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  • Writer's pictureGurudas Nulkar

Ecology and Economics – the uncomfortable relation

Listen to what two of the 10th class texts have to say (2012 class school text books)

Lines from the textbook of Economics “…economic development implies the process of securing a higher level of national productivity in all sectors of economy. It is the process of stepping up the rate of capital formation needed for rapid economic development.” ” The term economic growth refers to the increase in the country’s real output of goods and services…..other measures could be employed like industrialization, urbanization, level of human development..” Lines from the textbook of Environmental Studies The book’s opening lines ” Pollution is the contamination of our surroundings. Pollution directly or indirectly harms human beings and organisms. Pollution is often described as ‘unfavourable alteration’ of the surroundings.”

Our education has conditioned us to perceive human progress only if it manifests in technology, as urbanization, as more products, in space travel. Over the years we see this manifestation in other countries and confirm our beliefs.  Environmental Studies is taught to us in a manner as not to malign industry. Why can this book not say it aloud at the start that pollution is the product of industry; that there is no waste in nature – the food chain ensures that one species waste is the food of another; that only industry and consumption has created waste?

The connection between ecology and economics is not self-evident. Surely not if we are a product of this education system.  An anthropocentric view is the backbone of this education.

Ecology and industry

In the entire history of economic thought and industrialization, we have always assumed that natural resources are free for use. Yes we spend money on processing them, not on buying them from nature.  We pay the milkman, not the cow. We pay for processing petrol, not for what the oil company got free from the earth. This has got us used to a method of fictitious costing which never considered the cost of  natural resources and services. The ignored costs are proving to be deadly for us. The costs of denuding forests, plundering the earth for minerals, polluting the sources of drinking water, contaminating the very soil which produces food and stripping the environment of thousands of species because of their habitat destruction. The truth is that industry cannot survive without harming nature. We can only “create” wealth by use of  natural resources.

Competition is all about reaching these free resources first.

Ecology and agriculture

But let’s not be remorseful about it, our generation isn’t the first to do this. Want to hear something really hard to digest?The first instance of man going against nature is Agriculture. The idea of clearing a forest with hundreds of species and planting one species is perhaps a about 10,000 year old. This act of monoculture not only destroys thousands of flora, but also strips the fauna of its natural habitat and food sources. And something else our education does not talk of – there is an aftermath to monoculture – rise of predators and depletion of soil. When man takes care of one species, the natural predators of that species also thrive on it. So much so that we must use pesticides – chemical toxins to kill those pests. These chemical weapons not only kill what they are supposed to, but also what they are not supposed to. Years of use of these chemicals have ensured that they are found on nearly every thing that we eat or drink.

Monoculture’s   second blow on nature is that of depleting the soil of nutrients. Man has countered this with some more chemicals – fertilizers. A forest does not strip the soil of nutrients because the flora and fauna themselves create nutrients in the leaf litter and detritus. Symbiotic relations of its various inhabitants ensure this. Fertilizers help yield in the short run. But year on year of  fertilizer use has created soil toxins in many places in India. The excess chemicals find their way to underground water sources. Fertilizers in drinking water are not safe for humans.

Talk about subsidies and fertilizers and pesticides have been every government’s favorites. This, unfortunately has been the source of numerous health concerns, another government favorite spending. The ironies of modern society!

Ecology and economics

Our model of economic growth, human progress and national development is based on market consumption. The more people buy, the more we get to produce, more industries more services, more GDP, more jobs. Large cities and metropolitan regions need far more resources than small villages

Education stops short of telling us that this also means more natural resources being used than are meant for us, more waste created and more pollution. Our concept of progress is based on an extremely fragile model of converting nature’s renewable and non-renewable resources into wealth. When growth turns to greed, nature will not sustain. The first signs are seen in climate change. And yet, some see the melting of the Arctic as opening of further sources of natural resources. The ironies of modern society!


What man has neglected till now has become unbelievably urgent for this generation to correct.  The UN’s focus, developed countries advising emerging ones, conferences like the one in Ri0, all reveal the serious message that nature sends out to us. Redefine progress, think sustenance. Rethink industry, consume frugally. Restore nature, live in harmony with non-human beings. And as someone has said, we are guests on this planet. We must act like responsible guests.

It is interesting to note what E.F.Schumacher says in his book “Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered”  He says

” It is not a question of choosing between ‘modern growth,’ and ‘traditional stagnation.’ It is a question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short, of finding ‘Right Livelihood.'”

I do not recall hearing any of this in school, I suppose nor would my children. Convenience has been the long rope of anthropocentric thought.

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