Calculated risk

I wrote about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in these columns on May 11, 2010. As it happens, the leak has now been plugged and while there is assurance about success being achieved to clean the spill, as of now a huge volume of oil is polluting the surface of the ocean and large quantities are being washed ashore. It is sad to see pictures of birds and other creatures suffering and dying and the continued threat not only to these living beings but also to those who are either living on the beaches of the affected areas or would like to enjoy recreation in these seaside locations.

The cost of environmental degradation worldwide is hardly ever estimated in precise terms. Of course, the cost to human society and human beings cannot be measured in dollar terms, such as in the case of air pollution that leads to high morbidity and mortality. There are varying estimates of how many people actually die as a result of air pollution, and in 1997, when The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) released its 'Green India 2047' report, documenting this country's record of environmental protection in the first 50 years of Independence, the figure we came up with of air pollution-induced mortality was staggering. A large part of the deaths that take place as a result of air pollution occur on account of indoor air pollution.

Sadly, even today over two billion people in the world carry out cooking indoors using poor quality biomass whose large quantities of emissions often remain trapped indoors because of poor ventilation in dwellings. TERI's estimate was that in India a total of 2.5 million lives are lost annually as a result of air pollution, including both rural as well as urban areas. The worst affected live in urban locations, particularly slum dwellers who are normally huddled in shanty towns by the roadside. They are, therefore, not only victims of indoor air pollution arising out of the burning of inferior quality cooking fuels but also outdoor air pollution which is created by dense automobile traffic and growing road congestion.

The lack of proper information and evaluation of the cost of environmental damage is one reason why the normal approach of various societies to risk management remains flawed and inadequate. The case of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a typical example of how expected benefits, say from deep sea drilling as in the case of the Deep Water Horizon well, are never measured against expected damage, which would be a function of estimated probabilities and the extent of damage associated with mishaps. In the case of low-probability but high-impact events or outcomes, the cost of timely prevention may appear high but is often fully justified because even with low probability if the impacts from a mishap turn out to be very high, the damage caused is incalculable and totally unacceptable in today's world. The need for risk management is best illustrated by the Bhopal gas tragedy: With the knowledge that the damage caused by the possible release of lethal gas would be staggering, even if the probability of such an occurrence was seen to be low, the owners and managers of that facility should rightly have invested adequately in safety prevention right at the beginning. But the world has apparently ignored the lessons it should have learnt from Bhopal.

One major problem which leads to the neglect of risks to society or negative impacts on the environment is the divergence between private costs and benefits versus social costs and benefits. In India, soon after Independence, we cut forests on a large scale because there were huge private benefits associated with exploitation of forest resources, but there was no consideration of the social costs that were incurred as a result. Much of the threat to wildlife today is a result of lack of attention and importance we attached to maximising net social benefits by conserving the forestry wealth of the country. The benefits from conserving forests and biodiversity often translate into private benefits as well, particularly for tribal societies who depend for their livelihood on ecosystem services provided by nature around them. Destruction and damage imposed on these ecosystem services has a direct adverse effect on the livelihoods of such communities which undoubtedly leads to social alienation as well. Clearly, the economic implications arising out of such alienation are seldom taken into account on an explicit basis. Each project at the micro level must necessarily look at the entire range of implications that it could have on society at large, even if its 'private benefits' are attractive.

What is an area of continuing neglect at the micro level and can so easily be resolved is compounded several times over when it comes to global action. If we take the case of climate change, even though some may believe that the science of climate change does not tell us about likely negative impacts with precise, quantified probabilities, the sheer scale of the damage that could take place should compel decision-makers and society at large to adopt a sound risk-management approach. This is all the more justified because the actions required to mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases and thereby help stabilise the earth's climate are really attractive for a variety of reasons, particularly in view of the co-benefits that arise as a result. Could it be that our myopia and consumerist desire to produce and consume more and more goods and services blinds us to the assessment and prevention of risks from the actions that we are taking today?

There is, of course, no need for alarm in any of these areas of human endeavours but perhaps we should at least consider Mahatma Gandhi's advice that clearly highlighted the choices before us: 'A technological society has two choices. First it can wait until catastrophic failures expose systemic deficiencies, distortion and self-deceptions' Secondly, a culture can provide social checks and balances to correct for systemic distortion prior to catastrophic failures'. At a minimum we should move away from self-deception in these matters.