Nuclear power, pesticides, health insurance, news, and weapons, become industries over time, generating ‘growth’ and ‘economic activity’. They become, in some cases, prescribed solutions by elite economists, or in other cases, parts of our vocabulary. To question such economic wisdom is considered regressive. We accept the immediate ‘utility’ of industries without considering their long-term consequences.
On December 12, 2015, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was adopted by the representatives of 195 nations at the 21st Conference of Parties of the UNFCC in Paris. With this, there was an explicit recognition among countries about the dangers of global warming. But this brought up a new mantra of reducing carbon emissions – nuclear reactors. Surely nuclear power does not cause greenhouse effect but does it mean it is safe? Of course not.
Radiations from nuclear power plants are the most potent source of environmental pollution, both actively and passively. They are not the ‘peaceful’ sources of atomic energy that energy experts and politicians would have us believe. The unique hazards to life that they pose can never figure in any cost-benefit analysis or environmental impact assessment. It seems to me that we have defined the terms ‘green’ and ‘ecological’ so narrowly in terms of carbon emissions that we have lost sight of other sources of disaster. Do we want CO2 free air if it is laden with radioactive particles?
In the mid-1950s, using insecticides became really popular and swept major parts of agricultural fields. In the human drive to eliminate all annoying insects and pests, harmless or not, we blindly used toxic chemicals like DDT, dieldrin, heptachlor. Surely, it eradicated all weeds. But what followed were swathes of barren fields, ponds devoid of fishes, and diseases humans had never seen. Would we prefer no insects if that meant no flora and fauna?
Recently, healthcare has become the center of attention in all major countries. With aging populations in the United States, Europe and Japan and high mortality rates due to poverty in countries like India, governments – conservative and progressive alike – have been forced to think about this issue. But what we have seen is that all governments have instead prioritized the provision of health insurance to their citizens. Does health insurance guarantee quality healthcare?
With the boom of the internet and social media, the dynamics of news have changed drastically. Today, the news is no longer about educating people; it is about advertisement and sensationalism. Recently, when it was revealed that Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly settled lawsuits of sexual harassment at extravagant sums of money, it was widely reported that advertisers were pulling out of his shows. Missed widely was the fact that his viewership had soared simultaneously. Are advertisers the metric of a news broadcast?
President Trump recently ordered a missile attack on Syria. While he was largely ridiculed by the media for his unpresidential behavior, most of the established foreign policy and national security experts lauded this decision of his. One MSNBC anchor even described it as ‘beautiful‘, alluding to the Leonard Cohen lyric – “I am guided by the beauty of weapons.” The irony of Trump’s desire to ban the entry of refugees from this region was set aside. Do missile attacks do any good for the people of Syria?
The 2008 financial crisis saw the explosion of derivatives market and sizes of banks, making them a liability for the population. Similarly, scientific developments in genetic engineering pose ‘uneconomic’ questions that we have avoided till now. We have accepted the economic morality of industries for much of our times. People do not matter in these considerations of utility, what matters is the GDP growth of industry and hence, the economy.
In such a society, industries capture the attention of the public much before it has time to address the concerns that come with its tempting products and solutions. And when we get some clarity about the downside, we are too late to rein in the adverse effects of their ‘economic’ activity because such actions then become perceived as political liabilities. Then, our tail wags as we head towards an uncertain path to nowhere. We move, but is that progress?