Burning Issues

Saving Planet Earth

Saving Planet Earth

Malthus’ catastrophe has not struck for 2 centuries because of the industrial revolution – while the world’s population grew 6-fold, the average per capita income rose 10-fold. But prosperity did not come free – it strained the earth’s resources and if population keeps rising, the world may choke within our lifetimes. The UN, in highlighting Danica May Comacho, the 7 billionth inhabitant of the earth, waves the red flag – we have a crisis on our hands! Runaway growth of population was perhaps inevitable - only prophetic foresight and coercive social planning could have staved it - and it is not wholly clear whether the march of science has increased or mitigated the consequences. The good news is that population growth has shown dramatic deceleration since 1990, when annual births were around 135 million. This is mostly because of economic growth and better family planning in poorer countries, and the birth rate is slowly dropping to the no-damage rate of 2 children per woman. “Annual population growth has already dropped from 1.8% around 1950 to 1.1% in 2010 and is expected to reach zero around 2060–80,” says the Nature report [see box].  

But avoiding further growth is not the solution as we already have more people than the planet can support. The next decades need to find ways to feed these 7 billion, grow more food without encroaching on land or using up the water, to generate power without ravaging the environment and to use less power. And also to reverse the direction of population growth.

The single great resource that this large population consumes is energy. The graph shows the tremendous increase in the use of coal, petroleum and natural gas in the last century. Burning coal and petroleum or gas creates carbon dioxide and global warming that it leads to will alter the face of the earth itself. But the great bulk of business, industry and governments act as if they have not heard about it! Nations continue to pursue high growth rates and encourage consumption. A government official once said air conditioning large spaces could be an answer to global warming!


Like controlling population, curbing energy use is not easy in an interconnected world. It is individual efforts that must bring home to the 7 billion that the free ride is over. It is not for nothing that Al Gore was awarded the Nobel for his work of blowing the whistle. And still, there are skeptics, either real ones or driven by greed. The work of Lisa Jackson, to create explicit state policy and then to pursue its implementation – for conserving energy use and eco-friendly generation – is what responsible people need to emulate the world over 

Essam Sharaf, 59, an engineer and professor at Cairo University, was a fierce critic of Hosni Mumbarak, the erstwhile Egyptian president. As an active participant in the uprising earlier this year, he was elected Prime Minister of the new government. Sharaf believed that the answer to Egypt’s problems, from water security to energy, lay in science. His cabinet lost no time in revamping the education system and took up creating a university of basic and applied science – the ‘Zewail City for Science and Technology’ (after Ahmed Hassan Zewail, Egyptian origin winner of the Nobel for chemistry in 1999).

But good intentions do not carry the day and in November, Sharaf and his cabinet had to resign. When Egypt will resume the work to bring science on board is uncertain. Popular governments, by definition, rely on the support of the majority – illiterate in many parts of the world and unlettered in science in most. And yet, it is a world that is driven by science. Electricity, communications, food, housing, health, even warfare – depend on science and the global web of technology. A few Moghuls hold the strings, all others are consumers – soon to be consumed by problems of their own making. Vulgarisation of science – both for science practices in daily life as well as to understand where government policy is leading – is the answer to bring the survival instinct of the species into the act.  The great divide – between ‘science’ and ‘non-science’ persons, needs to break down – science needs to be seen as important, it needs to be seen as ‘cool’.

Else, short-term commercial interest will lead us over 
(To read more from Anantanarayanan, go to http://simplescience.in  )

Burning Issues

Painting the smokestack black

Painting the smokestack black

The UN’s index to measure the well being of nations has been shown to be flawed, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

Professor Chuluun Togtokh from Mongolia, in evaluating the level of human development, has worked in the cost to the environment, and finds that when this is done the icons of success in human well being, according to the UN’s existing index for the same measure, slip many places, to countries with more green and sustainable methods of living. He argues that the present Human Development Index, which is sponsored by the UN, has the effect of idolizing some of the most environmentally rapacious societies. Replacing the index with one that considers environment friendly technologies would help project ‘greener’ countries and place a value on being responsible in the use of energy.  Prof Chuluun Togtokh is a professor of ecosystem and sustainability sciences at the National University of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar and vice-chairman of Mongolia’s Global Change National Committee.  His findings have been projected by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) of the Swedish Academy of Sciences and his article has been featured  in the journal, Nature.


