Valuable insights

Published : Oct 21, 2011 00:00 IST

A book that can help address the issues of global governance and sustainable development in the face of climate change challenges.

There is a place like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger. Some say to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter.

From Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol

ADAMODARAN, in the preface to his book Encircling the Seamless, is candid when says he would have got it all wrong had he not slipped deadlines and finished the book in 2007 itself. Considering the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 and its continuing aftershocks, there is much truth in what he says. In his candid statement also lies the uniqueness of the book. There are any number of authors on climate change, from the strategic studies and security specialist who would like to make a living out of the world's uncertainties and vulnerabilities to the academic scholar who feels that he or she must pronounce on all issues of contemporary significance and the activist writer who feels he or she is under a moral obligation to have his or her take on every critical issue. But the depth and quality of such intervention is important in the public discourse.

In a country where the electronic media makes a mockery of public discourse, researched and published works and the discourse in print assume an important dimension. Yet, in spite of the necessity of a public debate on pressing matters such as climate change, people are bound to wonder how much can one read on the topic. There are myriad questions about what really are the core issues of science and democracy with regard to climate change, and which are deliberately kept out of the public domain, This despite the fact that the issue poses significant challenges to economic growth and sustainability with long-term impact on policy, governance and the future of humankind. This could be a reason for the proliferation of discussions on the issue, although these may not actually make the task of coming to grips with it any easier. The book under review, one can safely say, does not belong to the category of books that try to cash in on the issue of climate change. It makes for useful and educative reading. Damodaran does not get stuck on a narrow discussion on climate change but looks at a range of issues and brings to their examination a perspective aided by his wide knowledge of their interconnections. Therein lie the strength but also some of the shortcomings of the book.

The central perspective of the book is rooted in an analysis and vision that is of utmost need today. An analysis, which, in the author's words, starts with the recognition that, Nation-states fight their battles with citizens and civic-society communities to have their say on global commons and rules of international demeanour. The same world that grapples with economic development, cultural globalisation, and terrorism also talks about climate change. These signs of diversity, however, run the danger of getting securitised and wired through extreme instrumentalism. The need is to de-instrumentalise and de-securitise the global environmental agenda, which currently does not make sense to large swathes of local spaces in the world that stick to their own methods of upkeep. The central point that the author makes in the context of climate change and the global efforts to deal with it is that, For global conventions concerned with climate change, biodiversity, and desertification to acquire local, regional, and national roots, it is important that they are viewed as an extension of national or local commons and not as a resource separated from these rooted resources.

And most critically, as he underlines, the movement for conserving global commons can be effective and resilient only if it is linked to the fight for local commons.

The running theme of the 13 chapters of the book, approached from different vantage points, local, national and global, is that global public goods such as the atmospheric commons that are affected by climate change are important to local communities as they are beneficiaries of their preservation as also the victims of their destruction. The author looks at conservation and protection of global public goods through global conventions that address issues of global public goods, that are confined within the boundaries of nation-states and that transcend these boundaries.

However, in discussing the complexities of global and international conventions that have to deal with diverse subjects such as biodiversity and hazardous wastes, and which have a nation-state setting to a subject such as climate, which in contrast is part of the global commons, he keeps counterposing the Westphalian order with that of a globalised world. The latter tends to distract from his more substantial arguments and makes at times for distracting reading. A simple definition of the Westphalian notion of nation-state sovereignty that emerged after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 in Europe was to respect territorial integrity, and Westphalian sovereignty can be read as a concept of national sovereignty based on the twin principles of territoriality and the absence of a role for external agents in domestic structures.

After the two world wars and the increasing pressures by global capital for global integration, especially after the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) crisis in the early 1970s and the first round of the Third World Debt Crisis in the early 1980s, national sovereignty, anyone will concede, has become a highly questionable concept. This is especially so in the light of the experience of almost all developing countries in the way the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (external agents in the Westphalian perspective) have imposed their diktats on sovereign nations. Take for instance what is currently happening in Greece. A neoliberal world order and the emergence of globalisation would never have been possible had there been no dilution of the notion of state sovereignty. Most nations states went to the extent of even dismantling welfare measures they had for the protection of their own citizens, in deference to the pressures and blackmail from transnational capital and transnational finance, represented by multilateral institutions, and in order to fulfil the wishes of national elites to accelerate their integration to global capital.

It is also interesting to note the distrust global capital consistently shows to any move towards coordinated global governance, particularly on matters of the environment, and especially through the mechanism of the United Nations. This is also the reason why financial arrangements for the protection of the environment, such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF), were placed in the World Bank and not with the U.N. The tripod of the Global Governance Agenda of Global Capital was to be completed by bringing in the World Trade Organisation (WTO). If the IMF, as the monetary dimension of global finance, represented one leg, the World Bank, as the development aid and lending dimensions of global capital was the second leg of the tripod, bringing trade under the WTO to provide the third leg for the neoliberal governance agenda of global capital. It is in such a context and background that one must see the fits and bursts in which the global environmental governance agenda has proceeded after the 1992 Rio de Janeiro conference and the way it is running aground in relation to serious and urgent issues such as addressing climate change and its impact.

