Choking the middle

Apart from the understandable impatience about the way government functions, the counter-narrative on the environment has some elements that need to be questioned. This column has argued for the importance and revolutionary potential of growth. But the rank instrumentalism that says the quality of growth does not matter is self-defeating for a number of reasons. The large assumptions behind this counter-narrative need to be questioned.

First, the counter-narrative, that growth and poverty alleviation will automatically take care of the environment is simply wrong for two different reasons. Climate change is a fact and we need to think upfront about patterns of growth that are compatible with sustaining the planet. But even if you are uncertain about climate change, consider this: water and air quality, for the most part, have become something close to irretrievable goods. As China is finding out, cleaning your air or reclaiming dying rivers is a near impossibility or prohibitively expensive. Their near irretrievable character means that, if not taken care of, you are condemning citizens to live with a permanent poison, with no living rivers or cities with breathable air. There is little evidence that in the developing world, growth alone will take care of this problem. On a lighter note, in a recent seminar in Delhi, a good friend of India, on seeing everyone coughing, joked that it would be a tragedy if Delhi replaced the Argumentative Indian with the Coughing Indian.

The second element of the counter-narrative is costs. Protecting the environment imposes costs. But the cost argument is rhetorically effective only because the costs of a damaged environment are almost nowhere in public consciousness. As the incidence of disease is showing, these costs are not about preserving arcadia or protected enclaves. These costs are now being inflicted on all citizens on an almost daily basis: the health cost, the productivity losses produced by morbidity, not to mention the deep loss of a sense of well-being. And the poor are exposed to even more toxic hazards on a daily basis. The environment has become a net drain on growth.

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