I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather.
Not screaming in the back of a car, like his passengers.
me this bit of dark humor to start off what is essentially an extremely
depressing subject, namely the potential for catastrophic man-made
environmental changes to wreak havoc on humanity in years to come. Today's rich
countries are the grandfather character above, while backseat passengers
represent the rest of the world screaming about global warming and all that.
From time to time, be it through last year's summit in Bali or this week's
observation of Earth Day, we are constantly reminded of how fragile Earth's
atmosphere has become and the extent of
potential devastation yet to come as changing weather patterns first muck up
agricultural yields around the world, and soon also threaten large tracts of
land making them infertile. Think for example of the significant salination of
ground water being witnessed in various countries ranging from Brazil to
With most of the scientists at the forefront of the environmental movement
being Western rather than Asian, readers could well take up issue with my
opening salvo blaming Europeans and Americans for environmental degradation.
The point though is that just as tobacco researchers had to toil for decades
before any discernible shift in cigarette smoking occurred, environmental
lobbies have their work cut out for them.
A journalist friend who attended some recent meetings of green and
environmental lobbyists described a strange scene in the gents toilet. No, not
anyone adopting an extra-wide stance in the stalls, but rather the significant
use of paper towels to dry hands. In the middle of a meeting on the
environment, this behavior struck my friend as particularly stupid, but it also
highlighted the deep cultural traits that have to be reversed in Europe and the
US before any meaningful progress can be made.
Think about that for a second: if you pull out five hand paper towels to dry
your hand every time in the toilet, the "footprint" of a single Westerner would
be one tree every day. Multiply that by European and American populations and
suddenly it becomes all too clear why Brazilian rainforests disappear at the
rate of a few thousand acres every week.
No amount of replanting by Brazil, Indonesia or other countries endowed with
massive natural resources can replace the trees lost, because nature selfishly
takes a few years to allow a tree to grow fully. From the example above, using
hand towels, we can see how much needs to be done here. This is a simple
product to understand because the alternative has zero environmental
consequences, namely to shake your hands and let them dry naturally within a
few minutes. In other words, this is a product where consumption changes can
lead to very significant positive impact on the environment. Let's take that
The first step is to cut consumption of wasteful goods, and label all such
products accordingly. Just as cigarette packs sold in Europe come with
startling warnings of burnt lungs and throat cancer, products made by
destroying natural forests must carry similar warnings in their packaging.
Industrial lobbies will fight this move, especially in the case of hypocritical
European countries, but labelling is the first step to reversing consumption
Secondly, governments across the world can coordinate on useful education of
today's young by highlighting the carbon footprint of various daily products.
This involves the use of the Internet and new advertising media to ensure that
a social stigma becomes stronger on the use of various products.
Unfortunately, I need to stop here and pop your dreams. There is no way I see
any of the above happening, whether it is on paper towels or cars or any other
products that typify the higher living standards of European and American
Instead, I suspect that suppliers of these products, who are situated in
various countries around the world, will have to bear the brunt of the
This is the point of media headlines of late that scream about China being the
world's largest polluter. For one thing, with more than 1.3 billion people, or
four times the population of second ranked polluter United States, China
certainly has a smaller carbon footprint per capita. Additionally, much of
Chinese production actually is consumed by the United States and European
countries, so arguably it is their consumption not China's that drives the
In other words, we can realistically argue that the average Chinese today has
less than one-fifth the footprint of an average American. Figures for the rest
of Asia calculated this way are even better, with the average Indian coming in
at less than one-tenth American equivalents.
There is a move by European and American politicians to create "carbon credits"
that allow the users to continue consumption by offsetting it with green
projects elsewhere. A laudable idea, but one that is tinged with racist
connotations all through. Think of it this way: why should a Cambodian maintain
his forests so that a German can drive his Porsche at 200 mph on the Autobahn?
Second-round effects of carbon credits are more negative as the inflexibility
imposed on land use causes significant declines in food production from time to
time. The latest rice scare is partly because of potentially fertile lands in
various rice-producing countries being ring-fenced away for environmental
No individual in Asia or Africa should starve so that an American can wipe his
hands with five paper towels.
The first step, as I laid out above, is to cut consumption of wasteful products
by Europeans and Americans. The second step is to accelerate development of
energy technology that can be used to improve energy efficiency such as fuel
cell stacks for generating electricity, increased focus on nuclear reactors for
the same purpose and so on. Imposing taxes on negative goods such as pollution
caused by airlines is also a good idea and one that America must adopt right
Taking a single jumbo jet off service provides the equivalent footprint of
generating electricity using coal for an entire Indian village. This is the new
math of the world, and one that needs to be considered in environmental