Ratheesh Pisharody writes: A classic method of avoiding personal sacrifice is to explore “alternatives”. The individual thought behind this is simple. “Can I keep sitting on my privileges by pretending to make a dramatic change with sufficient optics and industry backing, but with no personal cost/effort?”. And the pop-icon of “alternatives” is the electric car.
Some consider climate change as the beginning of the end; some say it is the end stage of Capitalism. It could be both since there is a distinct possibility that humanity will end, knowing nothing but Capitalism in all its seductive, mutated future-forms. Regardless of how we perceive these sequence of events or whether we consider these issues as economic, social or political, our immediate action has tremendous bearing on our future. Personal and collective action towards mitigating the effects of climate change is a no-brainer. What is complicated however, is the web of inter-linkages between the motivations and methods and the various dead-ends that exist in the pathways towards the goals that we seek.
Our immediate response when we seek action in this regard is to find ways to continue doing what we think is normal albeit with minor changes to the input-parameters involved. So we try to consume this-instead-of-that and to go here-instead-of-there. We switch and swap our loyalty and to feel good before we go to bed. This has resulted in an entire vocabulary of sorts. One of the words involved is “alternative”. “Is there an alternative?” we ask. “Alternative this and alternative that” we are told. Do we realise that the obsession of ours with the word will end up nurturing the next strain of Capitalism?
The boys who cried “Wolf!”
From time immemorial there have been divisions in the society over various matters. The way we live, conduct, communicate; our belief systems and ethics; whom we mate with and why; and what-not. Being a species that is torn between the primeval need to cooperate and a conditioned need to compete, we are naturally aligned to various schools of thought. The differences also extended to how we envisioned our relationship with other creatures of this planet and the planet itself. It is no surprise that we did not choose to respond or react to the cries made by the earliest radicals. From the Luddites to the commune-seekers; from the Tolstoys to the Gandhis; although we like them all in our history books, we rallied behind them only sporadically, if at all.
Even today, there is a concern that those talking about climate change are not being listened to. There are various reasons cited for this and one of them is the dismissal to hint that “these treehuggers have always behaved this way”. The accusation is that we cried Wolf for too long and too much. How much we wish we were wrong! But documented data worth a century and real-time data from today validates the historic and present claim that there is an anomaly in nature and it is going out of control. Also, all of this is not just physical data such as measurement of rainfall or temperature. There are social, economic and political conditions out there (almost in every country) symptomatic of the disease we have.
We (in a historic sense) have always been talking-about and listening-to the right things when it came to warnings. There was always a real Wolf; one that picked up a few helpless and weak sheep once in a while, thereby enabling the rest of the flock to survive for a few-more-years at a cost. Today, in the year 2020, nothing changes. We pretend not to be listening because we hope that a few more of those weak sheep will be taken away to secure resources for the others (including us). Our move is based on the presumption that we are far from the Wolf. We will be very wrong.
While the talking and the listening were happening and we can clearly correlate that with actual data indicative of the issues, what has never happened is personal and collective action in large numbers to make the necessary steering corrections. It is also possible that some of us could not have performed any action at all and there were others – even worse-off – whom the system has kept at the bottom so that they wouldn’t even hear the wolf-alarm.
Whose action is it anyway?
If there is one trend that carries through from years of talking, listening and not-acting-upon, it is the act of pointing fingers at each other. Considering that the system does keep a few of us at the downright-bottom at all times, it is important to emphasize that the accusation of pointing fingers is directed at the privileged. For the sake of this argument, let us consider everyone whom we call middle-class and higher to be privileged. Another method would be to say that if a person can put food on the table even without an adequate amount of physical labour, then he/she is privileged.
It would be foolish to expect the super-rich to have taken any action in a Capitalist system. It is the fundamental goal in the system to stay right on top or to go higher, and any action would only work detrimental to this goal. So quite expectedly, the ones right at the top of the pyramid who knew entirely too well what a change to the system means; they pointed fingers at the larger population including the unprivileged. The need to keep Capitalism alive and hence pollute/deplete was justified with an earnest face and phrase “for common good”. Being in the upper echelons of power, some of us were being “nice to the others” by throwing in “hard earned wealth” behind polluting industries and extractive policies.
It would be odd, isn’t it? If overtly a small segment of the population among us just don’t do anything at all. So some of us hatched plans with numerous optics and theatrics that resulted in the genesis of new words, why, the genesis of an entire industry around “doing good”. “corporate social responsibility”, “non governmental organizations”, charities, “compassionate capitalism”; theatrics aplenty.
