Sunday, September 17, 2017

Words that create a mental fog - I

In 1950, computer science pioneer Alan Turing proposed a famous test of computer intelligence: could a program (what we might now call a "chatbot") answer your questions so convincingly that you couldn't tell it apart from a human? A reverse Turing test is a Turing test in which the objective or roles between computers and humans have been reversed

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about the reverse Turing test in Fooled by Randomness: a human can be declared unintelligent if his or her writing cannot be told apart from a generated one. The Postmodernism Generator is a computer program that automatically produces imitations of postmodernist writing. It produces random text with correct grammar and makes for hilarious reading of gobbledygook each time you refresh the page. For eg today, I got a treatise on 'Rationalism in the works of Pynchon' by Catherine N. Cameron, Department of Politics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Helmut Tilton Department of Semiotics, Carnegie-Mellon University which began as follows:
1. Narratives of meaninglessness
“Society is unattainable,” says Lacan. However, the subject is contextualised into a modern discourse that includes art as a reality. “Consciousness is part of the economy of language,” says Bataille; however, according to d’Erlette[1] , it is not so much consciousness that is part of the economy of language, but rather the collapse, and subsequent fatal flaw, of consciousness. Neocapitalist desituationism implies that reality is responsible for capitalism, but only if sexuality is distinctfrom narrativity. Therefore, any number of discourses concerning the role of the poet as reader exist.
The Chomskybot is another such page which produces imitations of Noam Chomsky writings on linguistics. The creator writes, ‘What I find interesting about it is how it just hovers at the edge of understandability, a sort of semantic mumbling, a fog for the mind's eye.… [It’s] most interesting effects are in the mind of the beholder, especially since its output not infrequently induces a strong feeling of inferiority in the unsuspecting, a sense of "I just don't get it, so I must be dumber than I'd thought."’  Here is an example of the output:
Look On My Words, Ye Mighty, And Despair!
        For one thing, the descriptive power of the base component appears to correlate rather closely with a parasitic gap construction. It may be, then, that any associated supporting element cannot be arbitrary in problems of phonemic and morphological analysis. I suggested that these results would follow from the assumption that this analysis of a formative as a pair of sets of features is not quite equivalent to a corpus of utterance tokens upon which conformity has been defined by the paired utterance test. This suggests that the speaker-hearer's linguistic intuition does not affect the structure of the system of base rules exclusive of the lexicon. Suppose, for instance, that this selectionally introduced contextual feature can be defined in such a way as to impose a general convention regarding the forms of the grammar.
Another such software is the Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator – Wisdom of Chopra. Every time you refresh the page, you will get some mind numbing words of  Chopra randomly strung together that will stir your soul. In these examples from the generator he doesn't take a long time to make his pointless.
  1. "Transcendence is entangled in the flow of excellence" 
  2. "Your heart constructs a symphony of neural networks" _
  3. "Information shapes formless belonging" _

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Post-traumatic growth

Most people have heard of post traumatic stress. Yet few are aware of post traumatic growth (PTG). The idea of the possibility of finding blessings in bad breaks is said to be present often in the writings of the ancient Greeks, Hebrews, early Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims as also in literature and philosophy. PTG began to be studied in the 1990’s and they indicate that for a substantial number of people, trauma can be a catalyst for positive psychological changes. For eg., people may feel an increased sense of compassion for others, they may have a greater acceptance of their vulnerabilities and limitations, may become less materialistic etc.

While they were not happy about what had happened to them, they felt they had learned valuable lessons from the experience and these lessons eventually changed their lives for the better. They became better parents, better partners, and more compassionate friends. This does not happen immediately or easily, and rarely by itself. The right tools and support are almost always required in order to transform a bad break into a breakthrough. PTG is true not just for life-threatening illness or abuse, but also about everyday traumas such as a divorce, losing a loved one, or a surgery.

