun will directly strike the black earth of these great land masses, even further accelerating global warming. This would create a positive feedback loop of rising heat. Similarly, if the vast stretches of permafrost ringing the Arctic thaw very quickly and deeply, this will release massive and unpredictable quantities of methane currently sequestered below. As a greenhouse gas, methane is many times more potent than carbon dioxide. The rapid release of methane will further accelerate warming, leading to even more permafrost thaw, releasing even more methane. If these tipping points are triggered, the warming will spiral beyond the scenarios discussed in the IPCC reports.

Arctic July 2019The summer Arctic ice sheet is already melting away. Today, only a quarter of the volume of ice remains, compared to fifty years ago. Permafrost, too, is already thawing and leaking methane, particularly from a region called the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. The known unknowns are how soon the summer Arctic ice will be gone—likely within the next five years—and how rapidly or abruptly methane will bubble out of the melted permafrost. In a situation of runaway warming, the global temperature could quickly begin to rise by more than 4º.

Human life would likely be a struggle at 4º of warming, with most people living at high latitudes, on pristine lands newly freed of ice and permafrost, repeatedly buffeted by violent storms and wildfires. We would have to relearn how to feed ourselves on what might feel almost like a different planet. For perspective, consider that the last time the Earth was 4º colder than our pre-industrial baseline was about twenty thousand years ago. We were in the middle of an ice age, when tremendous sheets of ice, kilometres thick, stretched across the continents, from the poles into the middle latitudes. And the last time Earth was 4º warmer, beech trees grew in the Antarctic. That was five million years ago, when no humans yet lived on Earth.

If these are the stakes, we must do everything within our power to prevent runaway warming. But unless and until runaway warming is triggered, the very fact that human activity is the cause of the changing climate, and we are aware of it, gives Wallace-Wells reason to argue that we can stop it.

This is what it means to live beyond the “end of nature”—that it is human action that will determine the climate of the future, not systems beyond our control. And it’s why, despite the unmistakable clarity of the predictive science, all of the tentative sketches of climate scenarios that appear in this book are so oppressively caveated with possiblys and perhapses and conceivablys. The emergent portrait of suffering is, I hope, horrifying. It is also, entirely, elective. If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have chosen that punishment—collectively walking down a path of suicide. If we avert it, it will be because we have chosen to walk a different path, and endure.

Elemental India BookTHE SLIM GOOD NEWS is that there are those who are forging alternate paths. Meera Subramanian’s book shows us several examples of holistic and environmentally centred thinking that ought to, ideally, be adopted across all sectors in order to achieve sustainability. Drawn to stories of people who attempt bold solutions to avoid the more glaring mistakes of our past ecological trajectory, Subramanian reports on their successes, failures, ongoing battles, and hopes. The problems she reports are great: soil depletion and toxification, water table losses, air pollution, the extinction of the vultures and overpopulation. The initiatives she documents are undertaken by people hailing from various corners of the country, including farmers from Punjab, village activists from Rajasthan, wildlife workers from Uttar Pradesh and homemakers in the villages of Maharashtra. Subramanian focusses largely on the journeys of these individuals and what they have learned, their attempts at innovative solutions and the things that inspire them. From this, she maps a different way of addressing environmental issues, leaving aside the mindset of actuarial efficiency and the central control of distant resources, as practised by modern states. Instead, she outlines grassroots ideas that are based largely upon local knowledge and experience, socially equitable, and sustainable. The solutions are also not without their limits and caveats, which, to her credit, Subramanian never sidesteps.

When Subramanian discusses overpopulation, for instance, it is not about population control or family planning. She gives us the profile of a young Bihari woman, Pinki Kumar, whose life illustrates the challenges and contradictions facing Indian women today. Kumar teaches village teenagers—girls and boys—about reproductive and sexual health and encourages them to speak up for themselves, to resist the pressures of marriage, and to stay in school. While Kumar worked with Pathfinder International, a non-profit running a small project in rural Bihar, near Patna, her efforts made a difference in the lives of the locals, even though cultural challenges remained, particularly around the changing self-perceptions of rural women, vis-à-vis men, work, and family. “I was drawn to Bihar to explore population, but it was power I found at play,” Subramanian writes. “Pathfinder was bringing health and education, power masked, to a new generation. And power is political. My new question became: Is it finite? Is one person’s gain necessarily another person’s loss?” Like the other stories Subramanian tells in her book, the answers are not simple. It is well known by now that the most effective way to slow population growth is to empower and educate women, and for Subramanian, the liberation of women in India is always inseparable from the goal of finding new modes of environmental stewardship.

