View: We must understand relationship between economy and ecology

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We have broken the planet. Climate change and its impacts thankfully are no longer a question of debate. We are now understanding reality as Earth moves towards all the scenarios climate models long predicted — extreme weather, crop losses, flooding, droughts, zoonotic diseases and mutating viruses, the extinction of species, ecosystem collapses, distress migrations and…

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We have broken the planet. Climate change and its impacts thankfully are no longer a question of debate. We are now understanding reality as Earth moves towards all the scenarios climate models long predicted — extreme weather, crop losses, flooding, droughts, zoonotic diseases and mutating viruses, the extinction of species, ecosystem collapses, distress migrations and potentially, conflicts.

Sounds apocalyptic? Really, it’s only just getting started. This trajectory is also logical, given that we are living in conflict with everything that created and sustained life on this planet. We’ve built our economies and, as Yuval Noah Harari describes it, our myths of growth and progress atop what we imagined to be an infinite ecosystem. All our activities exploit natural resources at scale and create waste that’s unusable by anything in nature. Of course, nature will arrive at a new equilibrium — only this might not work for homo sapiens. It is imperative therefore that we grasp the limited opportunity we still have to correct our self-destructive ways.

Nithin Kamath, CEO, Zerodha


“As Yuval Harari describes it, we built our myths of progress atop what we saw as an infinite ecosystem. Today, that attitude of unceasing extraction threatens humanity”

— Infinite Ecosystem

This is not an abstract argument — the damage we are doing already encompasses our economies. Studies estimate the economic cost of climate change to be over ten percent of global GDP — research finds India may have already experienced a 30% loss of GDP because of climate impacts. Indeed, with less resilient systems, poorer countries could suffer a 25% higher impact due to climate change compared to richer economies. It is therefore both in our existential and economic interests that we rebuild the ecological foundation our lives depend on.

This won’t be simple. Our economies are large, complex networks of interdependent nodes, representing production, jobs, services, logistics, energy generation, etc. Each solution can address a few nodes at a time. There are no silver bullets, but this much is clear — just like diversity is critical for a healthy natural world, we need a forest of ideas and approaches, many adapted to local contexts.

Some solutions come to mind immediately. We need rapid, scaled rewilding and conservation of the existing wild. Yet, at an India scale, these solutions currently represent only five percent of the land area. Hence, at Rainmatter Foundation, we envision this as creating a little more forest everywhere — this means supporting farms with agroforestry to creating community forests.

Similarly, we must address how we grow and transport our food, focusing on improving soil health and biodiversity — this needs reducing the use of plastic packaging, substitution with materials that compost easily, more efficient energy and water usage, counting the miles invested in everything that’s produced and transported and looking at all production and packaging through the lens of a circular economy. Rainmatter Foundation is funding ideas, research and messaging that help achieve all of these.

Even more importantly, we must understand the relationship between the economy and the ecological services it depends on for its continuity. An urban hub like Bangalore won’t be able to write much code for the world if we run out of water and clean air. Many of our assumptions are currently rooted in ecological abundance — it is critical to question these. Our economic principles undervalue what is abundant, from the plants in our gardens to water running freely in streams. Yet, knowing the tremendous ecosystem services these provide, from creating fresh air to generating our food, can we really claim these have little or no value?

Sameer Shisodia, co-founder, The Farming Collective


“Facing strong scientific data, we can no longer destroy 99.5% of our ecology while attempting a few band-aid solutions. We need to question our idea of growth itself”

— Cant Destroy Ecology

Resolving our economic understandings is essential i f we are to value forests left undisturbed, healthy soil and clean air, at least at the same level as the economic activities that seek to convert these to money. It’s time we recognise that our economies are a subset of our ecology, and not the other way around.

This is everyone’s responsibility — leaving this to CSR-funded fixes at two percent of profits won’t cut it. In the face of powerful scientific data today, we can no longer blithely continue to destroy 99.5% of our ecology, while attempting a few bandaid solutions here and there. Over the last generation, we have scaled the extraction that caused immense ecological damage — but we have also realised the problems we’ve built.

The solutions are myriad and will take time and sustained effort, but we can start with setting better goals than we grew up with. Part of the solution will need limiting our growth targets — sensible growth and even degrowth have to become part of the conversation. This will help us reorient calculations such as the efficiency and emissions goals for energy utilities and not just revenue generation. Perhaps this will be the toughest challenge for individuals, organisations and countries to whom ‘growth’ has become an unquestioned holy grail.

Yet, it is this one change that holds the key to healing our ecology — and strengthening our own continuity.

(Views expressed are personal)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)

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