Given this complex background and context, and the near impossibility of achieving a coherent global environmental governance agenda, it is not surprising that two of the longest chapters of the book are on Environmentalism in the Third World and Multilateral Environmental Agreements. It is here that the author is at his best, given his first-hand knowledge of the subjects, starting with his early experience at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) and currently as an academic. He provides an insider's view in advising and shaping policy with respect to certain crucial areas.

The author's brilliance, clarity and grasp of the issues dealing with agriculture, agricultural policy and diversity in agricultural systems, which he showed in his earlier book, Towards an Agro-Ecosystem Policy for India ( Frontline, November 22, 2002), is very much evident in this book, too, wherever he addresses issues relating to agriculture and international trade negotiations, especially in the context of the pressures for globalising agriculture. Not being a desk-bound scholar, he has a fine appreciation of field realities.

This shows in his illuminating discussions on the silk industry, especially with regard to issues relating to non-agricultural market access (NAMA) in the WTO, in the insights he gives into organic agriculture, particularly plantation agriculture, and in cases such as Darjeeling Tea he refers to. He correctly points to the continuous and unnatural fear of non-tariff barriers that prevents India from nuanced stances in relation to agricultural trade negotiations in cases where the environment is involved, and provides us much food for thought. The Government of India's attempts to create Commodity Boards for plantation crops and how these boards have become insular institutions, and the lack of such boards for important crops such as cereals, are important insights the author provides.

In discussing rural issues in the context of climate change and global trade negotiations, he succinctly sums up the state of affairs when he writes, by arguing about market access possibilities, we have unwittingly succeeded only in supporting islands of prosperity in agriculture rather than protecting the segment of mainstream, subsistence farmers who practise cropping systems that are resilient to droughts and respect ecological diversity.

The overall strength of the book tends to be weakened by his use of the Westphalian-non-Westphalian optic in looking at the world especially in the context of environment- and ecology-related issues that are at the heart of climate change. That same optic prevents a scholar, who otherwise brings great political economy insights into his academic work, from making full use of political economy perspectives that are critical and central in discussing issues relating to climate change and from the point of view of ecology and economy of societies such as India.

His bias for post-modernism tends to disperse the focus of an otherwise good contribution to a discussion on climate change. It also tends to somewhat distort his view of some aspects of current reality. For example, in connecting India's cultural moorings with contemporary advances in fields such as information technology, he sees links between what he calls the spirituality of India and IT! This spirituality', he states, translates into a kind of intellectual power that handles nimble technologies (such as IT)! Then, in spite of himself and his rooted perspectives, he comes up with elitist conclusions of the distinction between information and communication technology (ICT) and machine technology. Obviously, areas that are not his forte even though he may be well versed in post-modernist literature, though the latter has the potential to produce such intellectual distortions.

Encircling the Seamless is a satisfying book to read in order to understand and address the issues of global governance and regimes for sustainable development in the backdrop of climate change challenges.

For those wanting to know about the inter-connected discourses on environment, development and climate change and the intricacies of the various global conventions and their connections to the negotiations on climate change, it is a useful book. The book is grounded in an international perspective that is increasingly taking a back seat in current public discourses. In the final chapter, Restructuring Regimes for Sustainable Development, the author reiterates the importance of bringing back the principles of equity and justice in global environmental negotiations.

Encircling the Seamless needs also to be read in the context of the run-up to Rio+20. Finally, the author did not, perhaps, have the time to include his arguments on the connections between the crisis of global financial capital and saving the earth from the disasters of climate change issues such as the intractability that financial markets are imposing in seeking solutions to address climate change challenges and ward off the perils of climate change. From such perspectives, there is no quick post-script to the book either and to square up to the admission made in the preface as to how he may have gone wrong had he completed the book in 2007. In the absence of these, we are left to speculate. Possibly in the next edition of the book, he can draw from the insights of scholars on climate change such as Larry Lohman, who writes:

Studying the financial crisis and the climate crisis together can provide useful tools for understanding how to tackle both. Overconfident commodification of uncertainty (in the form of a trade in new and complex derivatives) helped precipitate a global economic crash. Overconfident commodification of climate benefits (in the form of a trade in carbon) threatens to hasten an even worse catastrophe.

Close parallels can be drawn between the financial innovations behind the current economic crisis and the marketing innovations associated with carbon trading the dominant official response to climate change. Both the new financial markets and the new carbon markets involve the construction of similar abstract commodities. Both heighten systemic dangers, necessitating movements of societal self-protection.

Both involve regressive redistribution and the destruction of crucial knowledge; are vulnerable to bubbles and crashes; erode notions of transparency and conflict of interest; and call into question the assumption that each and every market can be successfully regulated simply by virtue of being a market. (Corner House Briefing paper No.40, When Markets Are Poison: Learning about Climate Policy from the Financial Crisis

One must keep hoping that such honest analysis is possible and that such an analysis will actually influence the real world of public policy, national and international. In the topsy-turvy world we live now, perhaps one has to be as mad as a hatter to have hope and to believe that the hope for a better world does not and will not die. That is, if we survive the catastrophes of climate change and the collective suicide of humanity as a species that Vaclav Havel reminded us would be the end if countries decide to delude themselves and their own people into believing that enough is being done to tackle climate change.

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