Tag Archives: environment

Environmental issues like the planet, poverty etc.

Ethics In Business and Leadership

[This post is the speech given by Prof. Surya Sethi at World Forum for Ethics in Business - International Leadership Symposium Monday, April 2, 2012 in Singapore. Reproduced here with permission.]

I have been asked to cover a broad spectrum of issues relating to business regaining trust for sustainability within the context of climate change and the global energy crisis. Importantly, I have been asked to do so in 10 minutes reflecting the efficiency of the city-state we are in.

Let me begin by differentiating between moral and ethical values. Based on what I heard this morning, there appears to be some confusion between morals and ethics. The former define individual character and are based on personal beliefs of right and wrong or good and bad. The latter are essentially standards and codes of conduct, expected in a specific context, from the group an individual belongs to. Ethics typically encompass societal, corporate, national, professional or other similar compacts. Individually, we consider killing as morally wrong but an army killing thousands is considered ethical and is often decorated as an act of bravery for common good.

Business enterprises, today, manned largely by morally upright individuals are collectively killing the planet we share with a ferocity, intensity and speed matching that of war; and getting rewarded for creating unprecedented valuations and competitive supremacy. Consumption for the sake of consumption, growth for the sake of growth, profit for the sake of profit and support for policies and policy makers that uphold all of the foregoing are the ethical values guiding these enterprises.

The anthropogenic damage to the earth’s ecology over the last 60 years exceeds the damage done by humans over their entire history up to 1950. The fine balance between physical, chemical and biological processes that sustain the earth as a single interdependent system has been disturbed. The earth has moved well outside the range of her natural variability exhibited over the previous half a million years in the very least. Abrupt ecological changes with non-linear feedbacks in the earth’s dynamics, leading to catastrophic outcomes, are a real possibility today. Ethics should be price determining and not price determined by markets. Under-pricing natural capital and ignoring concomitant risks is fuelling the consumption boom.

Importantly, the growth, the consumption and the benefits have been concentrated in the privileged few. The top 20% of the world consumes 80% of its output while the bottom 80% lives on the balance 20%. The bottom 20% lives in dire poverty at a consumption of less than $1.25 PPP/day or about 50cents/day in nominal cents in a country such as India which is home to a third of these global unfortunate. Going just by income poverty, the number living below this dire threshold has come down by some 500 million – almost entirely because of a reduction in China. However, the broader multidimensional poverty index that includes parameters such as health, education, gender equality, access, empowerment etc. pushes the share of these destitute people to about 25% of the global population. Importantly, the number of people below the global poverty line of $2 PPP per day consumption remains stubbornly at about 2.5 billion or about 36 % of humanity.

Modern energy consumption is perfectly correlated to the Human Development Index (HDI) but it still eludes the bottom 2.5 billion who remain energy starved. While 1.5 billion among them, including over 500 million from India, have no access to electricity, 2.2 billion, including some 850 million from India use some form of biomass as their primary or only source of energy for cooking food –the most basic human necessity. A larger number would be denied access were we to price energy, one of earth’s fastest depleting natural resource, at its true value. The primary reason for this is the continuing disproportionate consumption by the well-to-do.

OECD countries, with a combined population less than India enjoy the world’s highest living standards. Yet, OECD’s incremental commercial energy consumption for the period 1997-2007 (before the financial crisis); was 3.2 times that of India. During this period, India’s share of global commercial energy consumption rose from 2.9% to 3.6% while OECD’s share fell from 58% to just over 50%. This drop was singularly due to the growth of China’s share as it became the world’s largest energy consumer.

The disproportionate consumption of energy is far worse than the figures reveal. In a globalized world, big business has moved significant parts of OECD’s production base in search of cheaper natural capital including the environmental commons, which though priceless, is still available for free in China and the developing world.

If one looks at GHG emission on a consumption basis and not production within their borders, then EU 15 emissions are up by 47% and the US emissions have risen 43% since 1990. The embedded emissions in imports of EU-15 are about 33% of emissions within their borders. This translates to about 3 tons per capita of embedded emissions in imports. The embedded emissions import for the US is 20% or about 4 tons/capita – In 2000, the level of embedded emissions imports in both the US and EU15 were only 3% . The embedded emissions alone in imports for US and EU-15 are twice and 1.6 times respectively of India’s total per capita GHG emissions.

