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We must build an ‘environment state’ to counter the threat posed by climate change

The collapse of the world as we know it is fast-approaching and governments must urgently create a collective manifesto for the ‘environment state’.

It is time to accept humbly that nature’s destabilising encounter with modernity is not serving us well: This variant of capitalism has turned rogue and we have to find its ideological opponent. (File Photo/Representational)

Written by James Sangma and Iram Mirza

The raging pandemic has turned the perceptions of what we thought of as “modern day gift horses” — the internet, electricity and all those countless runs to our refrigerators from our quarantine bunkers — into a source of debilitating lifestyle ailments. And while the suspension of economic activity might have caused the planet to rejoice, our carbon-laced lifestyle has refused to bend its rising curve. The internet is the sixth biggest carbon dioxide emitter followed by the usual culprits, cooling and our diets — it takes eight pounds of grain to produce a single pound of hamburger meat from a cow that heats up the planet throughout its lifespan with a steady release of methane.

In a sliver of good news, though, there’s been a collective questioning of the 21st century’s foundational mythologies which are hardwired into our mental models and cultural narratives in terms of development — exponential growth objectives, middle class growth (modelled on Western-style consumption) and global supply chains.

Governments, like the people, too had subscribed to the marvels of the industrial revolution and rampant globalisation, optimising and thrusting resources into the tumble of the tidal market forces. But it is time to accept humbly that nature’s destabilising encounter with modernity is not serving us well: This variant of capitalism has turned rogue and we have to find its ideological opponent.

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Naomi Klein, in her book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal —which doubles up a stunning polemic — has a chapter titled “When science says that political revolution is our only hope”, where she describes geophysicist Brad Werner’s startling presentation to the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union. Werner approaches the question of the sustainability of humankind through a dynamic model known as a global coupled human-environmental system where he ascribes the current ecological crisis to a global market system that is “working too well”.

He says, “It is true and is an awful paradox of the times — a healthy economy means a growing economy — and a growing economy makes demands on the planet that it can no longer sustain”. A vicious cycle that is almost Faustian in its approach because we cannot wean ourselves away from it. Only resistance to the dominant culture will give some hope of avoiding collapse, Werner concludes.

While Klein, in her book, makes this a case to “revolt and protest” to build a political and social consensus in order to arrest this fast-approaching collapse, I (Sangma) am taking it a step further to make my case for the state to lead the case for environment and climate change, through the construct of an “environment state”.

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Not too long ago, environmental governance was a subject on the idealistic fringes of our polity and this construct was considered a “utopian solarpunk fantasy”. But now it’s time for states on the front lines of climate change — especially the forest economies like Meghalaya and others — to institutionalise and integrate it into our operational heart.

This institutionalisation is critical to incentivise the systemic approach towards a “nature first” system.

Extreme climate events have crossed the natural disaster benchmark and have become a quotidian reality. And it is time to rethink and recast our systems.

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In a state that continues to be ravaged due to years of subscribing to the growth imperatives that required the erosion of natural capital — which the world economy celebrates as “growth” — it is time to re-write and operationalise the “environmental state” paradigm. Needless to say, this is our “glass ceiling”.

The economist Mariana Mazzucato, in her book Mission Economy, offers a glimmer of hope. She mentions President John F Kennedy’s famous “Moonshot” speech that galvanised the US public behind the Apollo mission to send astronauts to the moon. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” were his famous words. And this mission was steered and operated by the government itself. The myth of governments being seen as clunky, Kafkaesque and byzantine bureaucratic messes, stands dispelled when seen through the lens of this herculean undertaking.

Mazzucato further points out that NASA had clauses in its procurement contacts that prohibited excess profits and provided incentives for innovation. It paid close attention to the skills of its own staff, encouraging training and learning and built unorthodox collaboration with private stakeholders.

This was a case of “minimum government, maximum governance”. Young governments like ours need to take a mission-oriented “Apollo approach” toward speed-building a collective manifesto of the “environment state” to help neutralise the fast-approaching threat that has cast a serious doubt over humanity’s future.

(Sangma is the environment and power minister of Meghalaya and Mirza advises governments on Impact Programming)

First published on: 23-06-2021 at 06:00:46 pm
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