The story Subramanian recounts about water-system rejuvenation is the most inspiring part of her book. In Rajasthan, where the drilling of borewells since the 1960s quickly drained the underground aquifers that took hundreds of years to fill, locals have more recently been building rainwater catchments, or johads, and planting trees to revive the landscape. Subramanian’s reporting focusses on Alwar District, where the movement began with the work of Rajendra Singh and his organisation, the Tarun Bharat Sangh. She tells us similar schemes have been realised across 12 other districts of Rajasthan. In Bhaonta village, villagers voluntarily undertook the hefty and laborious johad building schemes, beginning in the mid 1980s and requiring decades to complete. But their efforts have paid off. Several villages have replenished their water tables enough to return to farming, which they had abandoned, and find an increased measure of prosperity. Women, many of whom who had been forced to travel great distances to carry water, have been freed up from this chore. These rainwater catchment schemes are a revival of old knowledge and practices that were lost with centralised planning and modern bureaucracies that seek to regulate water usage from afar. Subramanian explains,

Whether the ILR or mega dams, with size comes bureaucracy. The larger a water system, the greater the institution needed to fund, construct, and manage it. Historically, public works departments replaced people, and not only did neighbors no longer come together to maintain the waters they depended on, they were often forbidden from doing so. Instead, they paid taxes. Radically new ideas—that rivers could be owned, that land could be taken through eminent domain—evolved, and the usufruct that embodies the spirit of the commons, in which all villagers had rights to the use of trees, plants, and animals of their shared lands, withered. …

The people of Bhaonta had been hassled by bureaucrats in the years leading up to international awards for their technically illegal efforts at dam-building in the common spaces, though it was the same work they would have been obligated, as citizens of their local communities, to do two hundred years earlier, with the full support of their ruling royalty.

This grand failure of large regional or national schemes to manage local resources, such as building dams, in contrast to the success of localised rehabilitation projects, such as the building of johads, is one that echoes again in Subramanian’s story about the long-term benefits and costs of the Green Revolution versus farming on more traditional practices. The new methods of modern, intensive agriculture introduced to India by the American agronomist Norman Borlaug in the 1960s finally ended the episodes of famine that have been a regular feature of Indian history until as recently as 1943, when millions perished from hunger in Bengal (compounded by political failures of the British government). The benefits were rapid and unimpeachable. And yet, Subramanian avers, the unaccounted costs of these methods were only delayed. They are not sustainable. In the long term, yields have stagnated while the population continues to grow. Farmers are bonded into cycles of debt. What is more, India did not, in the end, become self-sufficient.

In 1967, millions of Indians relied on foreign aid to eat, but by 1991 India was more than self-sufficient in food production, having doubled its agricultural returns during the 1970s and 1980s because of Green Revolution methods. Yields of rice and wheat multiplied. But imports had not ceased. They had merely shifted form. Instead of foodstuffs, India brought in foreign fuel, farm equipment, fertilizers, chemicals, and seeds. The research and development behind each new advance came from outside of India’s borders. Is India’s much lauded achievement of food self-­sufficiency a deception, her reliance on food imports swapped for an addiction to fertilizers and patented seeds that must be purchased from abroad season after season?

All this, even while farm workers were becoming ill from the poisons they worked with. Their soil is long since depleted. Insect populations and other natural life are disappearing. Subramanian also suggests that the spate of farmer suicides in recent years is a direct response to the costs and debts created by these farming methods. However, she never clearly links the suicides of farmers in Andhra Pradesh with the economic situation of the Punjabi farmers she profiles, nor does she cite any suicides among the Punjabi farmers, who first eagerly took up the new farming methods.

Nevertheless, the thrust of Subramanian’s investigation centres upon the damage to human health and ecological integrity of the land from using chemical poisons to fertilise and treat crops for pests, and the ways multinational suppliers of patented seeds and chemicals put farmers in a position of economic dependence. She demonstrates how the Green Revolution had repercussions far beyond higher yields, changing almost everything about farmers’ lives, for both the better and the worse. One of Subramanian’s informants, the farmer Amarjit Sharma, says, “Agribusiness is a mental and intellectual and ecological colonization. The Green Revolution brought so many changes to farming. Not just the chemicals, but the whole entry of commercial banking, of tractors and diesel and banks and technology.”

