We need affordable transport, not affordable fuel
With the price of basic necessities going up yet again, it is no surprise that people are campaigning for a reduction in fuel price. Fuel is, after all, related to the price of transport, food, and other necessities—which is, in fact, precisely the problem.
The climate emergency looms large, and not merely on our horizon—it is with us now and growing increasingly worse. Droughts, fires, floods and intense storms are only one aspect of our new abnormal. There will likely be increased pandemics (of which Covid is giving us an unpleasant preview), ever more refugees, and inevitably more violence and war. To slow down the catastrophe, we need to stop burning fossil fuels. Those fuels need to stay under the ground as we transition, rapidly, to a renewable fuel economy. But to do so, we must dramatically reduce the amount of fuel we need, as it is impossible to power our current lifestyles with renewables.
The only way we can successfully keep basic necessities affordable while addressing the climate emergency is to break our decades-long attachment to fossil fuels and to find less fuel-intensive ways to do things.
It might help to remember that the ways in which we currently move around and grow our food, to mention two main uses of fuel, are relatively recent when you look at the history of people on the planet. In Bangladesh, we strive to become a "modern" industrialised country where everything will be motorised as well as digital. But how sensible is that dream? The traditional ways of growing food worked for thousands of years—since the dawn of agriculture. Newer mechanised and chemical-intensive methods—both tractors and fertilisers require fossil fuels—have caused all kinds of problems in the last several decades. The biggest spike in carbon emissions started only in 1950—and has continued to surge ever since. That is to say, the price we are paying for cheap goods and convenience is the destruction of our planet and the daily loss of lives due to pollution.
Many people dream of a modern transport system, and yet we also pay the price daily for that dream—in the form of carnage on our roads, as well as pollution. Bicycles, rickshaws, and trains are slower, sure, but also vastly safer—and much better for our environment.
The more I think about it, the more it amazes me that people have advanced to this level of complex society and lost track of the basics. We don't focus on how to provide food, housing, education and healthcare to the masses; we are far more concerned about developing industries, finding new means of communicating and entertaining ourselves, and satisfying the whims of the wealthiest. We have completely forgotten that environmental destruction has a boomerang effect; we will pay—we already are paying—for the harm that we do to nature. How crazy is it that we forget we need clean air to breathe and water to drink, and instead focus on all kinds of trivia that we could live better without?
So, do we demand fuel subsidies in order to reduce the price of basic goods, knowing that, in doing so, we contribute to pollution, road crashes, and the climate catastrophe? Or do we look to our recent ancestors for ways of meeting our basic needs without burning fuel: returning to manual methods that suited us just fine for thousands of years, and that for thousands of years were compatible with our environment?
If we're going to make the case that people are rational beings, then we need to start making rational demands. Sure, we want cheap bus fares and big roads and elevated expressways. Meanwhile, we need affordable food and housing, too. Deep down, I think we can all agree that where our future survival is in question, perhaps we should focus more on genuine sustainability, returning to methods that are compatible with a liveable future.
So, rather than affordable fuel, let's demand affordable transport: better conditions for walking, cycling, public transit and trains. Rather than subsidising fuel, how about directly subsidising some basic foods, while returning to farming methods that will require less fuel, thus making food affordable to our budgets and in harmony with our living planet? We could redefine prosperity by including a healthy environment, a sustainable future, and a decent existence for all, rather than get caught up in the destructive trappings of an elusive and ultimately deadly modernity.
Debra Efroymson is executive director of the Institute of Wellbeing, Bangladesh, and author of "Beyond Apologies: Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing."