Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Hedgehogs and Foxes- The Growth vs. Environment Debate

Jairam Ramesh in a recent address expanded on the debate of growth vs. environment. Ramesh characterized the debate as an extremely polarized one, when it requires a more pragmatic approach. He invokes the ancient Greek metaphor of ‘hedgehogs and foxes’, wherein “foxes have many ideas but hedgehogs have one great idea”- meaning that hedgehogs consider all issues from one perspective and one ideology, whereas foxes are more tentative, weighing all options and perspectives. Ramesh noted that today the public sphere has been captured by the growth-hedgehogs (those who advocate growth at all costs) and the environment-hedgehogs (those who demand conservation at all costs). However the need of the hour is to take a considered view of the costs and benefits of the different options and make decisions. Neither one can be sacrificed at the other’s altar.

The 'Environment-hedgehogs' do not appreciate the need for a robust 9-10% growth. However high growth is important because it creates employment opportunities, provides government with revenues to spend on social welfare and infrastructure etc. Also high growth needs investments such as energy. If the Environment-hedgehogs propose that only non-conventional energy will sufficiently cater to our energy needs, this is a dangerous illusion. Thus all opposition to hydro, coal and nuclear power-projects is counter-productive for the country’s growth.

At the other end are the 'Growth-hedgehogs' who champion a “grow-now-pay-later” approach. This is also destructive as the environment is fast reaching a tipping-point beyond which one cannot revert to a past state of normalcy. This approach also doesn’t sufficiently address the opposition- because most often environment campaigns reflect livelihood concerns of disadvantaged communities; pollution has begun adversely affecting public health; impact of climate change on India will be ominous due to multiple vulnerabilities like monsoon dependence, coastal submergence, forests (deforestation), glacier melting and their accompanying effects etc. We must remember that technology and growth have not made nature redundant.

However there will be occasions when one or the other has to be chosen. Therefore in making decisions the trade-offs should be made explicit and reasons behind the decisions should be clearly presented before the public. These are in the nature of ‘speaking orders’ (i.e. orders that speak for themselves, which identify the decision-maker and his rationale), which have been effectively employed by Ramesh.

Furthermore there is a need is to ‘work the balance’. One measure of this would be to evolve a methodology that integrates the costs and benefits of environment protection into our growth calculations. The Ministry is working to introduce Green National Accounts by 2015. Another measure is to provide a market-friendly regulation through emissions-trading and emission caps.

Thus reiterating the nature of foxes, Ramesh upholds the need to be pragmatic, inventive and flexible. Although this method may involve constant debate and negotiation, because the decisions and their rationale are public, the ensuing transparency will ensure accountability to the principles of growth, and environment conservation.

[Summarised from: Ramesh, J. 2011,”The Hedgehog and The Fox revisited: Some further reflections on the Growth-Environment Debate in India”. Lawrence Dana Pinkham Memorial Lecture 2011, Chennai: Asian College of Journalism.  http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/growth-env-debate-speech.pdf]  

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