The greatest lie that we are being told by big business and the policy makers supported by them is that resource efficiency is the answer to sustainability. Despite huge gains in resource use efficiency, the world is consuming more natural capital today than ever before and we are on auto pilot to at least a 3.5 degree Celsius warming. If IPCC is right, this will unleash catastrophic events and mass annihilation of the world’s poor in the foreseeable future.

Simply stated, current patterns of consumption and production, ladies and gentlemen, are unsustainable. CSR activities such as opening schools and hospitals or green-washing board rooms with efficient lights are simply inadequate. Also inadequate is a business mindset that first influences and then merely meets current regulations and sees value only in monetary terms based on a simplistic cost-benefit analysis

We need a policy framework that first limits our use of fossil fuels and other forms of natural capital and then gradually reduces it in a cradle to cradle paradigm fuelled by innovation. Our growth model must be an inclusive one that reduces unsustainable overconsumption by a few and redistributes that to the bottom 50% of this world. No, I do not seek to make the poor rich by making the rich poor – I simply seek the right of the bottom 50% of the world to have a dignity of life afforded by consumption at 50% of the poverty levels within the OECD. The current inequities whereby the world’s third largest economy in PPP terms (India) is placed 134th in terms of its HDI and has the world’s largest concentration of poor, malnourished adults and under-weight children are unsustainable.

Enlightened business leaders must not only define sustainability in terms of guaranteeing inter-generational resource equity but also see the unsustainability of not removing current intra generational inequities and thereby delivering the minimal adaptive capacity to the bottom 2.5 billion of fellow humans in the face of impending abrupt climate events.

In closing, I quote Mahatma Gandhi who said: “The world has enough to meet everyone’s need but not enough to satisfy even one man’s greed!

I thank you for your time and attention.

Human Virus

On one poignantly beautiful autumn day in Syracuse, a group of us physics graduate students were gathered around a frugal kitchen table. We had our brilliant professor, Lee Smolin, talking to us. We held our promising mentors in very high regard. And we had high hopes for Lee.

The topic of conversation on that day was a bit philosophical, and we were eagerly absorbing the words of wisdom emanating from Lee. He was describing to us how the Earth could be considered a living organism. Using insightful arguments and precisely modulated glib articulation (no doubt, forged by years of intellectual duels in world’s best universities), Lee made a compelling case that the Earth, in fact, satisfied all the conditions of being an organism.

Lee Smolin, by the way, lived up to our great expectations in later years, publishing highly acclaimed books and generally leaving a glorious imprint in the world of modern physics. He now talks to global audiences through prestigious programmes such as the BBC Hardtalk, much to our pride and joy.

The point in Lee’s view was not so much whether or the Earth was literally alive, but that thinking of it as an organism was a viable intellectual model to represent the Earth. Such intellectual acrobatics was not uncommon among us physics students.

In the last few years, Lee has actually taken this mode of thinking much farther in one of his books, picturing the universe in the light of evolution. Again, the argument is not to be taken literally, imagining a bunch of parallel universes vying for survival. The idea is to let the mode of thinking carry us forward and guide our thoughts, and see what conclusions we can draw from the thought exercise.

A similar mode of thinking was introduced in the movie Matrix. In fact, several profound models were introduced in that movie, which probably fuelled its wild box-office success. One misanthropic model that the computer agent Smith proposes is that human beings are a virus on our planet.

It is okay for the bad guy in a movie to suggest it, but an entirely different matter for newspaper columnist to do so. But bear with me as I combine Lee’s notion of the Earth being an organism and Agent Smith’s suggestion of us being a virus on it. Let’s see where it takes us.

The first thing a virus does when it invades an organism is to flourish using the genetic material of the host body. The virus does it with little regard for the well-being of the host. On our part, we humans plunder the raw material from our host planet with such abandon that the similarity is hard to miss.

But the similarity doesn’t end there. What are the typical symptoms of a viral infection on the host? One symptom is a bout of fever. Similarly, due to our activities on our host planet, we are going through a bout of global warming. Eerily similar, in my view.

The viral symptoms could extend to sores and blisters as well. Comparing the cities and other eye sores that we proudly create to pristine forests and natural landscapes, it is not hard to imagine that we are indeed inflicting fetid atrocities to our host Earth. Can’t we see the city sewers and the polluted air as the stinking, oozing ulcers on its body?

Going one step further, could we also imagine that natural calamities such as Katrina and the Asian tsunami are the planet’s natural immune systems kicking into high gear?

