I find myself getting more and more depressed as I read reports of preparations for the Conference on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to be held in Paris at the end of the year. The tu-tu-main-main, tit for tat arguments go on, with every nation trying to protect its right to continue growing energy-overload, consumption-centred, nature-extractive economies. US President Barack Obama has made a concession by announcing national standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants but this has been dismissed by The Economist as “Necessarily pragmatic and tellingly modest”.
Anyhow, America’s politics might well derail the implementation of those standards. Arvind Subramanian, chief economic adviser, is recommending India distances itself from its traditional allies, the poor, to join hands with other coal-rich nations in order to protect the extraction of that, the dirtiest of fuels. According to Shyam Sharan, who was former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s advisor on climate change, the Paris convention is unlikely to achieve its target of keeping the global temperature’s rise below two degrees.
In all this bargaining, the root cause of climate change has been ignored, and that’s why I am depressed. That cause is economics based on the concept that we humans are lords of the world and so we can do what we will with everything in it. These economics have arisen from an attitude to nature which Rabindranath Tagore pointed out is different from India’s tradition. The polymath said, “The west seems to take pride in thinking that it’s subduing nature as if we are living in a hostile world where we have to wrest everything we want from an unwilling and alien arrangement of things. India puts all her emphasis on the harmony that exists between the individual and the universal.”
Climate change has been created by subduing nature. We treated air as a garbage dump because we didn’t consider the need to live harmoniously with it. Deforesting the land, obliterating our fellow species and denuding the sea of fish are only three of many more examples of our hostility to nature.
This hostility underpins the dominant school of economics. But there are many economists who, seeing the result of following the dominant school, disagree with it. One of the world’s leading experts on sustainable development, Jeffrey Sachs, has described America’s economy as ‘an economy of hype, debt, and waste, that has achieved economic growth and high incomes at the cost of extreme in income inequality ...’
The western attitude to nature Tagore describes has led to the climate crisis. This attitude is often blamed on Christianity with its tradition that God has given humans dominion over his creation. But now in a historic encyclical little noticed in India, Pope Francis has brought the Roman Catholic Church round to the traditional Indian point of view. He has said Christians who interpret the biblical creation story to justify dominion over the world are wrong. We should “speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relations with the world”, Pope Francis says.
Something very similar was said by the Jan Sangh ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyay, whose thinking is influential in the BJP and admired by many outside that party. He believed independent India should aim at “the creation of a Bharat which will enable every citizen to achieve a sense of unity with the entire creation”.
In his recent book India 2050, A Roadmap to Sustainable Prosperity, the economist Ramgopal Agarwala has pointed out the “earth’s natural resources are just not enough for 1.5 billion Indians consuming nature’s resources at the rate that is done in today’s high-income countries”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi regards Upadhyay as the Yug Purush, the man of the age. He should have the support of his colleagues in the BJP and the RSS because, as Tagore pointed out, he would be following the Indian tradition. But the arguments in the run-up to the Paris conference indicate that once again the chance to use the climate crisis as an opportunity will be lost — an opportunity to get people to at least think that maybe they would be happier if their lifestyle did not consume so much of nature’s resources, if they became her friend rather than her enemy.
The author's views expressed are personal.