The Sharmas, alongside growing numbers of other farmers in Punjab, decided to return to organic farming. Each farmer had their own reasons for attempting what proved to be a terrible challenge. Every organic farm Subramanian visited reported that the initial years without applying chemicals were lean; yields fell dismally. But after around the fourth year, as they carefully nurtured their soils back to health and fecundity, yields began to climb again. Subramanian profiles several farmers in her report, and those who came from a knowledgeable background with generational experience in farming were all finding success in their efforts—despite the fact that they had to rediscover traditional farming methods that had fallen out of practice generations before.

Still, theirs is a qualified success. None of these organic farms had achieved yields on par with those using industrial-farming methods. And organic farm work proved more labour intensive. However, without the increased input costs of industrial farming, their financials were not suffering; they had become self-sufficient and took great satisfaction from the work they were now doing. When Subramanian asked whether they believed organic farming could produce enough to feed the nation, some were absolutely confident that it could, while others were equally confident that organic farming alone would fall somewhere short.

Some of the farmers point out that part of the problem is a lack of institutional support for organic farming, such as what has historically accrued to industrial farmers. “Farmers growing chemically get subsidies,” the farmer Vinod Jyani told her. “I don’t get any subsidies.” Subramanian adds,

Why are there no vegetable subsidies? This is a complaint of vegetable farmers in the United States as well, where farm policy leans heavily toward supporting commodity crops such as soybeans, wheat, cotton, and corn, the bulk of which are grown to feed livestock or make corn syrup. Meanwhile fruits and vegetables, the healthy part of the food pyramid, are waylaid, labeled “specialty crops.”

Organic farmers also suffer from a lack of research support. Subramanian points out,

There are eighty-two thousand paid agricultural scientists in all of India, [Vinod Jyani] told me, and 99 percent of them are doing chemical farming research. There is no one to lead research for organic farming. It was a complaint Rachel Carson had made half a century earlier, when she reported in Silent Spring that 98 percent of American economic entomologists in 1960 were researching chemical insecticides.

Subramanian does her best to chase down a solid, evidence-based answer to the question of whether organic farming could sufficiently provide for India’s growing population. Sadly, she finds only that the question remains understudied and data is lacking. While anecdotal and some experimental evidence does suggest that organic farming can produce much more than many of us might have presumed, there is no certain evidence that this alone could feed the present population of India, or the world—leave alone the nine billion people forecasters expect to be present by mid-century.

But then again, there is every chance that our mid-century world will be a different place than most population forecasters presume. Population projections do not account for mounting environmental crises and their repercussions. Over the coming decades, the primary modes of food production—farming and harvesting from the seas—are expected to decline, rather than intensify. And given that we may inhabit environments very different from today, it is reasonable to imagine that the world will not accrue those additional 1.5 billion people on the expected timeline. Though polite society makes a business of denying it, it is time to acknowledge that the world has already exceeded its human carrying capacity. For decades now, our numbers have been a stress on planetary systems; long ago, our resource consumption and waste products began to perturb the balance of its intricate connections and cycles.

Consider that today 36 percent of all the mammals on Earth, by mass, are human beings. Our domesticated animals, including the cows and pigs destined for slaughter, make up another 60 percent. That leaves a mere four percent of mammalian biomass to account for all the wild mammals—every last remaining elephant and whale, rhino and rat and manatee, monkey, moose, and thousands more. In fact, we humans and our livestock outweigh all the reptiles, amphibians, and birds, combined. Our bloated human population is unnaturally skewing and destabilising the Earth’s ecological systems. We keep insisting that the Earth can maintain more people because we have always been able to increase our food production to keep up. But that is a falsehood buoyed by a woefully incomplete framing of the problem. There has been a lag of some decades, but now we begin to feel the tremors our collective burden has triggered. As living systems collapse around us, threatening to destroy us too, we must confront the fact that our current population is unsustainable.

NONE OF SUBRAMANIAN’S FINDINGS on organic farming, or any of the other issues she tackles, furnish complete answers or solutions. Organic farming faces technical hurdles and limits to its productivity. Water harvesting and aquifer replenishment using johads raise political questions around water rights and civic cooperation. The burden of overpopulation remains mired in cultural attitudes around the control of women and their fertility. Nature-conservation efforts, such as those she describes in the attempt to revive the Indian vulture populations, are stymied by ignorance and apathy about the natural world among the general population. But the difficulty of the solutions should not surprise us. The truth is that complex questions of human wellbeing and sustainability have no straightforward or simple answers that can be uniformly applied across every environment. Every technology or intervention has a cost, and the costs of past attempts to streamline all processes into engines of efficient extraction are now taking their toll. This is the legacy of asking only the first question and being satisfied with the simple answer, without looking at long-term environmental or social costs.

