On 12th December 2015, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was adopted by the representatives of 195 nations at the 21st Conference of Parties of the UNFCC in Paris. With this, there is an explicit recognition among countries about the dangers of global warming. But this has brought up a new mantra of reducing carbon emissions – nuclear reactors. Surely nuclear power does not cause greenhouse effect but does it mean it is safe? Of course, not.
Radiations from nuclear power plants are the most potent source of environmental pollution, both actively and passively. They are not the ‘peaceful sources of atomic energy’ that energy experts and politicians would have us believe. The unique hazards to life that they pose can never figure in any cost-benefit analysis or environmental impact assessment. It seems to me that we have defined the terms ‘green’ and ‘ecological’ so narrowly in terms of carbon emissions that we have lost sight of other sources of disaster. Do we want CO2 free air which is laden with radioactive particles?
In the mid-1950s, there was a wave of incessant use of insecticides that swept major parts of agricultural fields. In the human drive to eliminate all annoying insects and pests, harmless or not, we blindly used toxic chemicals like DDT, dieldrin, heptachlor. Surely, it eradicated all weeds. But what followed was swathes of barren fields, ponds devoid of fishes, trees without humming bees and diseases humans had never seen. Would we prefer no insects if that meant no flora and fauna?
Recently, healthcare has become the center of attention in all major countries. With aging populations in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, Japan and poverty in Asia, governments – conservative and progressive alike – have been forced to think about this issue. But what we have seen, without any basic ambiguity, is that all governments have prioritized the provision of health insurance to their citizens. Does health insurance guarantee quality healthcare?
With the boom of internet and social media, the dynamics of news has changed drastically. Today, the news is not about educating the public. It is about advertisement and sensationalism. It is about catchy phrases that can get eyeballs raised. Recently, when it was revealed that Fox News commentator Bill O’rielly settled lawsuits of sexual harassment at extravagant sums of money, it was widely reported that advertisers were pulling out of his shows. What was missed widely is that his viewership has soared simultaneously? Are advertisers the metric of a news broadcast?
President Trump recently ordered a missile attack on Syria. While he has been largely lampooned by the media for his unpresidential behavior, most of the establishment foreign policy and national security experts lauded this decision of his. One MSNBC anchor even described it as ‘beautiful’ alluding to the Leonard Cohen lyric – “I am guided by the beauty of weapons”. The irony on Trump’s desire to ban the entry of refugees from this region was apparently set aside. Do missile attacks do any good for the people of Syria?
The five questions are the sort of ‘uneconomic’ questions that we never find answers to in public discourse. And those who raise them are deemed as ‘Luddites’ by the establishment of the times. But a thread weaves subtly through these questions. Nuclear power, pesticides, health insurance, news, and weapons – these become industries over time generating ‘growth’ and ‘economic activity’. They become, in some cases, the defined solutions by elite economists, or in other cases, they become part of our vocabulary. We accept their immediate ‘utility’ without considering their long-term consequences.
And to question this ‘elitist economism’ is considered regressive. And such concerns can be found in ‘progress’ that we think we have made. The 2008 Financial crisis was emblematic of this. The explosion of derivatives market and sizes of banks made them a liability for the population. The human element of banking has been lost on our ‘economized’ selves. Similarly, scientific developments in genetic engineering pose ‘uneconomic’ questions that we have avoided till now.
We have accepted the economic morality of industries for much of our times. People do not matter in these considerations, what matters is GDP growth of industry and hence the economy. In such a society, industries capture the attention of the public much before it has time to address the concerns that come with its tempting products. And when we get some clarity about them, we are too late to rein in the adverse effects of their ‘economic’ activity because such actions then become a perceived political liability. Then, our tail wags our way forward, on an uncertain road to nowhere. We move, but is that progress?