Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Balancing between Conservation and Consumption

The Elusive Line
I remember, with a sense of luxury, that when I was in Roorkee for my masters, I used to bathe 4 times a day during summer. It used to get hot and humid. And water was in plenty, the geographical belt being in the proximity of Ganges. Having been brought up in a family where wasting anything -- water, electricity, money, time, food, words -- would meet strong reprimand, I often would wonder if it was right to bathe 4 times a day. Somewhere, I had come across one of those articles (with a photograph) of women in Rajasthan walking miles for a potful of water that was all they would have to meet the needs of the entire family for the next couple of days. My trips to the bathroom would be accompanied with pictures of those ladies floating in my mind. Those baths were a relief from the summer, I would say. But they happened with a sense of guilt.

With many words about the inconvenient truth of climate change and pollution being spoken all the time these days, no act of resource consumption remain guilt free for me. Taking out the car, sitting in an air-conditioned office, taking a flight instead of a train, travelling in an AC compartment instead of sleeper class -- I do all of them; and I do them all always with a pinch of guilt.

There are some people very good at never giving this issue a thought. For example, someone once suggested an ingenious method of getting a steam bath at home to my wife: Turn on the water heater in bathroom. Let the shower run. After 5 minutes, the whole bathroom gets filled with a thick clowd of steam. No second thoughts given to wasting 50-100 litres of well-heated water. Offsprings of rich people would obviously be born into conditions where consumption per person is high. Their upbringing would preclude the possibility of their ever coming across the possibility of a life that subsists on less resources without necessarily losing any of its essential value. However, interestingly, we see many people from very modest economic background, upgrading themselves beautifully as their financial condition looks up. For them, the only reason for consuming less could be the unaffordability of higher levels of consumption. Of course, you would travel in a plane if given a choice. Of course, you would prefer a car to a 2-wheeler, if you could. Of course, you would never again visit your old mess if you could afford a 5-star meal.

And then there are people who take the other extreme view where any consumption is viewed as a sin. At the pinnacle, there are Jain Digambars who do not wear clothes. And, in our history, particularly in the oriental society, we have umpteem examples of people who have hailed the virtue of simple living and high thinking: Sages who stayed in ashramas; fakirs and Gurus like Guru Nanak, Kabir, Sai Baba; philanthropists like Baba Amte; Leaders like Gandhi; business people like JRD Tata, Jamnalal Bajaj and so on.

It doesn't seem to be the case that there is any strong correlation between the value of an individual in the society to which of the above two extremes he is closer to. There are valuable personalities who led an affluent life; and there are always those who consume like blackholes without ever creating anything of value in their lives. Similarly, there are luminous figures who led simple lives and changed the world; and there are those who, by worrying and fretting -- and most importantly lecturing and bullying -- about little matters of consumption and conservation, only manage to be obnoxious.

Where does judicious consumption end and wasteful consummerism begin? Honestly, I don't know. I will list a few notions which I have used at various points. But I am all too conscious of their short-comings too. A general canonical solution is indeed elusive.

Probably, you would have no difficulty in appreciating that a resource assumed to be renewable and unlimited takes not much time to turn into a non-renewable and limited resource. It all depends on the demand and consumption. For example, computer memory and processor cycles, drinking water, habitable space, road/pipeline/communication channel capacity, etc. All of them start off at some point being perceived as abundant, inexhaustible resources. But humans have a superior knack of running out of resources.

Agent Smith (Matrix, 1999) once says:
I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure.

Therefore, a seemingly judicious policy would be to consider every resource as limited upfront, and start optimising rightaway.

However, this approach doesn't provide such a straightforward solution, even theoretically. Any act of optimisation is actually an act of trade-off. Optimising on one resource may result in higher consumption of some other. And while one may be toiling to optimise parameters like space, time or material resources, one may be losing out on more abstract parameters. For example, in software engineering, they ask you not to worry too much about optimal implementations.

"The First Rule of Program Optimization: Don't do it. The Second Rule of Program Optimization (for experts only!): Don't do it yet."  — Michael A. Jackson

Instead, the general best practice is to write it in a clean, intuitive and maintainable way. A day to day example: One may work hard to minimise water wastage at home. However, not consuming enough water and not maintaining cleanliness in toilets may be both a bad idea from health point of view. It is often hard to predict which parameter will assume greater importance at what point. The optimal solution of today may waste a much more precious resource of tomorrow.