What Subramanian highlights is the astonishing power of small groups and individuals who are invested in their local commons and empowered to control their own destinies. Like Vandana Shiva and other environmental activists, she underscores the relevance of traditional knowledge, which can be coupled with modern science to produce more sustainable, locally tailored techniques and technologies that go a great distance towards improving lives, even while there remains a desperate need for sensitive regulation and enforcement. As Subramanian puts it, “Think neither Jawaharlal Nehru’s monolithic top-down industrialization nor Gandhi’s austere romantic agrarian ideal. Instead, draw the best from both.”

Draw the best from all solutions, wherever they are found, localise them, and continue to rediscover and innovate in all areas—resource acquisition, productivity, governance. Keep asking the next question instead of accepting the facile answer that leaves off the messy parts as “externalities” to our efficiency equations. We must learn to optimise for sustainability alongside productivity—instead of merely maximising output and corporate returns, as we currently do. There is no question that this will be difficult, given all of the social, governmental and economic structures that are in place. It would be revolutionary, but it may also be what will prove necessary.

Meanwhile, in the more prosaic world of the old paradigms, what is India doing to address sustainability? The story here shows a very mixed record over the past decade, under both the Congress-led and BJP-led governments. Even while resisting cooperation on reducing emissions, it was Manmohan’s Singh’s government that created the Clean Environment—formerly Clean Energy, or Coal—Cess in 2010, which was widely hailed as a disincentive for the use of coal power. However, though it is supposed to be based on the “polluter pays” principle, it was criticised for missing the mark, since coal-mining companies could ultimately shift this cost onto ordinary consumers, suffering nothing themselves. The consumer would have no other options in the market but to continue buying more expensive coal energy. As such, it seems a half-baked scheme, though not entirely without merit. The BJP government doubled the Coal Cess in 2016.

The funds generated by this scheme are supposed to accrue in the non-lapsable National Clean Energy and Environment Fund, intended to support the development of renewable and clean energy technologies, as well as other environmental schemes, including Smart City development and solid-waste management. But of the money collected since 2010, less than 29% was ever credited to the fund, and only a fraction of that has been put toward the intended programmes—the whereabouts of the rest of the monies are unknown. The remaining funds have been put towards unrelated goals, depleting the NCEF of funds to support environmental initiatives, going forward. This redirection of the funds intended for environmental concerns contradicts whatever appeasing words the government might make about cleaning, greening, and cutting emissions in India.

At the same time, expansion of renewable energy sources has been steady under the Modi government. During its tenure, renewable energy has grown by 47%, while coal-based thermal energy has expanded by 18 percent. The use of coal is still increasing and is expected to double by 2040—along with its associated doubling of greenhouse emissions. This is true even as seven new nuclear power plants are slated to come online by 2026—a rate of growth that is too little, too slow. Based on the 2017 Energizing India report by the NITI Aayog, which analysed several possible economic scenarios to estimate India’s energy mix by 2047, the best-case projection is that coal will still make up at least 38 percent of total electricity generation while renewables account for only 26 percent and nuclear does not exceed two percent.

The alternate projections are even bleaker. The report states that an additional 26 percent of our electricity would come from natural gas, which is also a fossil fuel, though less polluting than coal. This response is far from adequate. Instead, nuclear energy in India needs to ramp up faster, since renewables alone will not be able to make up for the decline of fossil fuel energy, if India hopes to completely phase out coal, oil, and gas by 2050, as the recent IPCC report recommends.

Climate HockeyStick GraphThe current plan, however, is helping to reduce India’s emission rate relative to its growing gross domestic product (emissions intensity), so that it remains in keeping with its Paris climate commitments. This modest achievement is why India is one of merely a handful of nations who have earned an acceptable report card from the Climate Action Tracker, a forum conducting independent analysis carried out by three research organisations. But this is no cause for celebration. The Paris commitments, it should be remembered, are insufficient to keep the global average temperature well below 2º of warming. And changes to the energy grid do not help to rid us of fossil fuels burned for transportation, until our vehicles are entirely converted to an electric fleet. But the Energizing India report was produced before the IPCC’s latest call to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, and we can only hope that the government will swiftly adjust its goals, accordingly. Moreover, all of these developments should be regarded as merely stepping stones. No single energy or transportation strategy will be a magic pill to save the planet. Civilisation and economies must be continuously evolving to adapt to a different world, a different way of thinking and creating.

