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How to save the planet


May 6, 2017

Since 1990, more than 600,000 deaths have been recorded as a result of climate change-driven natural disasters. Climate change – brought about by the depletion of natural resources and the increased emission of greenhouse gasses – has made many scholars and policymakers take the heterodox way and come up with innovative solutions to tackle the problem.


Broadly, there are two kinds of approaches being taken by scholars: the short-to-long-term approach and the long-to-short-term approach. There is a growing consensus among theorists that modern consumerism is resulting in the exhaustion of the resources of the planet – including oil, gas, trees, oxygen as well as water and others. This will make the existence of future generations difficult. We need to curtail consumerism and take a more modest approach to our production and, therefore, consumption patterns.

The urgency of the situation has made many scholars ignore the fundamental causes of the problem and take a short-to-long-term approach. This approach suggests taking a number of short-term urgent measures in a way that a combination of those measures becomes the long-term plan. These measures envision taking a strict, conservative approach towards consumption as well as regulating the production with carbon caps and other strategies. Various short-terms restrictions on both the consumers and the producers will result in the preservation of the planet with enough resources for the future generations to survive and live a healthy life.

Professor John Broome’s approach – which has been detailed in his book Weighing lives – of regulating consumption to save for the future generations could arguably be categorised in this approach. In practice, the Kyoto Protocol (1997) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) regulated the industries in the Global North to reduce their carbon emissions by five percent by 2012 measured against their 1990 emissions.

In the Global South, it incentivised the emission reduction policies and programmes through Clean Development Mechanisms (CDMs). Pakistan currently has 38 registered CDMs through which it is reducing carbon emissions by 91.17Mt and generating revenues of $1.13 billion.

The billion tree tsunami campaign in Pakistan could also be understood under the short-to-long-term approach. According to different estimates by local and international agencies, the country’s actual need is of 1.5 to two trillion trees. In such a context, it can only be hoped that a number of ‘billion tree tsunamis’ will combine to deal with Pakistan’s overall deforestation-related environmental problem.

However, the short-to-long-term approach is criticised on the grounds that it is like treating cancer with aspirin. Temporarily, it will lessen the pain. However, the actual problem will continue to prevail and may get worse. It might put the crisis slightly ahead in the future. But the crisis that has arisen due to the ills of production and consumption driven by profit and utility maximisation, will remain extant.

The alternative is the long-to-short-term approach. It states that we need to take a more radical approach towards the problem and bring about behavioural and cultural changes in the prevailing mentality of the people. Once the mentality changes and people naturally adopt modest production and consumption behaviour, it will leave a long-lasting and sustainable impact on the planet and many generations will be able to enjoy the fruits of such a revolutionary change.

However, the limitation of this approach is that cultural changes do not occur overnight. According to institutional economists, like Douglas North – a Nobel laureate – and Oliver Williamson, culture, norms and values are part of the informal institutions. They could take up to centuries to change. The problem is that we do not have centuries at our disposal. According to different reports, two to three decades is the most humans have to save the planet. Despite looking at sustainable solutions, this approach lacks a proper view of the time-horizon.

However, an approach that could turn out to be better and truly sustainable is a synthesis of both the aforementioned approaches. We are living in a time where we need urgent solutions as well as long-term delineated plans. People need to be directed as well as given the freedom to accept and adopt a change in their behaviour for good.

The short-term solutions could come through more state-sponsored regulations to control the production as well as consumption. These regulations could seek to control carbon emissions by incentivising the users of environment-friendly resources and penalising the ones who seek to freely consume  non-renewable energy resources for the sake of profits. Strategies should also be devised for the equitable redistribution of resources.

On the other hand, long-term strategies could include thoroughly revising education policies to boost awareness, consciousness and a paradigm shift in behaviour for modesty in consumptions. Plato, in his allegory of the cave, talks about how people live the lives of ignorance and closed-mindedness.

From the household to the institutional and the state level, the values of cooperation, sympathy, sacrifice and, above all, love should be promoted and inculcated among people. In short, only a synthesis of short-to-long-term and long-to-short-term strategies and their careful implementation can give us hope to bring an end to the treadmill of production and the wrath of consumerism with which we find ourselves strongly chained.


The writer is pursuing an MPhil in
development studies at Lahore School of Economics and works as a research
associate at LUMS.

Email: [email protected]



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