I know that it is supremely cynical to push this comparison to these extreme limits. Looking at the innocent faces of your loved ones, you may feel rightfully angry at this comparison. How dare I call them an evil virus? Then again, if a virus could think, would it think of its activities on a host body as evil?

If that doesn’t assuage your sense of indignation, remember that this virus analogy is a mode of thinking rather than a literal indictment. Such a mode of thinking is only useful if it can yield some conclusions. What are the conclusions from this human-viral comparison?

The end result of a viral infection is always gloomy. Either the host succumbs or the virus gets beaten by the host’s immune systems. If we are the virus, both these eventualities are unpalatable. We don’t want to kill the Earth. And we certainly don’t want to be exterminated by the Earth. But those are the only possible outcomes of our viral-like activity here. It is unlikely that we will get exterminated; we are far too sophisticated for that. In all likelihood, we will make our planet uninhabitable. We may, by then, have our technological means of migrating to other planetary systems. In other words, if we are lucky, we may be contagious! This is the inescapable conclusion of this intellectual exercise.

There is a less likely scenario — a symbiotic viral existence in a host body. It is the kind of benign life style that Al Gore and others recommend for us. But, taking stock of our activities on the planet, my doomsday view is that it is too late for a peaceful symbiosis. What do you think?

Happy New Year!

Here’s wishing you a Happy 2010… May your resolutions hold up longer than those of the years past. And may you find peace, happiness, good health and prosperity.

I started this new year with Avatar. And its no-so-subtle anti-neo-con messages fill me with a bit of optimism despite all the carnage all around us. May be there will be a bit more patience and understanding this year. A bit more sharing and caring. A bit less avarice and grabbing. May be all is not lost yet. Or is it just that this frog is getting used to the world slowly boiling me alive?

My resolution this year is to do a lot more light writing. Blogging and column-writing, that is. And to spend more time with the kids. Having just finished my second book, I feel I will have more time, and won’t have to shoo them away. May be I can now patiently listen to all their silliness. Like my dad used to listen to mine.

Evolution–Inverted Logic

Evolution is usually described as “the survival of the fittest,” or as species evolving to adapt to the environment. To survive, to evolve, to adapt—these are action verbs, implying some kind of intention or general plan. But there is a curious inversion of logic, or reversal of causality in the theory of evolution. This is almost the opposite of intention or plan.

It is easiest to illustrate this inverted logic using examples. Suppose you are on a tropical island, enjoying the nice weather and the beautiful beach. You say to yourself, “This is perfect. This is paradise!” Of course, there is some specific gene containing the blue print of your brain process that leads you to feel this way. It stands to reason that there may have been genetic mutations at some point, which made some people hate this kind of paradise. They may have preferred Alaska in winter. Evidently, such genes had a slightly lower chance of survival because Alaskan winters are not as healthy as tropical paradises. Over millions of years, these genes got all but wiped out.

What this means is that the tropical paradise does not have an intrinsic beauty. It is not even that you happen to find it beautiful. Beauty does not necessarily lie in the eyes of the beholder. It is more like the eyes exist because we are the kind of people who would find such hospitable environments beautiful.

Another example of the inversion of logic in evolution is the reason we find cute babies cute. Our genes survived, and we are here because we are the kind of people who would find healthy babies cute. This reversal of causality has implications in every facet of our existence, all the way up to our notion of free will.

Ref: This post is an excerpt from my book, The Unreal Universe.

Tsunami

The Asian Tsunami two and a half years ago unleashed tremendous amount energy on the coastal regions around the Indian ocean. What do you think would’ve have happened to this energy if there had been no water to carry it away from the earthquake? I mean, if the earthquake (of the same kind and magnitude) had taken place on land instead of the sea-bed as it did, presumably this energy would’ve been present. How would it have manifested? As a more violent earthquake? Or a longer one?

I picture the earthquake (in cross-section) as a cantilever spring being held down and then released. The spring then transfers the energy to the tsunami in the form of potential energy, as an increase in the water level. As the tsunami radiates out, it is only the potential energy that is transferred; the water doesn’t move laterally, only vertically. As it hits the coast, the potential energy is transferred into the kinetic energy of the waves hitting the coast (water moving laterally then).

Given the magnitude of the energy transferred from the epicenter, I am speculating what would’ve happened if there was no mechanism for the transfer. Any thoughts?