A Sustainable Life
One notion that may be helpful in drawing the above distinction between conservation and wastefulness is that of an environmentally sustainable life. The wish is to bring one's consumption to the level which every single human being of the planet can afford, without sending the environment to dogs. Many vices prevent me from lowering my consumptions.  I am lazy (hence, I often prefer the lift to the staircases). I am spoilt for physical comforts (hence, often I pick the car and not the 2-wheeler or public transport even when I am travelling alone). I am somewhat impatient when it comes to spending time travelling, particularly with the knowledge that the travel time is eating into an already sqeezed vacation (and thus often end up flying instead of travelling by train). These team up to make me behave like any of the spoilt brats at times. Conquering these may well result in a drastic reduction in the consumption of physical resources. Vanity, which is one of the lesser reasons for me, thankfully, probably is the biggest cause in most cases for which people consume, and consume to the levels that jars others' eyes.

However, who defines what a sustainable life is? The 7 billion+ population of this planet isn't my creation for sure. The headcount is continuously on the rise. That leaves less and less resources on my plate every passing day.

Don't Question the Purpose; Just Don't Waste Blatantly
The current social etiquette is: believe in matters of environmental conservation and such stuff in principle, but don't question anyone personally on his specific consumption behaviour. For instance, even when you are having a very animated discussion about rising pollution etc., it is not quite OK to say, 'OK You! stop using your car,' or 'why do you always leave your computer ON while leaving office?' So, the idea is that we go with the assumption that people are in general aware of issues and care for it. Hence, they shouldn't be nitpicked on individual instances.

The only problem with the above assumption, which seems to be affording respectability to everyone by saying that they all care, is that it's not a valid assumption. The whole of western style of growth stands testimony to this. With our little individual acts of carelessness, we have together managed to create an environmental situation of unprecedented magnitude. Simply because we are so large in number.

Perhaps, we hope that by voting for a cleaner environment, and by electing governments who swear by a greener planet, we can forever continue to live our day to day life without having to change anything drastically. We continue to consume wastefully: fly around when a ground travel would do; go on expensive ecologically disastrous eco-tours when a stroll in the neighbourhood would be just as relaxing; continue to shop in the supermarket store when the vegetables in the local market are more fresh. And then we hope these governments will come out with a scheme that will solve the problem with one sweep of a magic wand. It sometimes happens. For example, introducing CNG in Delhi seems to have drastically reduced the pollution levels in the city. But these are rare instances. These government policies, these sweep of magic wands: they are like tiny little occassional sprints of a hare which can do little to defeat the slow and steady progress of the turtle of our daily habits.

The above approach, therefore, can no longer pass off as a moderate approach to bringing about a positive change. It's most surely a sign of our collective inability to face the fact that we are too addicted to a particular way of living; and are too timid, too tentative to boldly explore the possibility of living another way.

Select Your Line, but Don't Change it
Much toilsome discussions would often lead us to give up on them, and disperse with one final request: 'OK guys! Do what you like. But don't change what you like.' It would land any discussion in grave trouble if we try pushing anything of the following points:
  • There should be no indulgence. Strictly austere life is the only correct life. Difficulty: Few would pass this strict test. Eventually, there would be no one left to discuss this topic except a tiny population of strict disciplinarians. Anyway, nobody cares about them.
  • There should be a fixed standard on how much indulgence one should be permitted. Difficulty: To come up with a fixed number would create wars. And to come up with a formula would be incredibly complex.
  • No one tells others about how much to consume. Difficulty: This is as good as saying that this discussion is meaningless.

Instead, we may accept the fact that all of us are susceptible to varying degrees of temptation. Let us allow each of us a degree of indulgence. That degree is determined by the self at some early stage. Once done, no changes are allowed unless passed through strict audits.

The merit of the above idea is that it is self-implementable. The determination of the consumption value is done by the self. Audits on its changes could also be done by the self. The undoing is the seriously high amount of integrity required by the person to implement this. Another undoing is that there are so many in the large population who have no idea how much they should put this value at for themselves. With exposure, they may find a strong need to alter the value. For example, a person raised in a remote village, to start with, may be perfectly comfortable with the idea of walking a couple of miles a day for his daily activities. However, if he happens to do well in his life, migrates to a big city and starts mixing in a society of car owners, walking a few miles every day to office would subject him to various pressures he wouldn't be able to foresee in his initial circumstances. Similarly, a person brought up in affluent conditions may start with a thought that he would limit his annual vacation duration to foriegn tourist locales to a month. However, on coming face to face with the real world, he may find even that way too luxurious.

