R.Rajagopalan (Former Professor, Indian Institute of Technology Madras)

Hope, Despair, and the Long View

I cannot predict the future of humanity and the planet earth. I can, however, trace and reflect on my journey of the past 25 years – a constant swing between hope and despair, but leading to some measure of equanimity now by taking the long view.

Hope: Supreme Court Ruling and thereafter

In December 2003, the Supreme Court of India gave a historic ruling in a case filed in public interest by lawyer M.C.Mehta: Environmental Education should be made compulsory at all levels from Class 1 to every undergraduate course. Following the Court ruling, school boards and universities introduced environmental education in the curricula.

Inspired by the Court ruling and its potential, I began writing textbooks on environment and conducting teacher workshops all over India. Environmental education seemed to be taking off in a big way. Meanwhile, following the Bhopal disaster, the Indian government had passed many environmental laws. NGOs such as the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, were publishing magazines and conducting studies on environment. UN agencies were releasing a series of reports and urging governments to take immediate action.

I had high hopes that, once the governments and the general population understood the seriousness of the situation, efforts will be taken to conserve the environment. In due course, we would bring the global environment back to normalcy, perhaps even in my lifetime. I was terribly wrong!

Despair: Sliding towards a Climate Disaster

The environmental crisis has worsened steadily and extreme climate events have become “the new normal”. The UN and other agencies have been releasing frightening reports of irreversible levels of global warming and inevitable catastrophic impacts. The Stockholm Resilience Centre has told us that we have crossed five of the nine planetary boundaries. Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.

Given the doomsday reports and the real extreme weather events, one might have expected the governments of the world to take urgent action at least now to mitigate the impact of climate change and to prevent the global temperature from exceeding 1.5 degree C. In fact, however, the global response has been tepid and faltering. The annual meetings of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have been largely ineffective, in spite of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

In the US, the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the Republican Party denies the very fact of climate change and makes it difficult for the US Congress to pass climate legislation. President Joseph Biden did manage to include climate provisions in a broad piece of legislation, but he is at the same time permitting drilling for oil in Alaska.

The Indian government makes the right noises on climate change in international fora and also promotes renewable energy. At the same time, however, the government is relaxing environmental regulations in the quest to make India an economic giant. It cannot even (for example) implement court orders to establish an eco-sensitive zone in the Western Ghats. The government is in fact going ahead with gigantic “development” projects – highways, ports, airports, and even hydroelectric projects in the Himalayas.

Welcome to the Anthropocene!

I realised a few years ago that it was no longer meaningful just to talk about environment, ecology and sustainability. It seemed the time was past for believing that “I will change to LED bulbs, recycle plastic, and buy organic: everything will then be alright.”. Environmental issues were closely connected with others such as the rise of nationalism, authoritarianism, intolerance, and deep divisions within countries and, of course, the insatiable quest for higher and higher GDP.

I also began reading about ideas such as Collapsology (Pablo Servigne) and Deep Adaptation (Jem Bendell). Meanwhile, the late Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen pushed the idea that the earth was no longer in the geologic epoch of the Holocene, but had entered the Anthropocene – the current time in which the enormous impact of human activities on the environment is clearly seen and felt. Just saying that we are now in the Anthropocene presents us with a new perspective on our current situation.

Taking the Long View

Even as I was trying to make sense of the new ideas and work out a position for myself, I discovered the call for examining Deep Time (Vincent Ialenti) and taking the Long View (Richard Fisher). I am still examining these ideas, but I will share with you what they mean to me now.

A long-term view shows us existential hope in place of existential catastrophe. To quote Richard Fisher, “Existential hope is not about escapism, utopias or pipe dreams, but about preparing the ground: making sure that opportunities for a better world don’t pass us by. So, if taking the long view demands anything of us, it is this: a commitment to seeking and cultivating hope when all feels bleak. This may well prove to be the grandest challenge of our time, but it is what we owe to our predecessors and our descendants.”

Taking such a long-term view does not at all support inaction by saying that “in the long run we will all be dead.” It is not doomist thinking. It believes that, over generational timescales, radical changes for the better are possible and humanity has the capacity to build a deep civilization. Each of us is a link in the chain that stretches across generations, with the collective capability to create a better world by our daily small acts. The trap is to think in the short-term and expect positive changes in the near future. We must look beyond our blinkered present.

Sometimes thousands of small acts can together tip the scales and bring about a rapid and positive change. This happened in the case of apartheid in South Africa and in the fall of some dictators. I was greatly encouraged by Paul Hawken’s 2007 book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. He wrote about the millions of individuals and groups across the world working for environmental and social justice. While I am disappointed that I am not seeing the impact of such a movement, I recognize it as my short-term thinking.

The long-term view accepts that our evolution is incomplete. Humanity has the potential to build a just, wise, and enlightened world. To quote the philosopher Toby Ord, “A world without agony and injustice is just a lower bound on how good life could be. Neither the sciences nor humanities have yet found any upper bound. We get some hint at what is possible during life’s best moments: glimpses of raw joy, luminous beauty, soaring love. Moments when we are truly awake. These moments, however brief, point to possible depths of flourishing far beyond the status quo, and far beyond our current comprehension.”

I will leave you with this call: Take the long view of humanity and the earth, but do your bit today for a grand future!

Prof.R. Rajagopalan holds a B.E. (Honours) degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Madras and M.Tech. and Ph.D. degrees in Industrial Management from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Kanpur, India. He taught for over 30 years at IIT Kanpur and IIT Madras, handling a variety of courses on industrial engineering, management, environment, and development. About 30 years ago, he shifted his focus to environmental issues.

Prof. Rajagopalan has published more than 20 books on environment for students of schools and colleges, civil services aspirants, and the general public. The Fourth Edition of his university-level book, Environmental Studies: From Crisis to Cure will be published by Oxford University Press in 2023. He has made presentations and conducted workshops on environment and sustainability across India.