This does not mean that trauma is not also distressing. Just because individuals experience growth does not mean that they will not experience struggles. Also, PTG is not universal. It is not uncommon, but that doesn't mean that everybody who faces a traumatic event experiences growth. But there is a view that contrary to popular opinion, experiencing growth after trauma is far more common than PTSD. Richard Tedeschi, Professor and Graduate Coordinator, Department of Psychology, UNC Charlotte, says, 'In the wake of trauma, people become more aware of the futility in life and that unsettles some while it focuses others. This is the paradox of growth: people become more vulnerable, yet stronger.”

An example of PTG  is Dr. Geraat Vermeij, a scientist who I think should be as well-known as Stephen Hawking. He has been blind since the age of 3 but he is an evolutionary biologist, a teacher, was the editor of Evolution, the field's foremost journal, a MacArthur Fellow, an obsessive shell collector, a world- traveled explorer and a field naturalist. Researchers say Dr. Vermeij's findings are among the foundations of the emerging field of paleoecology. He is considered a world authority on the evolution of shells. He has even published on such diverse topics as leaf shape and the evolution of birds. He has the ability to feel differences among shells, quickly identifying them down to the level of subspecies using only his sense of touch.

There are examples  of PTG closer home. We had got a table calendar which featured people from a local NGO called Swarga foundation which performed some services for handicapped people. Jaya rang up the organization to find out if they had some services that I could use. She told the person at the other end about the calendar and enquired about services that they rendered.The other person introduced herself as Swarnalatha and said, ‘I am in March!’ Huh? Jaya was nonplussed for a moment before she realized that the person she was speaking to featured in the March page of the calendar!

I am in March!

Swarnalatha said that they were going to launch a vehicle soon that would help in easier transportation of handicapped people. This service looked attractive for us since shifting me to a car is a difficult task requiring a lot of physical strength. The proposed vehicle was supposed to have a ramp which meant that I could go inside directly seated on my wheelchair. This is the vehicle we now hire when I travel locally, say for going to the hospital, school reunion or for attending a cousin's wedding reception.

Swarnalatha is the Managing Trustee of the organisation. She holds a Diploma in Computer Science and is a post graduate in Hindi and is fluent in 6 languages. She is a Motivational speaker, Social Activist, Singer, Artist (arts & crafts), Puppeteer, Green Crusader, Counsellor, Story writer, Photographer. Also, she is affected with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis since 2009 and is wheelchair-bound. If you look at the other pages of the calendar, you will similarly come across many instances of achievers who have overcome various handicaps viz. a person with Transverse Myelitis who is a Disability rights advocate, Hr consultant and a guest lecturer for management studies or person with Down's Syndrome who is a Bharatanatyam dancer and playschool teaching assistant.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

"Just where do you think you are, sir?"

Being an outside observer now rather than a participant in daily activities that I would otherwise have been, I get a different take on what people do. In many cases, when I hear about people 'working hard' till late at night in the office, it just seems to be a confirmation of what Gandhi had said in Hind Swaraj, 'Formerly, men were made slaves under physical compulsion. Now they are enslaved by temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy.' The world is too much with them. I was reading a book written in 1883, Conventional Lies of Our Civilization by Max Nordau. Its description of Western society at that time seems to be true of India today:
Each day witnesses the birth of some new, wonderful invention, destined to make the world pleasanter to live in, the adversities of life more endurable, and to increase the variety and intensity of the enjoyments possible to humanity. But yet, notwithstanding the growth and increase of all conditions to promote comfort, the human race is to-day more discontented, more irritated and more restless than ever before.
[SNIP] 
The light literature of England has long since ceased to be a faithful mirror of real life. When it is not describing with gusto, crimes and scandals of all kinds, murders, burglaries, seductions or testamentary frauds, it portrays a model society, in which the members of the nobility are all handsome, dignified, cultivated and wealthy; while the lower classes are honest God-fearing people, devoted to their superiors, the virtuous among them being graciously praised and rewarded by Sir This or Sir That, while the wicked are locked up by the police — in short, a society which is in all respects an absurd idealization of the dilapidated, tottering structure of society as it exists in England at the present day.
Many people I meet are richer than they were before my stroke but I am not sure if they are happier.  The levels of narcissism seems to have gone through the roof with people spending incredible amounts of time, effort and money to look good. In spite of riches they seem to have many issues to worry about – property disputes; couple separating within months after an extravagant, no-expenses spared wedding; highly educated son becoming a drunkard…After listening to all the sorry tales, I will end up feeling that I am not in such a bad state after all.

