By Adhirath Sethi Jan. 23, 2020
With raging bushfires, melting glaciers, and toxic air pollution, our immediate future is looking a lot less like Rivendell and a lot more like Mad Max Fury Road. But along with activists like Greta Thunberg, we need companies to comply. Until someone finds a great way to profit from climate change, it’s unlikely to have the kind of impact we are desperate for.
If the last few years have told us anything, it is that the apocalypse is no longer some fantasy reserved for the silver screen. Look no further than Australia, where the deadly bushfires have claimed at least 25 lives and rendered thousands homeless, where more than one billion animals were killed with the koalas going “functionally extinct”. After a few days of respite, the bushfires have started again in Australia, forcing its capital Canberra to close the airport. With temperatures already crossing 50 degrees Celsius, its inhabitants sit in nervous anticipation of February – their hottest month of the year.
At the other end of the world, California is now treated to forest fires that seem to arrive annually like clockwork. 2018 was the worst year on record but each fire season seems to be surpassing the last. Of the 20 most destructive fires in the state’s history 14 have occured since 2007.
Somewhere in between all this we have volcanoes, hurricanes, and Delhi – each creating its own miserable condition to the point where regular citizens can do nothing but trudge helplessly about their daily lives with little hope of respite.
The truth is that our immediate future is looking a lot less like Rivendell and a lot more like Mad Max Fury Road.
One would assume we have reached some sort of tipping point; that the last straw had already fallen, and that the world would be collectively rallying to make amends. After all, with the UN setting a 10-year clock beyond which the effects of climate change will become permanently irreversible, it does look like it’s now or never. Phrases like “mass extinction” and “global catastrophe” are being tossed around and these sound like pretty catchy words to take notice of.
Phrases like “mass extinction” and “global catastrophe” are being tossed around and these sound like pretty catchy words to take notice of.
Which is why, it was all the more shocking when Siemens snubbed Greta Thunberg last week, even as she tried to pressure them into ending a project with an Australian coal mine. When you combine Greta Thunberg – everyone’s strict high school headmistress trapped in the body of a 17-year-old – with the seriousness of the Australian bushfires, one might expect that any company would cower under the undeniably bad PR that Siemens would suffer by its refusal to cooperate. But herein lies the truth about corporate commitment to climate change: they’re only happy to do it until the stakes become too high.
It was shocking when Siemens snubbed Greta Thunberg last week, even as she tried to pressure them into ending a project with an Australian coal mine. Ronald Patrick/Getty Images
It was shocking when Siemens snubbed Greta Thunberg last week, even as she tried to pressure them into ending a project with an Australian coal mine.
Ronald Patrick/Getty Images
It’s like when I wanted to be a professional magician and my parents indulged me. It was all high-fives and encouragement as long as I was using spare change and old decks of cards. But the moment I asked for an exact replica of Gandalf’s staff which needed to be ordered online after shelling out some dollars, I was told to stop dreaming and finish my math homework.
We’re all happy to pay lip service to climate change, until it really starts eating into our bottom lines, and this is true for individuals as much as it is for large conglomerates. Yet, optimists insist that true change only needs a good old spot of desperation. When push comes to shove, humanity will solve the unsolvable problems and seek survival.
So, the question is: At what point are things going to get desperate enough? Is it when temperatures in Australia cross 54 degrees Celsius? Or when the fires in California become a bi-annual event? Or when Kejriwal starts wearing two scarves instead of just the one?
An example that’s used to illustrate this point is New York in the early 1900s. The story – as outlined in the book SuperFreakonomics and also in the wonderful sitcom Silicon Valley – was that the explosion in New York’s horse population caused the streets to be caked with manure. With no cure in sight, predictions were made that by 1930, the city would be buried under nine feet of manure. Anyone visiting New York now can attest to the fact that there is only a small quantity of faeces lining the streets, very little of which is likely to have originated from a horse.
So, what changed?
