After months of exams, bad health and miscellaneous distractions, was able to steal some time off to continue my rants. Too many things to write about, and fortunately I have forgotten most of them. Was planning to write this post after my next visit to Timbaktu, which is next week, but got carried away anyways.
The last time time I had discussed the concept of harvesting , be it in energy or any other resource. Energy is something that I no longer need to talk about, since the effects are there for all to see. People always find interest in something only when it matters directly (in terms of Rupees/Litre here), but that is a peripheral issue. Mining is another concept that is more directly relevant to urban patterns of resource consumption. Mining is not just something that happens in Orissa and Jharkhand, but something that occurs in each and every household. Remembering the stock, flow, flux terminologies, we regarded as harvesting that usually taps fluxes. It is therefore highly sustainable as well as unreliable. Mining is the exact opposite: tapping stocks and disregarding fluxes. Think of our urban resource bases – LPG, petrol, diesel, water (from dam projects or underground aquifers), food (intensive agriculture), shelter (glass fronted buildings with AC !) – all these directly tap into existing stocks of resources without much regard to their continuing availability. In other words, we mine water, energy and food.
The direct implication of such a tradition is the necessity for large stocks of resources to be available at any given time. If one looks at energy as a sector, one finds research into new battery technologies, ultracapacitors, carbon nanotubes, with ‘high energy density’ being the key word. Agriculture, high-yielding varieties, storage and processing facilities; water, the ubiquitous deep borewells and water tankers which dot Bangalore’s roads, apartment complexes and IT parks and all contemporary agricultural lands. While it is pragmatic to maintain reasonable amounts of resource stocks so that we can stop worrying about tomorrow, the ways in which we treat and maintain them is completely shocking. The measure of affluence has unfortunately become the rate at which we vaporize large amounts of resources (money, bath-tubs, food, cricket floodlights). Optimists have predicted that our civilization will find ways to do more with less, but it seems to me that this is more of a cultural than technological issue. Even if we forget the matter of energy (we have enough coal to burn for a few thousand years), water, land, food are still being replenished by harvesting technologies and exploited by mining technologies. It is only a sign of desperation or craziness, depending on your point of view, that we need to look at solutions like tapping icebergs for water and using satellites to capture solar energy. All these `solutions’ have the same recurring theme : Find large stocks of resources!
If one examines the situation from a saner point of view, it is not that there is insufficient resources. The problem is of equity. MIT students recently ran a study about the `Footprint of The Man‘, which tried to calculate the energy consumption of the least resource consuming American (A Buddhist Monk), and this came upto 120GigaJoules. India would barely scratch 50. This ranking table should give you some indication. Mining civilizations like Western Europe and USA required large stocks of resources to fuel their rise, leading to colonization. Once ‘primitive’ countries realized that they should be independent and went on to become so, they realized affluence can only comy by exploiting someone else, and so started internal colonization. Orissa and Bihar are good examples, so is Chamarajanagar right in my backyard. Not satisfied, ‘booming economies’ like India started going global with their ambitions and now Indians beat their chest with pride saying we are doing to the West what they did to us, which is the most childish way to react to the situation. India has absolutely no claim to such titles, considering half of the children in India are still undernourished and female mortality rate during childbirth is obscenely high.
Coming to demographics, mining is the reason cities are preferred to villages – A large and expendable stock of labor that is willing to get vaporized in a short time (retire at 45, remember ?). Another buzzword that betrays our obsession with mining is Data Mining. Information Technology is the perfect tool in the hands of the miners; but its very structure makes it equally powerful in the hands of the people, unlike so many other technologies. Which is why you will hear calls for strict regulation, prevention of piracy and all such things.
While I consider this feature of modern society to be irreversible even with a WW 3, one must consider and deploy policies which can counter its effects at the frontiers, social and environmental. All said and done, to me the next few decades will be monumental in history, almost as important as the Enlightenment itself. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.