The middle-class (lower, middle, upper) among us pointed fingers in both directions. When some did not, the system conditioned them to comply. After all the middle-class is a life-philosophy that enables one to accrue wealth without risks that comes with being rich or poor. Many among us did not (do not) understand what a systemic-change means but are selfish enough to desist action because we think we will go higher up in the pyramid. So sometimes we pointed fingers at each other, thereby feeding newer forms of hate-politics and creating new templates for politicians. Communal, regional and caste divides; protectionism and parochialism; entirely new political leaders and messiahs were born as a result of the middle-class’ inability to grasp and digest the truth.
The onus of doing “something different” always was with us, the middle-class. But sadly, this larger population which also includes the very people who have kept the conscience alive have hardly taken significant personal action. We have either kept quiet or worked around in such a way that we seem like we are doing great things but without personal sacrifice. We learned to look busy towards saving the planet so that we can point fingers at others (who are not busy like us or who are supposedly not listening).
As suggested earlier, one classic method of avoiding personal sacrifice has been to explore “alternatives”. The individual-thought behind this is simple. “Can I continue to sit on my privileges by pretending to make a dramatic change with sufficient optics and industry backing but with almost nil cost and effort to me?”. Also “Can I look like I am taking action even though I am too lazy/indifferent to actually act?”. Hence, in reality “alternative this” or “alternative that” actually only means to find an “alternative victim”. “Which sheep shall get picked up by the Wolf instead of me?” is the real question that we have. And most of us are happy if we are the spared sheep, even if temporarily. This attitude is the reason why we will yet again end up playing into the hands of Capitalist forces that are waiting for an excuse to build the “Alternative Capitalism” empire.
Our misunderstanding of “alternatives” is actually of lesser worry when compared to how the Capitalist bosses think about it because as we rally behind the new icons of environmentalism or mobilize people ourselves for the next big challenge, they are busy drawing up a master-plan. The moment the word was uttered, it had become a marketable entity for the eternally greedy. “Alternative” will share the hall of fame with “Green” and “Eco-friendly” where it will languish forever, representing our hubris and stupidity combined.
Our entire known history is studded with symbols and motifs that reminds us of human innovation and capabilities. True to that tradition, “alternatives” also have had such symbols. From tiny solar powered lamps to induction cookers, we recognize “alternatives” today by these representatives. However, all those products cannot hold a candle to the pop-icon of the “alternatives”, i.e the “Electric Car”. The electric car stands out as the next aspiration-inducing entity for the masses; the next walkman; the next smartphone.
There is a big catch though. Ideas can be good. Ideas can be timely. Ideas can be feasible. For an idea such as the electric car to actually save us from ourselves, it had to be good, timely and feasible all at the same time. Arriving decades later than it should have, the electric car is anything but timely. Feasibility of an idea can be understood in many ways. The narrowest possible understanding of it is what is commonly accepted; such as the profitability of the electric car, its brand-value and the rise in stock in relation to this idea. But by feasibility we should actually mean if there are natural and human resources combined to make it happen, after sparing essentials for everyone who share this planet with us. And the answer is a big NO.
The electric car thus represents an idea that is good, yet not timely or feasible. It is but one example of the “alternatives”. In fact most of our alternatives fall under the “good” category but are never timely or feasible. That is one theof the reasons why we find it so hard to debate or dissuade the emergence of these ideas. When we have the entire humanity and the planet staring at misery, it is very challenging (and unempathetic) to look someone in the eyes, someone really enthusiastic to solve the problem, someone as concerned as us and tell them that their idea won’t take off. We are an innovative species, our ideas ought to be good in principle – most of the time – when the well meaning among us come up with it. But the timeliness and feasibility is what we need to consider.
From electric cars to nuclear power plants
If time and resources are our problem and not a dearth of ideas then our ideas themselves have to be bounded by these restrictive forces that are currently out of our control. We as contemporaries who currently share this planet which includes the set of problems we are presented with do not need to feel ashamed about not being able to come up with original ideas or feel dejected that our ideas (which are good inherently) are not realistic. It would do us good to take inspiration and move on to create things that are realistic and appropriate for our times.
But that is not what the market and media will tell us. Today they have the electric-car, tomorrow they will have something else to sell to us. By siding with the first unrealistic idea we would have paved the way for them to continue selling us the next unrealistic one, then the next and so on; a rabbit hole through this wonderland. They will tell us that the sales of electric cars “looks promising”, then they will tell us the entire “world’s economy improved”, “people are having new jobs”. This will slowly lead to “demand for electric vehicles” and ultimately a trough occurs where there is a “demand for energy”. Now they will pitch us-against-us because this new demand for energy will be achievable only if we accept some nuclear power plants or lithium extraction that can have geo-political impact, or is simply hazardous to some of us. Little would we notice that the future demand-for-energy will be more than the projected demand-for-energy (today) and this would be a direct result of our own ideas that under trying circumstances should have made things better.