Private vehicles are regarded as status symbols rather than as a means of transport. Some people change models of cars and mobile phones every year depending on the talk of the town. They seem to be advertisement driven rather than utility driven. Teens will wear only expensive, branded items (which they will soon outgrow much to the delight of manufacturers) due to peer pressure. And as George Orwell says in his essay Pleasure spots, ‘Much of what goes by the name of pleasure is simply an effort to destroy consciousness.’ I heard of a 14 year old boy who committed suicide because his parents refused to buy him a smart phone. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back in.

People keep wanting a bigger TV with additional features they will rarely use. They will want computers with more RAM, more hard disk, higher speeds…all of which will be an over-kill for their normal use. And as you become more tantalized by these 'innovations' , you become more dependant on your job which thereby becomes the modern version of slavery. There is often an air of pretense and phoniness like one sees in the manufactured, made-to-order smiles of air-hostesses, hotel receptionists and TV presenters. Many successful people seem to acquire characteristics similar to one I had read in an article which had a quote from a novel in which a wife tells her husband who is a typical big shot executive:
‘…you are losing a kind of innocence which was always dear to me. I think you take the wrong kind of pride in what you are doing. You are learning how to push the little buttons which make people jump, and you are becoming cynical and skeptical about people. It is a kind of 'watchfulness' which I see in you. Your smile is the same and you seem to talk in the same way, and people like you as readily as ever, but you are on guard, even with me. I think you are becoming a political man, and once again I must sound childish to you as I say that I do not like the byproducts—the compromise, subterfuge and so help me, the 'use' of human beings. I am not accusing you of some enormous wickedness. But I think the kind of work you are doing now will change the essential texture of you, will harden you in ways I cannot clearly understand.’
There is a philosophical term called the paradox of hedonism according to which directly seeking pleasure makes pleasure difficult to achieve and even more difficult to maximize. The person starts framing all of his relationships in terms of his own pleasure and cannot care about anything or anyone else.  It is better for him to  genuinely care about things distinct from pleasure and then let pleasure be felt as a byproduct. But we are attracted to all sorts of trivialities thinking that they will give us pleasure as noted by Gandhi in his description of the Eiffel Tower - 'the tower was a good demonstration of the fact that we are all children attracted by trinkets'.

Psychologists have double plus ungood news.They have determined that people are more sensitive to losses than gains, privilege short-term over long-term and prefer certainty over uncertainty. So if changing the current style of living involves bearing shot-term costs that are certain in anticipation of uncertain long-tern gains, most of us will not consider the long-term alternative. So we will continue to struggle in the swamp even if we know that we are getting even more stuck. I know I have this weakness. It is not a pretty picture. Gandhi seems to have instinctively recognized this Faustian pact of the human mind.

In Oct 1945, he wrote to Nehru that may be India too will adopt the modes of modern Western civilization that he had criticized and ‘like the proverbial moth burn itself eventually in the flame round which it dances more and more furiously’. ‘The indefinite multiplication of wants’ which Gandhi said defined modernity soon begin to pall. (It is one of the paradoxes  of India that a man who was not materialistic finds his portrait on all rupee notes.) This tendency has a name - hedonic treadmill, which proposes that people return to their level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them, because we psychologically adapt to that new experience. Gandhi recolonized this tendency when he wrote in Hind Swaraj:
We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors, therefore, set a limit to our indulgences. They saw that happiness was largely a mental condition. A man is not necessarily happy because he is rich, or unhappy because he is poor.
A model of growth that requires an endless increase of consumption is probably doomed. As someone said, ‘If you think infinite growth is possible on a finite planet, you are either crazy or you are an economist.’ It all reminds me of a joke that is more than a joke that I had once read. A man found himself, after death, in heaven. His host showed him around the celestial premises and it soon became apparent that it was a place where the residents could have anything they wanted. The man kept wishing and getting whatever he wanted until he finally ran out of desires. Then he started getting bored and irritated and said flippantly that things might be more interesting in Hell. His host asked quietly, 'Just where do you think you are, sir?'

