Monday, April 06, 2009

Morals vs Economics

Recently when Bangalore jumped in and joined thousands of other cities in celebrating (?) the earth hour, it got me thinking about the great media coverage of this symbolic display of love towards our planet. Symbolic because I really don't think it made a difference to the power consumption - at least not in India. While Bangalore plunged in darkness the pumpsets in the rural villages roared to life given the rare occasion of extra hour of electricity - where 6 hours of power a day is considered luxury.

Let's look at a case of moral dilemma that humans have faced in the past...
In 1807, United Kingdom (or the then Empire) abolished slavery, which had begun in 1562, by passing the Slave Trade Act. The 'trade' was abolished but not slavery itself. It took another 20 years before slavery died out of fashion. While a vociferous group of Quakers and Evangelical Protestants can score a credit in forcing this legislation it was economics that eventually killed slavery. Back in the 17th century, large parts of the population didn't think it was in-human to purchase slaves and enhance their own quality of living. The argument was that, first, they could afford it and secondly they naturally believed it to be natures bounty and that some were condemned to be slaves while others to be masters. It was only a few who viewed at it from the 'moral' angle and looked at humans as humans, regardless of color, race or wealth.

Immediately after passing the law 'The Empire' went on an unprecedented foreign policy campaign asking other nations to pass similar laws. While outwardly the argument that the Empire took was 'it is morally wrong and against the spirit of Christianity', the real reasons were that it believed that its' colonies would become uncompetitive. In fact they enforced duties on other nations that continued to support slave trading.

But by mid 1800's slavery was no longer the 'in' thing. Large slave traders, namely cotton growers and plantation companies, realised that free markets were better and cheaper. The difference in pay between a slave and a free man was not too significant but slaves came at an additional cost. They had to be fed, medically cared, housed and were a burden during recession. As such 'Christian moral superiority' had little to do away with slavery.

Fast forward to 21st century. The last decade has seen more power consumption than all the years put together since electrticity was discovered. Global consumption of natures resources continues to increase at geometric rate and we have the modern day 'Quakers and Christian Evangelists' under the garb of Green Peace, Friends of Earth, Al Gore et al., telling us how it is morally wrong for us to consume more than what we require. Like the 17th century slave consumers, we tend to use water and other natural resources as if it is our right. People in Sadashivnagar consume more water than a dozen villages in rural areas. They don't lose sleep at night nor do they ever worry about the 'moral' aspect of it (now do you realise why slave traders never felt guilt)?

I am no saint. Few years ago my house was lit up using those old incandescent light bulbs before I switched to compact flourescent bulbs. Why? Because it economically made sense. My bills slashed by half. I didn't change the bulbs because I thought it was morally correct. And in another year I will probably shift to LCD bulbs because my bills will be a tenth of what it is today.

What drives the larger population is economics. Not the moral argument. Unless the economics of using and replenishing the resources starts to touch the common man, even a million earth hours will not make a difference.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

Clicky Web Analytics