Just when the situation seemed untenable, the automobile arrived, and horses were phased out. Now, a century later, those automobiles are spewing carbon dioxide into the air and we’re expecting electric vehicles will solve that problem.
No one goes to Delhi, takes in a big gulp of air and thinks “there’s money to be made here!”.
The point to note here is that Henry Ford – who is accredited with much of the automobile boom in America – was not some altruist, trying to solve New York’s manure problem. He was a capitalist looking to make money. The environmental impact was just a handy side effect of his new technology.
As much as we expect policy measures by governments to help stem the impact of climate change, the truth remains that until someone finds a great way to profit from it, merely changing policy is never going to be enough. The Siemens example has shown us exactly this. There is money in a coal plant; there is little to be made from cleaning the air right now. While activists like Thunberg would like to arm-twist companies into doing the right thing, there is a fundamental misalignment of priorities that is unlikely to go away any time soon.
Let’s look at two of the biggest pain points: plastic waste and air pollution.
We seem to forget that only some two decades ago, plastic was being hailed as a hero for saving us from the ignominy of tearing down our forests for more paper. Today, with eight million tonnes of plastic being dumped into the sea each year, we’re desperate for an alternative. Nations like China have declared that they will phase out single-use plastic by 2025; India too was to outlaw six items as part of its campaign to get rid of single-plastic last October but shelved its plan. The measure was seen as too much of a risk by businesses in the country amid economic slowdown and job losses.
The question is not just about banning plastic but also about how companies can profit from harvesting plastic from, say, the ocean and making money from the produce.
While we may have deigned to allow water to be bottled and sold to us at a premium, the thought that this might be the future of air is too horrific to imagine. Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images
While we may have deigned to allow water to be bottled and sold to us at a premium, the thought that this might be the future of air is too horrific to imagine.
Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images
This is what the Dutch start-up The Ocean Cleanup is aiming to do. While there has been much debate over whether their low-cost technology to clean up the oceans is viable, the fact remains that pulling garbage out of the ocean is only half a solution. The whole reason the garbage was dumped into the ocean in the first place is because we have nowhere on land to really put it. By the admission of its 25-year-old founder, the company “intends to recycle the plastic and turn it into some kind of product”. It’s the kind of vague mission statement that only Softbank would fund. Truth be told, without a viable way to convert that ocean garbage into money, The Ocean Cleanup is little more than a really large-scale trashtag challenge.
Air pollution is even more tricky. At least there are some conceivable things we can do with plastic waste – such as recycle it, or convert it into fuel, or even give to Lady GaGa to wear at the next year’s Grammys. But what possible money can be made from smog? No one goes to Delhi, takes in a big gulp of air and thinks “there’s money to be made here!”.
But perhaps that’s only because our perception of air is so different from anything else. Like water, we see air as a basic human right. While we may have deigned to allow water to be bottled and sold to us at a premium, the thought that this might be the future of air is too horrific to imagine. We already have an oxygen bar in the city and air purifiers for homes, but multiply the capital’s current condition by ten and consider what each one would have to pay to walk around with a cylinder providing fresh air. It’s likely that once the need becomes critical, companies will start building factories to suck in dirty air, rather than the other way around.
True, electric vehicles are expected to bring down automobile pollution and as more power is generated through renewable sources, the air quality should improve. But keep in mind we’re on a ten-year clock. While it may not be inconceivable that we would all have shifted to electric vehicles over the next decade, the reality is that it may take much longer.
In a capitalist ethos, we are beholden to those who find a solution and we’re expected to pay a price when the solution is delivered. If there is a technology that’s going to save us all, it is yet to really show itself. Maybe it’s waiting for the right kind of desperation or maybe the money to be made isn’t quite enough just yet. Either way, if and when it does happen, a select few are going to get fantastically wealthy, and we’re just going to have to be okay with that.
Adhirath Sethi is a novelist based in Bangalore. When he is not writing satire, he dabbles in darkness. His latest book, Where the Hills Hide their Secrets, is a product of such dabbles..