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Recreating LFS in CBE


About 10 years ago, some of my schoolmates - Little Flower School (LFS), Jamshedpur - started planning our 25th year reunion and started tracking people down. But try as they might, they couldn't locate me. They finally found out the landline number of my house and gave me a ring. It was then that they found out some details about my stroke. By then there was only a week left for the reunion, I had never travelled so far at the time (2010) after my stroke and I did not attend the reunion.

Earlier this year we were informed that this time the reunion was being held in Coimbatore so that I could attend easily.  This was a pleasant surprise for me since I had thought that the reunion will be in Jamshedpur. The connectivity between Coimbatore and Jamshedpur (call me biased but that is the best city in India, at least as I remember it from over 30 years ago!) is poor and it would have been difficult for me to go there. There was a good chance that I would not have been able to go. With the reunion now scheduled to be held in Coimbatore, to go or not to go was no longer a question that I had to grapple with.

I was shocked when I read this post. It is by a person who  graduated from high school in 1984 (exactly the same year as me) and was being called for his class’s 25th year reunion. He writes about the rough time he had in school, the bullying, physical abuse and social ostracization that he had suffered. He writes that ‘there was not a single person in my graduating class who came close to treating me like a friend. Not one.’ It was the exact opposite of my school experience where being with my school mates was something I looked forward to.

I had spent many pleasant years with my schoolmates both inside and outside school. Within about half an hour of our school-day being over, many of us used to meet again and play cricket for the next 2-3 hours. (On many days, we used to play till it was too dark to continue.) This is is what I think about when I see children these days running from one tuition to another with no time to play. And I am quite sure that the syllabus was more in our time so I don't know what it is all about. I am reminded of a poem called Leisure by W.H. Davies that I had in school.

It was no surprise that my mother expressed a desire to meet my friends. She would be familiar with many of them since the ground we used to play cricket in was next to our house. Many of our parents knew each other since they worked in the same organization and also met on various social occasions. So she had a lot of news to catch up with! My mother and sister accompanied us on two days and my in-laws on the second day of the reunion. Sujit came for a day to attend the reunion. He returned the same night to Chennai.

Sujit in the center of the circle; others clockwise after me - Jaya, my father-in-law, my sister, my mom, my mother-in-law and my classmates Saravan and Manoj. The other person in the photo is Sarvan's wife. 
It was great meeting people I had grown up with, most of whom I was meeting after a gap of over 30 years. Even though Father Time had done his bit in producing grey hairs and generous paunches, I could recognize everybody without much difficulty. I had, like Wordsworth up at Tintern Abbey, “sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; /And passing even into my purer mind  / With tranquil restoration:—feelings too / Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps / As have no slight or trivial influence” on my life.

With all my classmates 
Updated on 10/08/2017: I have changed the group photograph because three of my friends were not in it. I have included the old photo at the end.

While identifying the people present did not pose a problem for me, I would have struggled to identify everyone in a group photograph having everyone in all 3 sections of our class. (Jaya will tell you that this is not surprising as I once failed to identify myself in a photograph!) I was astonished at the rapidity with which many had been able to identify everyone in that photograph. Age had not dimmed their memories at all.

There was a session where people related various funny incidents that they recalled from schooldays. I was often surprised by the clarity with which people recalled various incidents, many of which had remained with me as what Wordsworth called”gleams of half-extinguished thought”. I am often told that I have a sharp memory which was belied by the stories that I was hearing. I suppose, like it is said in obituaries where a person is said to be the best, the kindest, the most loving person who ever lived, I get to hear wonderful things about me that nobody told me about in my better days.

I was asked to relate an incident from my school days but I declined the invitation. One of the advantages of suffering a stroke is that I can delegate to Jaya the  nightmarish task of speaking in front of a mike. (This is a characteristic that I share with Gussie Fink-Nottle, the newt lover with a face like a dead fish.) The one time I managed to do the impossible, people were so surprised by the event that some seemed to remember something about it. But this was not the only reason why I kept quiet.