Human Development Index

The HDI is the outcome of a most earnest effort, with origins in a report of the UNDP, "to shift the focus of development economics from national income accounting to people centered policies". Much of the credit for its formulation goes to Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and India’s Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen. Amartya Sen had opposed the idea of expressing the complexity of the human condition in a single index, but Haq argued that this was necessary, to turn the gaze of planners from economic indicators to those of human felicity.

The formula worked out considers 3 factors as the indicators of welfare: health, education and prosperity. The indicator for health is the life expectancy at birth, of education the years of schooling and of prosperity, the per capita national income, normalized against the Dollar by purchasing power.  Complex mathematics has gone into arriving at the correct average to be considered and the final formula is formidable and scholarly, as can be seen in the box.

Based on this fine measure, formalized in this very month (November), 20 years ago, The United Nations have graded countries as more and less people friendly and have published the findings, to set up for countries lower in the ranking the examples of the highest ones to follow and emulate. Apart from the validity of the method of ranking being open to question, there remains the uncertainty of the figures being adopted. But this has been the yardstick and nations the world over have been labeled, as low-human-developed or backward, and road sign – to go towards higher ranking, has been used by industry, politics and advertising. 
Carbon Footprint

With the clearly large incomes of countries like the USA, which have become large energy users, and compulsory school education, and good nutrition that they enjoy, the formula is guaranteed to show these countries as the most oriented to ‘human development’. Professor Chuluun Togtokh questions the validity, in the present day context, at any rate, of the factors that are being considered. No doubt, the index has the merit of simplicity and apparently measuring what is important to humans. But the result is that with only these goals taken as criteria, the other practices and means used by countries that score high get left out and the ‘gas guzzling’ developed nations have been ‘celebrated’.

While the world and the UN go to all ends to speak for ‘sustainable development’,  the use of the HDI as a measure of development, which holds up the developed countries as ‘advanced’, raises grave questions about the real commitment to sustainability. The per capita CO2 consumption in the developed countries, is of the order of 15 to 50 tonnes ( in 2008). (France is an exception, but this is because it generates over 85% of its electricity needs from nuclear plants). In comparison, the per capita consumption (2008) in India was 1.4 tonnes and only a tenth of a tonne in Pakistan and some African countries. With burning of fossil fuels and industrialization rapidly polluting the earth’s resources and environment, the standard of living in the developed world is clearly at the cost of others and the future of the earth – hardly the way for the rest of the world to go. But the HDI shows the largest offenders as the most people friendly and the world persists in the apparent belief that resources will last forever and the earth will somehow survive ‘development’.

Prof. Togokh reworked the Human Development Index by taking one more factor into consideration – the per capita carbon footprint.  Prof. Togtokh notes that the per capita carbon emissions are ‘a simple, available and quantifiable indicator’, which is seen to be positively and strongly correlated with income and not at all with health and education. There is a question of what does income really have to do with ‘well being’ – if it is a means to real value, then the indicators of that value should speak and income may best not be considered. But Prof Togtokh has only taken into account also the negative effect of carbon emissions, to make the formula a little more complete, and he has reworked the index as a Human Sustainable Development Index (HSDI), and found new gradings.

The effect is that with this adjustment alone, some of the giants of development fall in the ranking – while others, equally affluent and with high living standards, rise in the ranking, thanks to their more green and carbon emission free methods. 
Some of the countries are shown in the figure.

We can see that USA, Australia and Canada plummet in ranking, while, Norway, with low carbon emissions, stays high and Sweden, with and an even lower carbon figure, rises to No 2.

This change in the ranking alone is eloquent. It shows up the largest carbon emitters are not the best in the world. On the other hand it shows that countries with high living standards, like Norway and Sweden, can still keep carbon emissions down, by adopting more responsible technologies. The earth, in fact, is in dire straits and massive reduction in energy consumption is the only answer. Politics and business keep this from happening, but information is also a powerful driver and the published Development Index has great leverage in influencing individual motives and state policy.
[the writer can be contacted at simplescience@gmail.com] 

Burning Issues

Planning housing in crowded cities

Planning housing in crowded cities

Noted town planning expert says densely packed apartments need to spread out, reports S.Ananthanarayanan.