So, occassional alterations on this limit may be necessary. But then, the point of confusion now shifts to the formula that should be applied to determine the flexibility to be allowed in changing this value.  Also, at least how ocassional should these changes be? Do we allow another level of flexibility (i.e. flexibility in defining the level of flexibility)? Further and further added levels of flexibility in this way would eventually make this policy indistinguishable from the policy of no one telling others how much to consume, won't it?
None of us is out-and-out a hero: we all do wasteful things notwithstanding concerns for conservation every once in a while. We call it indulgence. Similarly, none of us is out-and-out a villain: Each one of us feels a pang of concern/fear/discomfort from sights of wastefulness or prospects of collective disaster, at least sometimes. We differ from each in the amount of indulgence we need for ourselves on an ongoing basis.

One extreme stand would be to say, for all of us, any kind of austerity measure derives from the unaffordability of consumerism. The other extreme would be disallow any indulgence. We, in weaving this discussion, are obviously looking for a middle path. And that, like a lot of such discussions, may lead us to say that finally it all rests with the individuals. That may sound disappointing after all this effort; the whole discussion may itself appear vacuous in that case. But probably we should resist the temptation to conclude it that way. Philosophical stands must originate from a faith, but those based on reason. Philosophy itself goes with the faith that there's reconciliation possible between the two: that, in some sense or the other, is the grand challenge of many branch of philosophy. Not being able to achieve exactly that -- a solution that has eluded us for thousands of years -- should come as no surprise. But engaging in discussions on the subject is definitely an indispensible step towards the achieving goal, if not in the general case of the entire population, then at least in the specific case of our own personal life.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


About 2 months back, a taxi bumped my (stationary) car from behind. I couldn't do anything to get my damages back from the guy. After much deliberations on when/where how to get my damaged car bumper repaired/replaced, I got it done last Saturday. It costed me 9K. Today, within 48 hours of the repair, another taxi bumped my (stationary) car from behind. I am back with a damaged bumper. Of course, today too, I couldn't get any repayment from the driver. Do I need to tell how I feel right now?

I feel like...I will...I will...I will...I will write a blog post on this! Can't do anything else!

Monday, May 07, 2012

One Thing Good About Being a Celebrity

Came across two instances of the power of being a celebrity yesterday.

First. Aamir Khan's Satyamev Jayate on Star Plus which is to be aired every Sunday at 11 AM starting yesterday. The programme deals with social issues plagueing India. The first episode yesterday was about female foeticide. It presented data and analysis pertaining to the issue bringing forth its scale, nature and causes. It introduced some victims and some people who have been doing something to solve the problem. It ended with a couple of action points identified for the makers of the programme as well as the viewers. Thoroughly researched. Aamir Khan has spent nearly a decade or more to build a special philanthropic image for himself, from doing movies like Rang De Basanti, Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots, Mangal Pande, and even Dil Chahta Hai. Also campaigns like Atithi Devo Bhava. And in this programme, he brings its force together to hit the viewer's consciousness really hard. Commendable effort!

I hope to be treated with enlightening and moving accounts on many more social issues in the coming weeks. It will be an hour of weekly respite for the TV and its viewers from unending series of mindless soaps, abusive and phony reality shows, sensationalist news coverage, sexualised sports. While this programme is on air, I will give up my abstinence from TV. It's like we are back to our good old Doordarshan days when the ill-endowed documentaries used to be rich with one thing: sincerity.

My wishlist of issues for Satyamev Jayate:
  1. Environment
  2. Education
  3. Corruption
  4. Analysis of India Shining

Second. I came across this other one while flipping through the channels during a commercial break during the above programme. I don't remember which channel. Nor what programme. But there was Salman Khan talking to a phenomenally obese 18 year old girl giving her advices about being healthy and stuff. Not so impactfully presented, nor dealing with an 'apparently' social issue. But I feel that it's an equally widespread problem: this problem of unhealthy lifestyle. The cost of bad health due to lifestyle issues must be second to none on the society.

These celebrities aren't saying something no one else has said. Just that their position as celebrities gives them this unique chance to be listened to and taken seriously. I am happy they are finding it right to use their status for saying something really meaningful.

PS: Heard it that Aamir Khan is getting 3 crores for each episode of Satyamev Jayate. If he continues doing the kind of job he did in the first episode, I think he deserves every paisa of it.