" Good change" they say.
Thats the most common answer when I ask people "What is development?". But how does one know change is good? The development landscape is patchy- areas of wealth and power interspersed with areas of exclusion and vulnerability. The planet's seven billion humans have vastly different stakes in the global resources and ability to influence their worlds. The same change viewed by different people from different places in this patchy landscape can look very different. Cultural annihilation for indigenous people in Laos might be "economic development" for the World Bank Asia manager at his New York desk. Over time too perspectives change. What looks like a positive intervention at one time may seem totally negative later. What is the right place and time from which to decide if change is 'good'?.
Last weekend, far from philosophical musings, the Mussoorie half marathon was run- 21 Kilometres of undulating roads with Himalayas smiling on under pure blue skies. Pure blue because of a geographical and physical fact - in winter the Indian Ocean to our south holds more heat than the Asian landmass to the north. Thus Tibetan air is inexorably sucked south, dropping all particles as it moves over the great Himalayas. Physics aside the net effect was 200 runners gulping lungfuls of crystalline air on the course then gulping glassfuls of chilled juice at the finish line. Wonderful.
Meanwhile 300 km to the south last weekend...
...15 million Delhi residents were fighting through pollution thickened soup which cannot really be described as air. Here's the Guardian article about the crisis https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/07/every-breath-is-an-effort-delhi-residents-suffer-amid-smog-crisis
The same forces drawing chilly Tibetan air high over Mussoorie create a cold ceiling over Delhi. Vehicle and factory emissions and particles of carbon from Punjabi farmers burning old crops hit the ceiling and descend like a blanket. Every Delhi winter is bad. This year's winter smog is earlier and thicker than ever. The response was to close schools and factories and advise people not to go to work. Like the father's hand over his son's face, these measures, symptomatic, short term and local, do nothing to keep pollution out of human lungs.
Yet a half marathon in pristine Mussoorie air while 300 km away others fight smog asks questions that are long term and global. Smog is about Tibetan air and Punjabi farmers' age-old practises but for me this is also about our human trajectory. We've become expert exploiters of the environment, so good that our effect is now big enough to elicit environmental feedback, often at a different place or time scale to the development that caused it. Delhi's polluted air comes from economic development, that which also delivered this family a scooter, the road they are on and the school their child attends . Its all wrapped up in the same package.
Is it a good package? That depends on what you call good and who you ask... and whether they know enough to give an answer. For nearly every change in human livelihood strategy some are winners and some losers. A Cambodian community we evaluated two months ago was losing its ancestral forest but some young men had paid employment cutting trees. They liked the money. Is this good change? The villagers themselves could not say. A project I was with yesterday empowers young women who now have aspirations to pursue education and dream of jobs in other places. Their fathers want their daughters to work in the family fields then get married (and work in another family's fields) Thats best, from where they are. With wider travel and education I can see that although they do not know it yet even men benefit by living amongst educated empowered women and their grandchildren will benefit from dynamic educated mothers. The men's view that women should be domestic and docile seems obviously short term and limited. I wonder if some of the 'good change' I try to support might also look short term and limited to someone who can see the whole globe or look across time.
Changes can have contradictory effects across time as well as space. Westerners are rich and content with burgeoning economies while carbon emissions force indigenous people off their land in central India. ? Those emissions will likely be disastrous for the development of the emitters' grandchildren. Benefit today at the cost of future generations. Good change? All humanity (Donald Trump excepted) knows about global warming now but people at the beginning of the industrial revolution did not know the coal they were burning was the start of the end. They would not even have had the information to rationally answer the question about whether carbon fuelled industrialisation was an advance in human livelihood. Back then industrialisation was unquestioned 'good change'. How many of today's development interventions are like this- short term benefits with negative consequences inexorably working themselves out over longer time scales.
"Good change"? How to decide what is good? Sheer numbers of people supporting it is no clue (e.g. nearly 7 billion people support our economic model despite unsustainable environmental consequences). Expert analysis is not failsafe (whose analysis? Is all the relevant information available? -. e.g. Scientists did not warn us of global warning for most of the carbon era. Economic experts still extol growth). Even if everyone at one place or time approve of a change that is no guarantee that it is good- geographically distant people may be harmed, future generations may suffer.
I don't have answers about "good change ". Do you?.....
...but I suggest that todays globalised world needs to analyse actions globally, and I posit that all 'good change' brings greater equality, reduces at some scale the patchiness of the unequal development landscape. I say no change that increases inequality can be good change. Any comments?
[PS: added ten days later (Nov 22). In today's Guradian under the headline "Clouds of Filth Envelop Asian Cities"was an article describing almost unbreathable air in many Asian cities, including Tehran in Iran https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/nov/22/cloud-filth-envelope-asian-cities-urban-smog-air-pollution-india-china In it there is this extraordinary analysis by a lecturer in environmental management at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College, London:
“On paper the solutions are easy. We need better gasoline, higher standard cars. We need to revise the transport system, increase the capacity of the subway, prevent more people coming into the city centres. They can have alternate days for vehicles...."
To me these are not solutions. These are short term bandaid symptomatic fixes that avoid deep questions about the human trajectory (aka development) asked by us having polluted our air to to almost unliveable levels. Those solutions, on paper let alone on the ground, are far from easy. Yet, as commented in an earlier post "in the long term we are all dead". There's John Maynard Keynes again, rational economic man extraordinaire, whose undergirds so much of our "development".