Environment and fatalism
A month or so ago I had an opportunity to listen to Sir Fazle Hasan Abed at a closed-door meeting in Washington, DC. He spoke about his work at Brac and how his organisation sought to change the fate of the poor in Bangladesh. It is hard not to be touched by the gallant stories of grassroots resilience and entrepreneurship of the disenfranchised. No less, it is always inspiring to listen to a visionary.
Yet, I asked Sir Abed a simple question, "How does the environment figure in your philosophy of development?" I pointed out two interrelated issues as a context for my question. First, Bangladesh is an extremely land-scarce country relative to its robust population size; therefore, shouldn't development ideologies here be moderated with a pragmatic concern for environmental protection? Second, in land-guzzling developing economies the relationship between development and the environment remains misunderstood and neglected.
Sir Abed responded with various insights. The gist of what he said concerned predominantly the discourse on global climate change and the related vulnerability of Bangladesh. There is not much Bangladeshi people can do if the sea level rises as a result of global warming. Not only would the country lose vital land mass in the south, it would also face grave food insecurity in the wake of saline water intrusion, damaging agricultural productivity. So, the best course of action for Bangladesh, according to him, would be to pursue climate-change adaptation.
Sir Abed meant well. But I was rather surprised that his position was not unlike the standard official narrative when it comes to the question of the environment in Bangladesh -- a fatalistic view that does not adequately acknowledge the role of human agency in the natural world. From the vantage of this position, people are rather passive bystanders in the inexorable course of climate change, only waiting it out until the sea level rises dangerously to wreak havoc in southern Bangladesh.
This is a problematic position since a fatalistic approach means that we are oblivious of, or turn a blind eye to, the precarious carbon footprints that we create in the name of development. If the idea of development means some form of human economic activity -- a shop here, a factory there, a bridge over the canal, two more trucks on the street -- then it intersects with the environment, producing a variety of results. In a straight-talking universe, developments could either be "green," occurring consciously in harmony with nature, or take precedence over the environment. Thus, overstating climate change, in which human contributions remain highly contested, shows a peculiar propensity to exempt humans from their ethical environmental responsibilities.
This brings us to the epicentre of a fierce ongoing debate. When it comes to the question of development, two contradictory attitudes toward the environment emerge.
First, there is this charitable view that humanity is only part of a larger ecosystem; therefore, it is humanity's ethical responsibility to nurture the natural environment for the wellbeing of all species. The supporters of this view would advocate regulating economic growth in such a way that Mother Nature is protected and preserved for present and future generations. For example, the advocates of this position are likely to support ratifying laws that would heavily regulate the ship-breaking industry. Their contention will be that the "deadliest job" of dismantling poisonous nautical leftovers is not only life-threatening for the labourers, but also environmentally destructive. We can't get rid of it because its economic appeal seems to outweigh the cost of the environmental damage that it inflicts on the coastal belt.
Second, there are those "pro-business" people who believe that nature is an infinite resource that ought to be harnessed for human progress and economic growth. The advocates of this anthropocentric viewpoint assume that human beings are at the centre of the cosmos and that it is logical to exploit the environment for their betterment. For example, if open-pit coal mining can generate economic prosperity, then that activity could brush off some environmental costs.
The above two attitudes inform current debates on sustainable development around the world. Both camps favour economic growth, albeit with differing philosophies of development. Hungry for raw materials and energy, western nations since the Industrial Revolution have embraced the second viewpoint as the logical path to human progress, often at the expense of the environment.
But this hubristic position began to shift in the West with various environmental movements in the 1960s and the oil crisis in the 1970s that compelled America and other industrialised nations to seek renewable sources of energy and articulate new policies of balancing development and the environment. For example, two landmark environmental laws were created in the USA: The Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972).These laws meant that an application for setting up a factory would be judiciously scrutinised by an empowered government agency to see whether the factory conformed to recommended environmental standards. The word "environment" increasingly called for ethical human duties. In the built environment, energy efficiency, recycling, reduction of carbon footprint, etc., became policy priorities. The discourse on sustainable development began to favour biocentrism over anthropocentrism.
Hearing Sir Abed's vision of development, I wondered where Bangladesh stands today with regards to environmental stewardship. Despite a growing culture of environmental activism in the country and piecemeal government initiatives, Bangladeshi policies continue to focus exclusively on that much-mythologised term, "growth rate," all too often at the expense of rivers, wetlands, agricultural lands, forests, and air. Think about the air-polluting brickfields that contribute to over 1% of Bangladesh's GDP. They are often left to a laissez faire policy gray zone because they are viewed, alas, as great protagonists in the vaunted growth-rate storyline.
Yet, the word "economy" originally meant the management of a household. It derives from the Greek oikonomia -- oikous (house) and nemein (manage) -- suggesting some kind of underlying environmental or spatial obligations. In an ideal green world, economic developments are welded to cautious environmental policies. But powerful pro-investment lobbies often make environmental regulations an uphill battle. Notice that this problem has become particularly acute within India's burgeoning economy. The Indian columnist Praful Bidwai recently wrote about how India's National Investment Board sought to gag the Ministry of Environment and Forests by calling it a "Green Terror," trying to throw "a green noose around industry's neck."
In Bangladesh, we should be broadly aware of this ideological battle sooner rather than later. NGOs must embrace environmental responsibility more forcefully in their vision for development, rather than leaving the environment to the mercy of climate change. The government must make environmental awareness and duties a top educational campaign right from the primary school to the highest university level.
The growth of tanneries is good for the economy, but we also need an organically sustained Buriganga river. We need affordable housing, but we also need to focus on decentralising our cities, rather than filling up vital ecological wetlands on the edge of the city to meet incessant housing demands. Every square inch in Bangladesh must be taken into consideration for a sustainable future. We need a development model that situates "growth rate" not in the abstract world of economic policies, but in the tangible, finite space of the environment.