ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 13, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 46
Financial Times  

Energy issues - A new direction

By Ranil Senanayake

President Jayawardene said public education could mould the young citizen to take his place in a society. Picture shows tsunami victims

A recent news story about ending global poverty before global warming raises some fundamental issues which should be questioned. It forces us to examine the dilemma that we are in today. Everything has a history.

In Sri Lanka, around December 20, 1979, an official communiqué was issued by the government and displayed in the nation’s newspapers stating, “No oil means no development, and less oil, less development. It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving”.

This defines with clarity what is to be considered development by the policy makers of that nation. Here was a fundamental and fateful decision that cast a deadly policy framework for the nation. The energy source that was to drive the national economy would be fossil. Even today, that same policy framework and its adherents continue. The word development has been replaced with “alleviate poverty”, The argument being that economies need to industrialize in order to reduce poverty, industrialization leads to emissions’ or the new ‘put another way’ a reduction in poverty leads to an increase in emissions’. This is still very much a debated issue, but often it is trotted out dogma. These views, presuppose a vision of development based on fossil fuel consumptive, expensive road transport, even though innumerable scholarly studies have demonstrated the need to rationalize the transport system. The production of electricity is not done through national research and investment in renewable sources, but through the purchasing of heavy fossil fuel consuming systems or through purchase at prevailing world prices. Electricity provides the power not only for our homes but also for all of industry. Indeed one indicator of ‘development’ is the per capita consumption of power. However what should be addressed is the source of this power.

The present course of development holds that the most important facet of development is economic growth. Philosophically, it exemplifies the pure industrial and utilitarian view of life. A view that arose with the early European economies, with the acquisition of wealth being a high personal goal this model of ‘acquisitive development’ defines, the national goals.

The degree to which the nation was enmeshed in ‘acquisitive development’ was seen clearly by the late President J.R. Jayawardene. He wrote: “The environment which the State provides today, for building up the character of its citizens, tends not to the establishment of the ideal but to its destruction. The majority of States, including Sri Lanka, stand for “the purely industrial and utilitarian view of life, the cult of power and machinery and national comfort.”

“Public education, financed by the State, equips the young to fit into this same environment. Even religious organizations preach the ideal, but practice the opposite. In the social world, in the professions, in commerce and in politics, we find the struggle to acquire for self as the dominant factor. The society that comprises the State, is a purely acquisitive society: and the sickness we suffer from is the sickness of an acquisitive society.”

Those words demonstrate, with clarity, the existence of evils that can be wrought upon our people by creating this nation into an acquisitive society. Such a social order is, obviously an anti-thesis of the traditional Sri Lankan, Sinhala and Tamil value of non-attachment, and can only result in the destruction of our social order.

President Jayawardene was also clear on the direction that he wished for the nation. He wrote: “The politician in power can change this framework. He can change our environment and he can control and direct education. He can, by legislation, make it impossible for citizens to control wealth and possessions. He can, by public education teach the ideal and mould the young citizen to take his place in a society that is not acquisitive”.

Legislation and education will have a common purpose. The former will seek to change man’s nature by removing from his present environment those conditions which wrongly dominate his mind today: the latter will educate him to work in his new environment, by emphasizing those elements in human nature which cause disharmony, and by teaching man to remove them.
But even as the most powerful politician that this nation witnessed he still could not achieve control over this malign form of ‘development’ -- only the fateful words of the government in 1979 stating, “No oil means no development, and less oil, less development. It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving”. Continued to govern and carries onto this day, now couched as poverty reduction.

It is common sense that, as the demand accelerates and price increases, we move to ever more problematical, and polluting sources such as coal or high sulphur oils. but without a clear policy on our development paradigm, this slide to cheaper fossil sources, could create serious national health questions. Without a clear long-term strategy, none of the tenuous straws that we are grabbing at will have any value. On the contrary they will just produce more problems.

A nation that is highly dependent on fossil fuel is very much like an addict who is highly dependent on drugs. Both will pay any price for its delivery. The demand is small at first, but grows swiftly, until all available resources are given. In the end, when there is nothing else left to pawn, even the future of their children will be pawned and finally the children themselves!

The fact that all fossil fuel dependent countries are in deep trouble comes from two sources. One is that the cost of fossil fuel is going to be rising faster than inflation, in fact in those countries hooked on fossil energy for its development, inflation will be directly linked to the cost of fossil fuels. The other is that, in a warming world, the call for punitive taxes on the use of fossil fuel will get stronger with each climate crisis. When, together with this, the development policy focuses on acquisitive consumerism, there lies the recipe for ‘the perfect storm’ of debt, suffering and despair, in a resource hungry world.

For all the commitments on paper, the inequality of health, wealth and trade the world over, confirm that the old settings remain unchanged still. The ethic of 'He/She who consumes the most is the best’ still rules the world and propels us, blindly, to a frightening future. To consume resources at such a pace that the future will be forced into further poverty. To the Rolls Royce rich this may mean moving to being Volkswagen poor, but to the one-meal-a-day rich it will mean no-meals-a-day poor. Consuming the most means conserving the least. Given what we know about resources today it may well be time to question the social status afforded to those who consume the most.

Creation of desire
This perspective of ‘development’, the extension of so-called ‘civilized living’ is not new to us, Farrer writing in 1920 has this to say when visiting Colombo: “Modern, indeed, is all this, civilized and refined to a notable degree. All the resources of modern culture are thick about you, and you feel that the world was only born yesterday, so far as right thinking people are concerned.

And, up and down in the shade of glare, runs furiously the unresting tide of life. The main street is walled in by high, barrack like structures, fiercely western in the heart of the holy East, and the big hotels upon its frontage extend their uncompromising European facades. Within them there is a perpetual twilight, and meek puss-faced Sinhalese take perpetually the dink orders of prosperous planters and white-whiskered old fat gentlemen in sun hats lined with green. At night these places are visible realization of earthly pleasure to the poor toiling souls from the farthest lonely heights of the mountains and the jungle.” The process goes on still….

Develop as a nation we must, but cautiously – with the full awareness of the long-term consequences of such processes. Development must be determined by empowering the fundamental rights of the people and of the future generations. Clean air, clean water, access to food and freedom from intoxication, are some of these fundamental rights. Any process that claims to be part of a development process must address these, among other social and legal fundamental rights.

The problem has been that the movement of a country with traditional non-consumptive values, into a consumerist society based on fossil energy tends to erode these rights rapidly. Often we are told that this is a necessary prerequisite to become a ‘developed country’, but this need not be so. We need to address that fundamental flaw stated in 1979. We need to wean ourselves away from the hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy. Which means moving from a fossil fuel based economy to a renewable energy based economy.

Globally the economic climate is becoming very receptive to such changes. The outcome of the Bali talks on Climate Change is evidence of that. But as history has demonstrated, we have still not being able to wean ourselves away from fossil dependency. In borrowing huge sums to sink us further into debt and dependency, requiring further erosion of the scant few resources left. Now, with oil passing $100 a barrel, increasing our dependency on fossil fuels in the name of development, is a patent selling of the future into bondage.

The reality is that global warming will exacerbate global poverty to unprecedented levels.

Creating models that will help us adapt to the changes and ensuring that people can respond is the task at hand. It also speaks of a philosophical vision, is it better to work at increasing the rate of people attaining the numbers of rich or decreasing the rate of gain to the numbers of the poor?


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