This is true about all our alternative ideas. Alternative methods of farming, solutions in small-scale production, organic and “earthy” consumer durables, dietary choices, clothing, schooling, health-and-wellness and even career choices. Our obsession to replace some entity that consumes a certain amount of energy with yet another “thing” that supposedly consumes lesser energy (for us, or as per our perception) has led to a dangerous pattern and school of thought. This in fact has made “alternative” a good word, so much so that it is cool today to talk about alternatives. People in mansions talking about alternative lifestyles, young men and women opting for what they think are “alternative jobs” etc. Some of us now lay claims to leading simple lives simply because we think we have embraced alternatives. We are deluding ourselves to great comic relief.
The mad quest for alternatives without introspecting on our personal stake and contribution to the problem will only end up aggravating the problem. We need to be vigilant, skeptical and suspicious about ourselves and of a market that sings songs that we like, if we intend to truly make any difference. And we can trust the market and the highest powers to do everything they can, pull every string, play all known dirty games to maintain status quo. So the only realistic action remains in the hands of the individual. You and me.
As clear as water is the fact that Capitalism is in a big crisis. We were made promises that “everything will be okay” by nice looking gentlemen who were polite by nature and looked like they knew what they were talking about. You know? Whom we call “decent” people. Like us. Around us. So we built this world with the idea that we were doing “something good”. The crisis now pushes those gentlemen to a corner. They don’t like to be cornered. So as is expected they would react by forming new conglomerations, merging the economic into the social and political, forming dangerous concoctions such as Fascist states.
We tend to use Fascism as a benchmark only because we know no worse; we ought to be careful. What the United States is experiencing under the evergreen cloak of Democracy or what India is experiencing thanks to the work of Hindu nationalists might be the worst yet and still without a name. The world, run by corporations as expected uses anything from mediocrity to religion and use populism to constantly stay in power, messaging this out via some of the worst leaders the world has seen. One of the noticeable attributes of such a world is the hatred it has for the words dissent or protest. Such a world scares us but it is a conformist’s utopia.
In such a world, sowing the seeds for getting away from these alternatives is the first challenge. Our initial attempts to do this are going to be taken as a protest or dissent. After all, when we switch from “this to that” we are still agreeing to participate in the economy (whatever form of it exists in the society we live in). We are supposedly still “contributing”. When we sign-out or slow-down we are going to look like we aren’t contributing anymore. In a world that is progressively getting corporatized and that shuns dissent, this action would be deemed criminal soon. If we seek alternatives, that is a sure sign that we are non-conformists, hence it is in our own interest that we remain so.
What is the alternative for alternatives then? To answer that, let us first understand once again what it is not. The alternative to consumerism is not some eco-friendly version of it. The alternative to fossil-fuels is not some green-version of it. The alternative to eating meat is not mock-meat. The alternative to drinking milk is not soy-milk. The alternative to flying is not the roads. The alternative to sugar is not jaggery. An endless list and as we unravel it, it only gets too personal. It is essential to get past the “what it is not” to arrive at what it could be.
Learning to say “No” with conviction
What is a realistic alternative to alternatives? Sacrifice, of course. Giving up. Saying “I want lesser”, saying NO, saying “I don’t need it”. The temptation to claim “sacrifice” by giving up this-for-that should be avoided and real sacrifice embraced. The beauty lies in the simplicity of this personal action but the large Everest like mountain that is created in our psyche cannot be ignored. We are conditioned to think “sacrifice” is something painful and hence most of us easily avoid this (because we can afford to) and many of us also use pretence to shy away from the responsibility.
It is as simple as that. Sacrifice. Saying NO. We can easily begin by saying “I need less”. From the inane of things to the largest decisions, a NO goes a long way as personal-action from us. Take the plastic-straw as an example. The same old rehashed environmental consciousness, especially in the wealthy western world has now brought the “eco-friendly and paper-made” straws into our lives. Along with it cames endless serious and humorous debates on its usability. Did we need all this? Do we have the time for it? If only the consumer said NO to the straw. There will be a billion personal/comfort reasons for saying YES to it, but just one reason is good enough to say NO. The seeking of the alternative in such a case has simply diverted attention from the real issues.
The alternative to consumerism is buying less or not buying at all. The alternative to drinking milk is not drinking milk. The alternative to fossil fuels is using lesser amounts of it and travelling lesser. The alternative to eating meat is to eat less meat. The alternative to a growing middle-class and privileged population is to cut down on creating a middle-class, privileged populace by choosing to have less children or no children. There is no rocket science involved in the personal power to say NO. Alternative is a marketable word, Sacrifice is not. Hence, no one can sell us options to be part of an exploitative and extractive world if we choose not to participate in it.