I generally avoid saying anything substantial when a lot of people are present and prefer to keep my responses as short as possible or say nothing at all. The reason is that my method of communication is so slow that it keeps others waiting for long and also prevents Jaya from interacting with people for quite a while. Also, unless she is writing my responses, some distortions will inevitably creep into the retelling. That is why I prefer blogging: I can take my time to write what I want in the way that I want. So I will write about a cricket match that Thapa (Ravinder Kumar) had talked about.

He talked about the final of a cricket tournament that we had won in which he was the captain. I had injured my finger the previous day and did not expect to play but Thapa insisted that I play. Fortunately we won the toss, batted first and Thapa played a brilliant innings. (The fortunate part was about winning the  toss not Thapa’s brilliant innings which was along expected lines.) At the lunch break he showed my injured finger to the umpires, said that I had got hurt while batting and asked for a substitute fielder to which the umpires agreed.  The substitute fielder was Anuj Kathuria who was a very good fielder and took a couple of excellent catches that helped us win the match. I was a lousy fielder and would have dropped them for sure. This was the ideal match for me and the team – I batted and did not field!

With Thapa,  the canny captain - he knew when to keep me in the pavilion much to the relief of the team and me!
The surprise for me at the reunion was Rocky's (Rajesh Sharma) singing. I had no idea about his talent when I was in the school.  With such a great voice, he can make a career out of singing. He later recorded a song and posted it here. Listen and be amazed.


                   
Rocky singing at the reunion. With him is Chandrashekar, who organised the reunion
I am reliably informed that we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep. If that be so, I was pretty well stocked up for the dreams when I returned from the reunion, like Wordsworth from Tintern Abbey, “not only with the sense / Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts / That in this moment there is life and food / For future years.”

Until next meeting!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Nurses and TV

'Water of India' is act that magicians in India use in most shows. A large bowl full of water is shown, then emptied completely into a bucket. The bowl is then set down for a short time, but whenever the magician desires, water again pours out and he can repeat this many times during his show. Nurses are my equivalent of the magicians' 'water of India' trick - they keep giving me incidents to write about.

After I am shifted to the wheelchair, I sit in such a way that the TV is behind me so I can't see it. Once an MGR song was being shown on the TV. I was familiar with the song and enjoyed listening to it. Noticing this, the nurse jumped to the conclusion that I was an MGR  fan and knew all his movies and songs which is not true. When another old song came and she asked me to identify the actor, I decided to take a chance and guess 'MGR' again because she was not giving me the option 'don't know'.  It turned out to be right.

After that, I guessed 'MGR' for every old Tamil song she asked me about. It would always be correct and she would be impressed. Then she asked me about another old song but this time my regular guess was wrong and I didn't have any idea who the actor was. She cottoned on to my ruse and asked me about 3-4 more songs and in all of them, my guess was wrong. She said, ' You don't know anything except reading books!' Sometimes she used to tell me, 'why don't you enjoy?' by which she seemed to mean, 'Why don't you watch TV?' She didn't seem to realise that this alternative would have bored me.

Among the TV channels that  I watch frequently are the nature channels like National Geographic and Animal Planet. Most nurses also like these channels because they see animals that they never knew existed.  But one day a nurse said that she was having nightmares about the predator-prey struggles that she had seen earlier in the day. From that day, I decided not to see the nature channels as long as this nurse remained with us. I didn't want her sleep spoiled because of my TV viewing habits. 

Most nurses know a lot of tidbits about films and film stars and think that I am also an authority on these matters. For instance, a nurse pointed at an actor and asked me, 'Isn't that Bhiman Raghu?' I had never heard the name before and stared blankly. I then discovered that she was referring to an actor I had seen in several movies  but whose name I did not know. In this way, I have picked up the names of several actors with familiar faces who are not in lead roles.

Many nurses are also avid watchers of TV serials, something that I keep well away from. The serial makers seem to have taken to Oscar Wilde's observation, 'Nothing succeeds like excess' so when several nurses have changed, many serials remain the same. One nurse said to me, 'When I keep Tamil, you look away.' This was not true. She didn't seem to have noticed that when she kept serials, I will stare at the ceiling (if I am lying on the bed; I rarely watch TV when I am sitting on the wheelchair) but when she kept movies or songs, I was watching.

