Recycling and speed limits

“Recycling and speed limits are bull-shit. They’re like someone who quits smoking on his death-bed.” — Fight Club

The environmental movement has largely run out of ideas. Every time I remove my phone from its charger, the screen pops up a message that says, “Unplug your charger from the mains to save power.” Is this what the environmental movement has reduced to?

Someone said, in a blog I read long back, that even if all of us recycled and used paper instead of plastic and jogged instead of taking a car and used solar power and all of that jazz, we would still need 7 earths to satiate our consumption cravings. What can we do?

What, indeed. I think this is a problem that some economist is working on somewhere, for which he (or she) will win a Nobel Prize some day. The battle for the environment cannot, must not, be fought on the battleground of public relations. It is an economic dilemma and a thermodynamic dilemma1, and that is where we need to tackle it.

I find that a lot of people use environmental activism as an emotional band-aid, to make themselves feel good that they are doing *something* for the environment when they unplug their chargers. That’s because they’re too scared to make real changes in their lives: like not having children (which remains the only socially acceptable way of population control), or turning vegetarian, or buying only locally available food, or de-urbanization.

If I was an economist, I would first fix the rewards system that encourages environmental pillage. For example, what determines the cost of coal today? On the supply side, I would say, primarily the cost of extraction and distribution: labor, energy, infrastructure. The fact that coal is non-renewable, and ‘belongs’ to the land from which it is taken without compensation, does not figure in the economics of coal mining. That makes it a commodity, and economies are lauded for extracting and using huge quantities of coal ‘efficiently’, without quantifying the cost of making the coal in the first place. The economies of pricing commodities in the market today are equivalent to the economies of pricing stolen goods.

I have been thinking about energy pricing, or entropy pricing, as a more accurate way of capturing the true ‘cost’ of goods. Do you think it would make sense, for example, if the Gibbs Free Energy of a product was used to calculate an environmental tax on it?

I have read a few essays of C V Seshadri and perhaps they are a good system for integrating the economics of environmental conservation with the thermodynamics of it. I wish I could lay my hands on more of the work of that great scientist of Chennai, who, unfortunately, drowned in mysterious circumstances several years ago.

Land ownership is my other big peeve. I’ve been re-reading P Sainath, and he claims, time after time, that the adivasis who live off the land, off the forest, have a lifestyle that is perfectly sustainable – they take what they need, and they know that if they over-graze or otherwise over-exploit the environment, they can’t just move off onto the next ‘growth industry’. Capital is too fungible  today; money earned from coal mining can be used to pay for food, clothes, private jets, investments into internet companies, music and philanthropy. This is a level of freedom of use of capital which is denied to the forest dweller, and therefore, he is more accountable to the forest.

More and more, I hold the economists and thermodynamicists responsible for getting us into the environmental mess we are in today, and they need to fix what they broke. Not us engineers.


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