On Friday, 24th, architect and town planner Shirish Patel spoke on “Life between Buildings – the use and abuse of FSI” at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Mumbai. ORF is a think tank which arranges talks by persons with insight and experience in matters of interest. Shri Narayana Murthy on ‘Skilling India’s young workforce’ , Mr. Deepak Gadhia, engineer and entrepreneur on 'Solar Enterprise through Solar Energy', and Dr. Sreerup Raychaudhuri, professor at TIFR, on the significance of detecting the Higgs Boson, were among many other recent presentations.

Mr Shirish Patel is a civil engineer who was with the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority and Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee and among those who first imagined and later implemented the New Bombay project. He is also on the Board of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Kengeri, Bengaluru. Erudite and soft-spoken, Mr Patel led the audience through a primer on the issues that arise when dwelling spaces are created – particularly the need to support residents when they step out of the dwelling. The talk was largely about Mumbai but the principles are the same for any Indian city.

Floor Space Index

Floor Space Index (FSI) or Floor Area Ratio (FAR), as it is known the world over, is the ratio of the built-up area in a plot of land, to the area of the plot. Local administrations, considering the need to provide water, electricity and sewage services, put a limit (or ceiling, may be more appropriate) on how much dwelling area a builder can construct on a given plot. Increase of the FSI is welcomed by builders, as they can sell more flats, and is equally welcomed by flat buyers, as it would increase availability in the best areas and hopefully bring down prices. The ratio is between 1.3 and 3.8 in Indian metros. This compares with FAR in many cities in the world, but is far lower than the figure in New York or Singapore.

Shirish Patel started with the context of FAR as encountered in the major cities of the world (see table). In view of the high concentration of population in Mumbai, like in New York or Singapore, Shirish said, the World Bank was pressing for FAR to be increased in Mumbai, and this was the demand of builders and citizen groups. But, said Shirish, along with the increase in the number of people housed over a unit area of land, there was the importance of space for amenities and social interaction outside the dwelling space itself.



Sao Paulo







1.2 to 3.8







New York



12 to 25

In the context of FAR of 15 in Manhattan and 1.3 in Mumbai, Shirish displayed pictures of street scenes in Manhattan and Mumbai.  Was it contradictory, that Mumbai, with the lower FAR, seemed to have more crowded streets?

Shirish noted that cities and even different parts of cities differ dramatically in layout and the use of space. To understand how a city should be developed, the planners and residents need to consider traditional space use, the number of floors in dwellings and the number of people who use these spaces. Thinking in terms of FAR puts the emphasis on the available dwelling area and hence the area available for each resident. A more communicative measure, Shirish said, was to consider not the area available but the level of crowding, particularly out there in the street. The difference between Manhattan and Mumbai, which affected street crowding, lay in the number of people using the dwelling space that the FAR allowed. In Manhattan, a typical flat of 100 m2 was occupied by 1.8, say 2 persons. But in Mumbai, a 25 m2 flat was home to 5 persons. Over a hectare, this translates to 200 persons in Manhattan and 2000 in Mumbai. During the day, the large part of these people were out on the street, shopping for essentials, for leisure, traveling to or from work, or at work. And Manhattan, with its lower crowding except in the busiest portion, had the use of an underground Metro network!

Working out crowding

Well, street crowding in the worst area in Mumbai compares with Midtown Manhattan, where they have FSI as high as 16.4 and also the relief of a high speed underground metro railway. But the bulk of Mumbai, with FSI just 1.12 to 3.66, is still as bad as second busiest part of Manhattan. It is clear that there are too many people in Mumbai for the available residence, street, market, office or park area.

With the number of residents, which is the population, not under the control of the town planner, Shirish saw review of the rent control laws which, at present, discourage investment in housing for tenancy, as one way to go. He is skeptical about public housing or free housing and believes in legislation for inclusionary housing, or obligation of all new construction to set aside floor space for low cost housing. For this, as well as for investment in housing, there is need is to allocate more land for the purpose. This would amount to providing access to open spaces in the vicinity of cities. But Shirish saw the hand of builders’ lobbies in diverting state funding to the kind of infrastructure that did not address this need, but sustained the shortage of housing, and hence high prices. “And”, Shirish Patel quipped to conclude his talk, “the World Bank would like us to increase the FSI in Mumbai!”
[the writer can be contacted at simplescience@gmail.com]

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