Once a nurse told me, 'These two are divorced.' I looked at the TV and saw two people who I didn't know at all and wondered why I should know that they are divorced. Then I suddenly realised that it was the trailer for a forthcoming episode of a serial and it was about the story in the serial! This nurse used to say that she did not like serials but she will ask others about the story so far in different serials. And every once in a while, she will watch a serial with rapt attention.

The favourite sports program of one nurse was WWF. While changing channels, if she came across a program of WWF, she will exclaim ‘kusti!’ (fight) and stare at the action unblinkingly.

PS: The most puny, weak and thin people seem to be fascinated by WWF. Perhaps we are all schizophrenics and mentally live out what we see on screen and can't do. For eg., I love watching Govinda movies. I would never have been able to do what he does: perform crazy dances in a quiet Singapore street dressed in a blue pant, yellow shirt and red tie (with white polka dots) with passersby wondering which mental asylum to send him to.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Degradation of nature - II

Creeping normality is the way a major change can be accepted as the normal situation if it happens gradually. If the same change took place in a single step or short period, it would cause a lot of hue and cry. In Collapse, Jared Diamond discusses how societies have slowly destroyed themselves without noticing the harm they were doing until it was too late because the affects happened very gradually. An example that Diamond uses is people and societies slowly using up all their resources. Success may hide impending disaster as it might have done to Easter Islanders.

A question often asked is,  ‘Why bother about little critters? Human lives are more important.’ This argument ignores various ecosystem services that different organisms provide for free – nitrogen fixation, pollination, seed dispersal, etc. Some of these services can be replaced by human agency but they will prove expensive and some of these services will never be known till long after the damage has been done and it is too late to do anything about it. As an example of inter-relationships in nature that may not be immediately apparent, Charles Darwin writes in On the Origin of Species:
I have very little doubt, that if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests; and Mr. H. Newman, who has long attended to the habits of humble-bees, believes that "more than two thirds of them are thus destroyed all over England." Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as every one knows, on the number of cats; and Mr. Newman says, "Near villages and small towns I have found the nests of humble-bees more numerous than elsewhere, which I attribute to the number of cats that destroy the mice." Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district!
Environmental issues belong to a class called 'wicked problems' which are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. They are very different from relatively "tame", soluble problems in mathematics or chess. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad and a purely scientific-engineering approach cannot be applied because of the lack of a clear problem definition and differing perspectives of stakeholders. Their solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behavior. These problems have a lot of ambiguity and the consequences are difficult to imagine.

Most wicked problems are connected to other problems. Complex interdependency among various components means that trying to  solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. You cannot talk about 'optimal solutions' to these problems because there are ideological, cultural, political and economic constraints which keep changing over time. In Collapse, after identifying 12 sets of environmental problems like soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, issues due to alien species, etc., Jared Diamond writes:
People often ask, 'What is the single most important environmental/population problem facing the world today?' A flip answer would be, 'The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!' That flip answer is essentially correct, because any of the dozen problems if left unsolved would do us grave harm, and because they all interact with each other, if we solved 11 of the problems, but not the 12th, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem that remained unsolved. We have to solve them all.
Global climate change has been called a 'super wicked problem' because it has the following additional characteristics: time for addressing it is running out,  it has no central authority and those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it. Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall explores several psychological issues that come in the way when addressing the issue of climate change. For eg. it has no clearly identifiable enemy, has dispersed responsibility and diffused impacts making it very difficult to motivate and mobilize people around it.

