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Book review: The Third Curve

india Updated: Dec 07, 2013 10:42 IST
Prerna Bindra
Prerna Bindra
Hindustan Times
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When a Bollywood celebrity — albeit one who has opted for the utopian existence of living (organically) off the land — pens a tome on ‘the end of growth’, it is met with cynicism: What would he know? Plenty, it appears. The Third Curve is not a whimsical dabble in something profound. It, in fact, challenges the foundation of the “sacrosanct paradigm of modern economics, namely perpetual growth”, carrying the grim message of the limits of growth. Economics, writes the author, makes the grandiose assumption that our finite planet is bestowed with limitless resources, which are ours to exploit. This assumption held its ground for over a century as the world’s resources were plundered for modern industrial development. We have now used up more than half of the world’s resources including oil, the key ingredient which drives the industrial world, and the economy. Within 150 years of its ‘discovery’ in 1850, half the reserve of fossil fuels accumulated over 150 million years has been exhausted. Considering that about 85 per cent of the energy that runs industries today comes from fossil fuels, it is clear that we are in trouble. To drive home the point of our oil dependency, Khan gives an exhaustive list of oil byproducts that include everything from diesel, lipsticks and pens to refrigerant and batteries.

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According to the geoscientist M King Hubbert (1903-1989), the rate of oil production resembled a bell curve where the maximum rate of extraction or ‘The Peak’ happens at the mid-way point after which production only declines. World oil production, says the author, peaked in 2005 and this is linked to the decline in the global economy. It heralds the end of growth, spelling financial catastrophe. The 2008 collapse of the global financial markets was the direct consequence of ignoring oil, earth’s key and most precious resource.

Khan takes us through the three phases since the discovery of oil: the first, the honeymoon period when the sky was the limit lasted till the 1960s, followed by ecological breakdown, population explosion, forest depletion, polluted airs, rivers, soils, toxics in food and water, cancer, and global warming. We tried to ‘save’ the environment, clean our technology and use CFC bulbs even as we raced on the path of economic growth, which was expected to resolve it all. Only it didn’t. For the ecological crisis is linked to the current economic crisis rising taxes, sharp inflation even in most basic necessities — food, real estate, sky rocketing rises in the price of energy — and its consequences of greater inequity. This is because, ultimately, the bedrock of economic growth rests on resources which we presume are infinite, but unfortunately are not. Prescriptions to revive the economy have failed as the basis of growth, the premise of infinite supplies of a cheap energy, is false. Nor, are alternative fuels the answer, as these are also dependent on byproducts of fossil fuels.The author believes the problem is that we are in denial mode. The sharpest denial, not unexpectedly, comes from those in the know — the oil industry, energy organisations and even the media. But the truth is out there. The author counters the denial with credible reports estimating the decline of existing oil production capacity and its impact on our economies.

Most of us know Khan as a successful Bollywood filmmaker, who launched his cousin Aamir Khan in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, and made Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. Most of us will wish that he had stuck to his frothy romances rather than the grim reality he now presents. The good part about a celeb authoring such a book is that is saved from being relegated to the recesses of bookshops and libraries. The Third Curve has grabbed the limelight, earned critical space in the media, and gained a wider audience. Khan will manage to sustain the interest, as he has not only argued his case well, but has retained his art of storytelling, and manages to tell a rather bleak story in a simple manner. There is no note of hysteria or overstatement. Khan’s premise is based on logic, his arguments have clarity, he has researched extensively, and then communicated in a manner that is easy to understand.

Khan’s Third Curve is the way forward. But this is not an easy one. To think small and local, instead of big and global; to think steady instead of growth might be viewed as simplistic and idealistic. That could be the weak link in the book, for though the author makes a convincing case, this aspect needed to be dealt with more convincingly. One can predict the backlash this one will generate, but even the worst critics, have not shied away from the fact of an energy crisis. The book is sure to generate a debate — and that will be its biggest contribution. Prerna Bindra is a conservationist and trustee, ‘Bagh’. She is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife)