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REALITY CHECK

The Thing About Trendy Green

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10 popular panaceas that promise to revive our ecologically bankrupt planet. But can they ever deliver?

1. AFFORESTATION

Like most of us, I grew up learning about the virtues of planting trees. Our home in Calcutta had a modest garden and plants flowered round the year. In senior school, I took home free saplings distributed as part of the Green Calcutta mission. By the time I was in college, afforestation was as much a cause as gender equality or child rights.

A couple of decades later, facts tell a scary story. Since 1987, India has added 50,000 sq km to its forest cover. Given the growing pressure on land and other natural resources for economic growth, that sounds like a miracle of an achievement until we hit the fine print.

The rise in forest cover is attributed to successful afforestation drives, which means plantation of fast-growing, usually commercial species such as teak, rubber, coffee or eucalyptus. On paper, such plantations have more than compensated for the loss of forests in the past 25 years. But monoculture plantations (row upon row of the same species) do not support biodiversity, have little or no ecological value, and are no substitute for natural forests.

So it has been a double whammy on the ground. Target-oriented government policies make forest staff clear degraded natural forests, where root stocks would rebound given protection, to plant saplings. Over time, these artificial monocultures keep adding to the green cover and hide the rapid, alarming loss of natural forests.

Researchers Jean- Philippe Puyravaud and Priya Davidar of Pondicherry University, and William Laurance from James Cook University, have estimated that plantations in India are expanding by 6,000-18,000 sq km a year. The native forests, on the other hand, are declining rapidly, at a rate higher than that of either Brazil or Malaysia.

In the past two years, for the gain of 1,000-odd sq km of green cover through plantation in Punjab, 670 sq km of ancient forest was lost in Andaman and Nicobar and another 18,000 sq km in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

It is one thing to plant trees by the roadside or in gardens, quite another to try greening the world with plantations. As long as governments continue with such myopic afforestation drives, the country’s best natural forests will keep silently disappearing without disturbing our blind estimates of green cover.

2. CARBON OFFSET

By the time I could afford a small car, the world was worrying about carbon offsetting. My moral ground slipped when we bought a second car. Guilt finally caught up with me in 2007 when I watched the Vatican become the “first carbon-neutral sovereign state”. Before I could bring myself to buy some credit, the papal state was planning to sue the Hungarian company KlimaFa that had promised to plant thousands of trees along the Tisza river to suck up carbon. It was already 2010 and not a single sapling had been planted.

But would it really have helped even if KlimaFa planted those promised trees? Most trees are vulnerable to harvesting. They get uprooted in squalls and burn in forest fires. So, in the long run, it makes little sense to plant trees to offset carbon dioxide that can stay in the atmosphere for centuries before getting dissolved in the ocean. Yet, trees fetch carbon promoters millions of dollars because of their symbolic appeal.

London-based New Energy Finance estimates the global carbon market to scale the $100 billion mark by the year-end. That is a lot of money in a market that is completely unregulated and open to abuse. In the name of carbon offset, green fraudsters are busy ripping off emotional buyers across the globe, from Panama to Papua New Guinea where the natives were made to surrender their carbon rights for what they appropriately call “sky money”. Already, a number of countries, Australia among them, have cracked down on unscrupulous carbon marketing.

A carbon customer buys an unverifiable promise that nobody may keep or cause further damage to the planet trying to keep. Between 2006 and 2009, at least 550 windmills were set up by evicting thousands of tribals from their ancestral land in Maharashtra’s Dhule and Nandurbar districts. After felling more than 1,000 trees, carbon credits were sold to foreign companies at $8 a tonne, causing global outrage. Without a single enforceable standard of credibility, the global carbon industry’s own future remains as shaky as the earth’s.

3. ALTERNATIVE ENERGY

We agreed long ago that burning coal was bad for the planet. Ditto for fossil fuels. Hydro-electricity was the preferred green choice till we realised how it kills our rivers. But since all of us have long become energy-guzzling monsters, something had to give. While the world grappled with exorbitant alternatives, it suddenly became green-versus-green. So windmills are blamed for avian mortality, solar power for ruining deserts, biomass for air pollution and even the geothermal promise apparently packs toxic discharges.

Remember how the Indian media fell in love with oilseed plant jatropha about a decade ago? Ignoring a few critics who felt it could pose a threat to our food security, the government set a plantation target of 13 million hectare by 2013. The programme has now been put on hold after an official study by The Energy Research Institute (TERI) in 2010 declared jatropha financially unviable.

While the jury is still out on the affordability of alternative energy even if mass demand makes the unit cost less intimidating, the knee-jerk, populist attempts to move towards renewable fuel has created another market open to rampant abuse.

After raising more than $1 billion from investors and securing a $500 million federal loan guarantee to build a state-of-the-art robotic factory, Silicon Valley solar panel maker Solyndra declared bankruptcy in 2011, blaming it on “a global oversupply of solar panels” and shutting its doors on a 1,100-strong workforce.

In 2007, the US declared that 36 billion gallons of ethanol would be used in gasoline by 2022. Companies that could not meet their target bought credits from renewable fuel producers. Starting 2009, Maryland-based firm Clean Green Fuel sold credits for 21 million gallons of biodiesel. The company maintained it collected waste vegetable oil from 2,700 local restaurants and converted it into fuel, till the government found out in 2011 that Clean Green Fuel had no facilities to collect or convert anything and dragged it to court. But the owner had already made $9.1 million in cash. And he ran a fleet of more than two dozen luxury sports cars. Talk of reducing the carbon footprint.

4. ECO-TOURISM

I have not been to the Galápagos. This cluster of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean and their unique native species inspired Darwin’s theories on evolution and natural selection. Now chances are I never will. Around 40,000 tourists visited this treasure trove of nature in 1990. The number of visitors grew to 145,000 in 2006. But of the $418 million generated by tourism annually, only $63 million entered the local economy. Less than 40 per cent of the boats operating in the Galápagos were locally owned.

Then, the Darwin Foundation and UNESCO raised an alarm. In 2008, things began to move slowly with restrictions on tourist numbers and a resurgence of the local economy. This year, the Galápagos Park service stopped boats from using the same landing site more than twice a month.

The Galápagos example is true of most eco-destinations around the world. At home, once little-known forests, beaches and hill stations are now bursting with tourists and the garbage they leave behind. The irony, in fact, lies in the very promise that makes eco-destinations popular.

True, like any industry, tourism survives on growth. But growth kills the very USP of eco-tourism. If an operator promotes a virgin beach or a pristine forest for what it is and offers the concessions that mass tourism demands, the destinations cannot remain virgin or pristine for long.

The other promise of eco-tourism, that it will take care of local communities and conservation, is sheer betrayal. To generate enough revenues to fulfil the green promise, big eco-tourism players must bring large volumes of low-quality business to the ultimate detriment of conservation and (local) community.

All that could change if eco-tourism were restricted to local communities. If external players did not get to take away the bulk of profits, a much smaller business could support each eco-destination. But the service industry needs skill sets usually absent in local communities. So the involvement of big business is inevitable, and the decimation of eco-destinations implicit in that inevitability.

5. COEXISTENCE

Legend has it that Indians have, down the ages, lived in harmony with nature, which includes wild animals that can kill or cause damage. Never mind the heroics of Lord Krishna dancing atop a deadly snake that he eventually killed; or Sita’s fetish for golden deer pelt that triggered an epic transoceanic battle. Our gods and goddesses moved around on animals and birds, but then Mahishasura, the demon, also assumed the buffalo form and there is no clarity on how the tiger pelts used by Lord Shiva and by the meekest of our rishis were sourced.

The point is simple. Unlike the paranoid West, the oriental approach to nature and wildlife was certainly tolerant. But while Indians hardly panicked at the presence of potential dangerous wildlife, they never shied away from intervening when the danger was real.

That was then. Now, we have an overpopulated, fast urbanising country where man-animal conflict is steadily on the rise due to two alarming trends. One, vast tracts of forests, and with it their wildlife, are disappearing. Two, wildlife is flourishing in certain protected, designated or not, forest pockets.

The urban elite coasting on the benefits of growth does have green concerns. It is never easy to fight the state and big businesses. So they want the rural poor to look after the wilderness. The rural poor never needed any prodding. But now the villager has a problem: in certain pockets protected wildlife populations have multiplied manifold. He is now being asked to ‘co-exist’ and sacrifice livelihood, and often life, in the name of traditional Indian tolerance.

Even if the fashionable urban greens continue their push to save wildlife by turning the rural poor into casualties of conservation, do the animals stand a chance? The right to survive is sacrosanct, and pitting the wildlife and the poor against each other can yield only one winner. But then, it is far easier to stand on the sidelines and cheer (or preach) than to share the responsibility and cost of conservation.

6. ORGANIC FARMING

Half a century ago, agricultural practices worldwide were organic. Life expectancy has grown by a couple of decades since. Miraculous, given that the food I, and most others I know, can afford has become a cocktail of pesticides and insecticides.

Organic food may not prolong lifespans but surely it secures the planet’s future. Then again, does it really? A litre of organic milk requires 80 per cent more land than conventional milk to produce, has 20 per cent greater global warming potential, releases 60 per cent more nutrients to water sources, and contributes 70 per cent more to acid rain. That is what a study by UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) claims. What is more, organically-reared cattle emit double the amount of methane compared to conventionally reared ones.

An organic farmer needs to plough two-and-a-half times the land to match the potato yield of a conventional farmer. Likewise, organic yield is 75 per cent of conventional tomato crops but it consumes twice the energy in heated greenhouses and 25 per cent more water. Defra also estimates that nutrient pollution of organic wheat and tomato is three times higher than conventional varieties.

The carbon cost apart, the market price of organic food is too steep to justify in a world still fighting hunger. In poorer countries, organic farming is indeed the default option still but there is just not enough food to support the market. In Africa, where the problem is most pronounced due to green groups’ insistence on traditional farming methods, forced subsistence and constant expansion of low-yield farming are causing deforestation, soil erosion and habitat loss. In sum, serious environmental damage.

7. VEGETARIANISM

The poor who cannot afford animal protein would laugh at the suggestion that a vegetarian’s food footprint can actually overshadow a meat eater’s. But the poor have no choice but to live light, and poor kitchens, particularly in villages, obviously make the most of the backyard garden.

But new-age vegetarianism is no compulsion of the poor; it is a fad of the rich. Vegetarians who fly in exotic greens and fruits from around the world often leave a larger footprint than those who consume local meat or poultry in moderation. A 2010 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report nailed the charade by pointing out that highly processed vegetarian meat-substitutes or foods made of imported soya might use more arable land and resources than their meat or dairy equivalents.

Besides, soya and tofu, the ultimate meat-substitute, contain a high-level of the anti-nutrient phytic acid, which blocks the absorption of minerals such as magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc. It also contains phytoestrogens that can cause infertility. While a study at Harvard Public School of Health in 2008 found that soya milk reduced sperm counts in men by 50 per cent, the Swiss Health Service estimated in 1992 that women consuming two cups of soya milk a day were ingesting the estrogenic equivalent of one birth control pill. This explains why babies fed soya-based formula have 13,000 to 22,000 times more estrogen compounds in their blood compared to those fed milk-based formula.

Those who shun meat in favour of fish are not helping the planet either. Half the fish consumed globally is produced by aquaculture while the rest is procured by hunting (fishing) in the wild. Aquaculture often destroys mangroves and pollutes estuaries through effluent discharge from shrimp farms. Personally, I feel guilty every time I order salmon. It is one of the predator species, meaning I end up wasting resources worth 1 kg of other fish that goes into producing just 200 gm of salmon on my plate. But then, I have never had a kiwano melon.

8. ACTIVISM

No, we don’t really mind those ads: voluptuous celebrities sporting leopard spots or tiger stripes or in cages, dressing up as giant condoms to promote animal birth control, or pregnant women being compared to fattened cows to protest farmed meat. In fact, some of us secretly loved the idea (and the excuse: Vegans make better lovers) when volunteers publicly made out on the streets of Nashville in US.

But how much do these outlandish campaigns cost? Peta draws annual donation worth over $30 million. In 2010, only 2 per cent of it was spent on funding research and 17 per cent on fundraising. In 2011, research grants went up to $10 million but were dwarfed by the $17.5 million bill incurred for campaign and outreach. Greenpeace earned over $27 million in 2010 from donations, investment returns and grants of which $11 million was spent on campaigns.

And what do these campaigns seek to achieve? Last year, relaunching its ‘Paradise Forests’ campaign to convince toymaker Mattel to stop sourcing paper for their packaging from Asia Pulp and Paper, which was clearing valuable rainforests, Greenpeace announced the breakup of Ken and Barbie at Mattel headquarters in Los Angeles, with a banner featuring Ken announcing, “Barbie, it’s over, I don’t date girls that are into forest destruction.”

If that was novel, Greenpeace also encouraged Facebook followers to make scripted calls to tuna companies, many of which included accusations of “rape”, “thievery”, “piracy” and other charges. Peta’s online campaign features games against Mario, the overalls wearing plumber of Nintendo, because he wears fur in the game Super Mario 3D Land. It also ran a Thanksgiving campaign asking children, “You wouldn’t eat your dog, why turkey?” and “How would children feel if Fido and Fluffy were stuffed and roasted?”

Bet your donations, turkey is still Thanksgiving staple and Fido and Fluffy still have unprotected sex. It is another matter that farmers keep eliminating thousands of wildlife in retaliatory killings in Asia and Africa because there is never enough money to compensate for crop and other damage.

9. EARTH HOUR

Six years ago, we were told to turn off lights for an hour and save the planet. Since 2007, when more than 2.2 million obliged, the movement has seen phenomenal growth, with 1.8 billion switching off in 2011. This year, the dark hour was observed in 150 countries and territories across 6,494 towns and cities.

The annual global consumption of electricity, however, has shown no significant downtrend since 2005. Sydney, where the Earth Hour movement famously began in 2007, recorded a 16.6 per cent growth in power consumption in 2007-08.

Delhi, a “developing” city with a higher population and no history of Earth Hour campaigns till 2009, was recording much less annual growth (4-5 per cent) in power demand. What no climate change campaign could have done was probably achieved via the simple expedient of a power tariff hike and stricter anti-tampering initiatives. Now, after four years of Earth Hour celebrations, the capital has recorded a 10 per cent rise in power consumption in 2012.

Tokenism is dangerous. Campaigns like Earth Hour offer us an easy bargain and cheap moral capital. Switch off for an hour, have fun (there is no bar on music blasts), and feel good that we have “cared for” the planet. The next day, life goes on as usual.

10. TRIBAL REMEDY

I have read Arundhati Roy and watched James Cameron’s cult movies. I appreciate Roy’s prose and Cameron’s liberty of imagination. Yes, ancient tribes are being duped of their land and their resources by the modern state. Yes, they are absolutely entitled to resist the plunder of resources that not only disempowers them but also jeopardises the future of the earth.

But, unfortunately, in real life, tribals are not the  Na’vi. Their medicine cannot cure most contemporary diseases. Their farming methods, if any, are not a significant improvement over subsistence. They are also quick to learn the vices of civilisation. Suspended between the old and the new worlds and denied the opportunity to decide their future, most tribal societies are undergoing a socio-economic and moral degeneration. Forget theft, gambling and alcoholism, even rapes are not uncommon among the tribes anymore.

Barring a few historically untouched tribes, such as the Sentinels of Andamans, the indigenous population will certainly be better off outside the time capsules a large section of activists wants to consign them to. Else, the human and ecological consequence of growing tribal populations inside shrinking forests will be catastrophic.

Environmentalists, along with rights activists and the militant Left, have successfully ‘propertised’ the tribal to fight their respective battles. But it is painfully romantic to believe that the planet’s last few green assets will be secure in tribal custody. That is, if those assets, and the tribes themselves, survive the onslaught of mining and industry in the first place.