Furthermore, it bears repeating that climate is not the only environmental issue of concern. Coal, quite apart from producing greenhouse gases, produces particulates that endanger human health. Increased coal mining and burning will exacerbate the already unacceptable levels of air pollution common across north India. Every year, the damage in lives, livelihoods and health due to particulate air pollution costs India 3% of its GDP—a concern that does not seem to figure commensurately into the government’s calculations or development concerns, going by the current plans for coal expansion. As the government increases funds towards exploration for coal, it has simultaneously reduced associated funds for conservation, safety and infrastructure development in coal mines. And while the government did recently undertake to plant a million trees across India in a single day—a world record—in order to offset carbon emissions (but not particulate air pollution), this is no equivalent to regeneration or preservation of natural forest areas, in terms of protecting biodiversity. Other areas of environmental concern are also lagging, including the cleanup and regeneration of rivers and other natural waterways. Nor is there much dialogue around the environmental degradation caused by intensive farming or the benefits of rainwater harvesting or expansion of the johad system.

There is so much more that India can do: Overhaul the transportation sector by providing incentives for the adoption of electric vehicles and public transportation, simultaneously dis-incentivise fossil-fuel-burning vehicles, and vastly expand public transportation and walkable city infrastructures. All these measures have been suggested, but have generated no political will. Provide all households with stable electricity from a cleaner grid for cooking, while phasing out the liquefied-petroleum-gas cylinder system, rather than expanding it, as according to current plans. Harvest rainwater and liberate the flow of rivers to restore wetlands and the natural flows of silt, nutrients, and wildlife. One laudable achievement has been the conversion of the Delhi metro to solar power and the solar-powered airport in Kochi. But these isolated achievements should not stand alone; they should be models taken on by others around the country. Development must be conceived within the context of sustainability: cleaning the environment, re-wilding spaces, and more rapidly reducing the use of fossil fuels across all sectors. Since India is still building its infrastructure, it has the chance to leapfrog the mistakes of the West, and switch to clean infrastructure for its transportation and energy utilities. All of this is technology that is operational today and can be implemented within the remaining eleven-year window—unlike DACS technology, which we cannot be left to depend upon. Subramanian suggests, “India has an opportunity not only to construct a path forward of its own making but also to create one that the United States, China, and other countries can follow to effectively address the compromises of the Green Revolution, the disruptions of mega dams, the thirst of landscapes in drought.”

And it is not only Subramanian who is looking in this direction. This bold imagination is becoming more commonplace, as more people reckon with the possible futures bearing down on us. In 2016, Stuart Scott, who runs the organisation Scientists Warning, under the aegis of the Alliance of World Scientists, addressed the United Nations Climate Conference, COP-22, where he encouraged attendees to pursue ecological economics, founded upon the premise that natural resources are finite, and that economic activity should not overwhelm ecology. It is worth evaluating what new possibilities this zero-growth economic paradigm might avail for us and the world.

In the face of the challenges facing the communities she studied, Subramanian at times felt despair. Yet awed by the courage and resilience of so many she encountered, she writes,

As I traveled across the subcontinent, I asked nearly everyone I met, “Do you have hope?” I asked the biologists Munir and Patrick as we sipped tea sitting along the shores of a lake in Rajasthan. I asked activists I met in Bengaluru and epidemiologists from Chennai. I asked Pinki and Binod in the car heading back to Patna and farmers as we sat in fields in Punjab. A few offered an unequivocal yes, others a resounding no, but most often I received halting replies as people desperately tried to fashion optimistic (but not always convincing) answers.

In Rajasthan, something changed…. I realized I had been asking the wrong question all along.

I was using hope as a noun when I should have been using it as a verb, as something active and ongoing. I was using hope as a thing to be possessed, something you either had or lacked. Instead of asking, “Do you have hope?” I should have been asking, “Do you hope?” ….

To hope is also to act, and now is India’s time for action. Now is the moment to build a new economy that cultivates the country’s people and also safeguards its irreplaceable natural resources.


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