But beware. We can only list out here what we know today. The word “alternative” and its mascot the “electric car” were used above only because that is what the world understands today. The world is changing as we know it and fast. The kind of situation we are in will drive in entirely new and imaginative (yet evil) thought very soon and we need to be able to assess and act on patterns that might emerge. So it is also important not to get hung up on terms and motifs as we know them today. Anything can be appropriated or hijacked. We need to be wary that the people who are winning and writing the history of the world are always a few steps ahead. We want to be ahead, for sure but we aren’t yet.
There was a phase in the United States of America when the youth said a big NO to being boxed into categories and to cookie cutter life. The industry did take a dent. You know what happened later? They made Individualism into a marketable thing and sold it to the same generation. That was possible because we did not go far enough; we did not go with conviction and perseverance. It simply means, there are forces out there to appropriate anything. “For the people who say NO!”, some future tagline will read. And we will buy and gulp it whole. That is the tragedy. In a hyper-Americanized world, even sustainability comes in a canned tin with an expiry date on it.
Personal and Collective
We always seem to mix up what is to be done in person by us and what needs to be done as a community. The result of which is that we get nothing done as the years pass by. Unlike what is commonly understood, the effect of the collective action is not a sum of its parts (many personal actions). To use an example, if the impact of one person using less meat is X, then the effect of one thousand people using less meat is not 1000X. It depends.
This is because we begin from inequality and inequity. But it is not only that. Even if we presume this world had zero issues related to inequality and inequity, such actions would not scale in a linear fashion. Hence we need to see ourselves as two kinds of participants. In one case it is the individual cause of taking some personal action towards the problem. In the second, participating in what is feasible and agreeable as a community towards a collective sacrifice. To use an example again, this might mean the middle-class among us choose to use lesser fossil-fuels but if we also happen to live in a community/town/city that still needs fossil fuels, then the collective action might be to decide not to cut trees anymore.
The all or nothing approach from our end only makes it tougher for us to take any action. Sometimes it brings in resignation in the form of the “even I won’t do it now since others are not joining me” statement. Instead, we need to persist regardless of whether we find others walking with us or not.
Unfortunately we see the extremes flourishing today. Either we are all being herded in large groups towards religions, nationalities or political ideologies where we quickly blend into large, uniform voices with predefined collective actions. Or we are obsessing about the personal with zero value for the collective; My life changed; my lifestyle change; I do farming now; I grow my own food; I am apolitical; I am neutral; I am non-violent etc.
The litmus test for real change
Our economic model and even our participation in it is overseen by a distinct vocabulary; a chirpy, positive stream of thoughts and words. Words like win, grow, succeed, obtain, procure, compete, higher, taller etc. For a change, what we need to try and imagine is just the opposite. That has to start with the fairytale called the electric car. It has to “fail” so that humanity can “succeed”.
Would it mean that the idea itself failed? Need not be. We are human beings; we are capable of better ideas. Out of the failure of the electric car will bloom thousands of ideas that will hopefully be also timely and feasible; the best among us will ensure that our ingenuity will be put to good use.
It would also mean that we would have put the good parts of an electric car assembly into equitable use. Instead of putting all that energy and time into using electricity for driving the middle-class and the rich around, we could use it for something better, for something essential. The failure of the electric will ensure that a very strong message is sent across to the larger powers; that “all alternative ideas are not are not marketable”. Most importantly, when the pop-culture symbol of alternatives fails, we would have salvaged something within us that calls itself human;that we are not merely the economic-man as the system wants us to believe; that we have truly evolved.
India has a better option than electric cars
Prem Shankar Jha
When nearly 350 million vehicles have to be charged every day, not only will an entire nation-wide, and therefore expensive, recharging infrastructure have to be built, but the power these vehicles will consume will have to be generated first. Nearly all of this will have to come from coal.
In spite of cool advertising, electric cars (also) damage the environment
Hema Vaishnavi, Youth Ki Awaaz
In the Union Budget, the government has decided to exempt the new-age cesses on electric and hybrid cars. But are these green cars really green? They do not pollute the areas that they are being used in because all they are doing is move the pollution from the point of movement to the source of electricity.
Cars, Capitalism and India
Vidyadhar Date, RUPE India
A developed country is not one where the poor drive cars, but one where the rich use public transport. Building more roads to reduce congestion is like trying to put out a fire with petrol. India has failed to learn from developed countries’ mistakes and is on a disastrous path of motorization.
It only takes a few countries to kickstart a decarbonisation revolution
This latest study looked at the trends driving decarbonisation in three key sectors of the global energy system – power, transportation and buildings. It found that, in these fields, it has taken only a few players to set in motion the kind of transformations necessary to meet the Paris Climate Agreement’s targets.