Wanting, Wasting, Waiting
The city gets to me, some days, the ugliness, the rush, the wires dangling from electricity poles,
Above all, the too-muchness of it: too much noise, too much traffic, too much construction,
too much garbage, too much plastic, that sculpts the garbage mountains of Okhla and Ghazipur, where kites swirl in a rancid sky.
On such days, I dream of a simpler life, in a small home with a tiny footprint. I’ve always admired people who live simply, happy to pare their desires down to their needs, and tread light on the earth. Folks who consume little, and waste even less.
I’ve lived the quiet contentment of such a life for several years, and I dream of spending the next winter like this - three months in a simple home near water, swimming and running, cycling to the market, and consuming little energy. But for the last two decades, I’ve lived the life of an entitled city-dweller. The first thing you do when you enter a room is to switch on something - a light, a fan, an air-conditioner, a stereo system. Every time you hit a switch, the Badarpur power plant has to burn that extra ounce of coal, send out that extra gram of soot. When the winds stop blowing in October, and the evening cold traps the day’s exhausts close to your lungs, you reach for another switch, to turn on another appliance, the air purifier.
“Every technology we develop to solve a problem creates a couple of its own”, my old friend Arun said to me the other day. Each of the technologies we so take for granted that we don’t even think of them as ‘technology’, emerged to solve a problem - vehicles to take us to work, coal plants to light the desks at which our children study, construction sites to give us safe homes that can weather storms. As they proliferated, they created air pollution, which was never anticipated; eventually, many parts of the world licked air pollution, and I’m sure we will, too - eventually.
I even think we’ll reverse the carbon emissions that are heating the globe - eventually. Meanwhile, Arun warns, “If a few more summers dry out rivers in China, and spark forest fires in California, the US and China are definitely going to try some crazy experiments with geo-engineering*” - brightening clouds, or mimicking volcanic eruptions by pumping gases into the stratosphere. And who knows what second-order disruption that will bring.
Even a techno-optimist like me wonders what one individual can do, while we learn to manage our trash and our dust, and pedal painfully up the road to decarbonisation.
The obvious answer is to consume less. When you have a high level of income, so much of what you consume is unthinking - you fly out for a weekend holiday just because you can, buy a crate of premium soda water because it's more stylish than nimbu-paani, work out of an over-sized office because you can pay for the air-conditioning, drive an oversized SUV because you can pay for the gas. Let me rush to say that this is not moralising - I am guilty of all of the above.
I know I can abandon all of these, and be as happy, perhaps more content. There is an aesthetic appeal in a life of simplicity, especially if you can live close to nature. I know I will live that life again, whether for long periods, or short. That’s the aesthete in me.
But the economist in me expresses a concern for the hundreds of millions of unemployed in our nation. If folks like me, who have a high level of income and wealth, cut down their consumption, who will generate the demand that generates the jobs?
Our own homes are grossly over-staffed with domestic help, and my wife sometimes gets exasperated with the quantity, and quality, of work they do. “I don’t see why we should continue to pay X”, she’ll say. But we do, because the alternative for X, especially if she is getting on in years, is economic uncertainty, and a sharp drop in standard of living. I see some of our frivolous expenditure as yet another version of spreading the goodies through the economy.
Of course there are other ways of doing that too - supporting charities, investing in start-ups, and I do a fair amount of those, too. But I haven’t yet worked out the optimum balance between spending, investing, and giving money away.
I have been thinking about this for several years now, and am still quite lost. If you have any thoughts on the consumption vs. saving, investment vs. giving it away - I’d love to hear from you.
The Thai Cave Rescue - a documentary film
A very moving documentary, ‘The Rescue’* recounts the extraction of a young Thai football team from the depths of a cave system that is flooded by monsoon waters.
The events of 2018 lit a bonfire of empathy and concern around the world, and news channels followed every tick of the rescue mission for the eighteen days it took to get them out.
‘The Rescue’ tells the story from the perspective of the cave divers who located the team on a dry shelf, and later swam out with them - the Brits John Volanthen, Richard Stanton, Jason Mallinson and Chris Jewell, and 2 Australians, Richard Harris and Craig Challen. Cave diving is an arcane pursuit, and as one of them says in the film - “I never thought such a niche sport could actually be useful one day.”
The documentary has the heart-stopping arc of a top thriller, and is worth watching for that reason, for its authenticity, but above all, for its human moments. The deep humanity of the rescuers, their sense of mission, their personal identification with each of the boys they swam out, makes for many wet-eyed moments.
* On Disney+Hotstar
There's also a wonderful movie on the cave rescue on Netflix which is a good companion to the documentary. Also, the book they are based on by rescuer Rick Stanton - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/58451132-aquanaut
From an economics perspective the solution is straightforward--price all goods and services according its marginal social cost rather than the current pricing practices which are based on marginal private costs. With the revolution in IT it’s now possible to track and price all goods and services from birth to grave and price them according to their true costs rather than building mountains of unwanted wastelands.