When meddling with nature, it is better to err on the side of caution. From large dams to smart cities to the proposal to interlink rivers, such large multi-crore projects have always been favorites of politicians, technocrats and contractors. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy explains why these large projects are attractive no matter how much empirical data about their harm is provided:
It is often a major source of distributing patronage through contracts, political financing, building new networks of political obligations, generating politically powerful blue- and white- collar specialist jobs. It is also often a technology of electoral mobilization and a means through which an impression of grand political performance can be created. Such a project gradually becomes an end in itself and cultivates a certain forgetfulness about its effects on the life-support systems of a community.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Degradation of nature - I

'Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist', said John Maynard Keynes. One of these defunct ideas is the environmental Kuznets curve which assumes that environmental degradation tends to get worse as economic growth occurs until average income reaches a certain point after which further development will lead to improvement of the environment. Most of the decision-makers seem to be hostage to this idea.

In this blog post, George Monbiot writes about a group called economodernists in UK whose ideas seem very similar to what is very often propounded by many in India – modernization, development, technology, urbanization, emphasize manufacturing, etc., displaying a simple minded view of the environment and not considering for a moment the possibility that poverty may be an iatrogenic outcome of their proposals.  Economists seem to be the perfect examples of what Peter Drucker said, 'Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.'

They remind me of a line from an old Hindi song - naam bade aur darsan chote (famous names with short-term outlook). As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in Antifragile, 'Where simplifications fail, causing the most damage, is when something nonlinear is simplified with the linear as a  substitute.' And relationships in the environment are full of non-linearities. Economists are unaware of Orgel's second rule - "Evolution is cleverer than you are." (It does not imply that evolution has conscious motives or method but that the process of natural selection, though itself not intelligent, clever or purposeful, produces results that are ingenious.)

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that the worst problem of modernity is that one person gets the upside and a different person gets the downside 'with such transfer facilitated by the growing wedge between the ethical and the legal'. The decision-making elite living in cities are themselves not going to suffer from the terrible ill-effects of environmental devastation that the poor suffer from. This makes them contemptuous of environmental safeguards and makes them think that a concern for the environment is detrimental to economic growth. In an article by Ramachandra Guha, there was an extract from a book by John Kenneth Galbraith followed by comments by a Berkely geographer Carl Sauer:
if we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible to seek to increase the supply, or decrease waste, to make better use of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes. But what of the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem. If it continues its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? Yet in the literature of the resource problem this is the forbidden question. Over it hangs a nearly total silence. It is as though, in the discussion of the chance for avoiding automobile accidents, we agree not to make any mention of speed! 
A cultural explanation for this silence had been previously provided by the great Berkeley geographer Carl Sauer. Writing in 1938, Sauer remarked that ‘the doctrine of a passing frontier of nature replaced by a permanent and sufficiently expanding frontier of technology is a contemporary and characteristic expression of occidental culture, itself a historical-geographical product.’ This frontier attitude, he went on, ‘has the recklessness of an optimism that has become habitual, but which is residual from the brave days when north-European freebooters overran the world and put it under tribute.’ Warning that the surge of growth at the expense of nature would not last indefinitely, Sauer — speaking for his fellow Americans — noted wistfully that ‘we have not yet learned the difference between yield and loot. We do not like to be economic realists’.

When discussing nature, economists tend to think that what is unknown is non-existent. The  myriad relationships between the entities in nature are to economists what flies are to wanton boys, to be killed – or ignored – for their sport, without considering them important enough to complicate matters. Development which is grounded in the idea that humans can gain absolute control over nature is short-sighted. People keep talking about economic growth but seem blind to the fact that India has 18%of the world’s population and 4% of the world’s water which should be an alarming statistic.

Environmental abuse has various harmful effects like  air pollution, forest and pasture loss, degradation of crop lands, and poor sanitation and water supply. This results in various costs to society like ill health, lost income, and increased economic vulnerability. It has been estimated that the cavalier treatment of the environment is costing India over 5% of GDP annually. In an article, Denial of Catastrophic Risks, Martin Rees says:
I believe these "existential risks" deserve more serious study. Those fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, possible carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, and so forth. But we should be more concerned about events that have not yet happened but which, if they occurred even once, could cause worldwide devastation.  
The main threats to sustained human existence now come from people, not from nature. Ecological shocks that irreversibly degrade the biosphere could be triggered by the unsustainable demands of a growing world population. Fast-spreading pandemics would cause havoc in the mega cities of the developing world. And political tensions will probably stem from scarcity of resources, aggravated by climate change.