December 4, 2023The Intersectionclimate changehyperdiversity

Environmental goals are difficult to achieve without social capital

Getting international agreement on climate issues is the easy part; the difficult bit is getting hyperdiverse societies to cooperate at the everyday level.

Mint This is an unedited draft of my The Intersection column in Mint.

I’m likely to get into trouble with many of my friends for saying this, but I think the world is making extraordinary progress towards addressing climate change.

It might not be fast enough to achieve emissions and temperature targets the follow from the IPCCs studies, but in the past fifteen years we have seen first scientific consensus and then global political consensus on the problem definition, followed by convergence on approaches and firm international agreements on targets and timelines. Climate activists remain unsatisfied but for students of international relations this kind of progress is unprecedented, not least at a time when the world lacks a stable order, technological change is causing social upheavals everywhere and hundreds of millions of people around the world have entered the middle class.

Regardless of how its outcomes are judged, the mere fact that COP28 is happening at all is remarkable. Seeing how global trade talks, UN reform and cyber governance have fallen by the wayside, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that the world’s governments are taking climate seriously.

This, however, does not mean I am not worried about the environment. My fear is that getting international agreements and national policies in place is the easiest part of the problem. The hard bit will be the proverbial last-mile. People will have to change their behaviour in ways that are pro-environmental. And for that, they will have to be more pro-social. It is here that the things get stuck. Among people who have high diversity and low social capital, it is going to be extremely difficult to eke out the minimum cooperation necessary to make the required adjustments. The more ambitious the global climate goal, the more painful the everyday changes people will have to make and greater the social capital needed. It is unclear if the world has the social capital necessary to achieve the 1.5 °C warming target the COP26 adopted.

Any society that must meet environmental targets must have effective mechanisms for cooperation, coordination and redistribution. A city, for example, will have to agree on which of the several policy options it must adopt, its administration and citizenry will must align their efforts and, most importantly, ways must be found to compensate those who have to sacrifice their interests for the common good.

How I define hyperdiversity and an abstract of my talk at the Santa Fe Institute in May 2023

This is hard enough anywhere in the world, but it will be particularly difficult in India. Because we are a hyperdiverse society — people differ too much along too many dimensions, making it nearly impossible to agree on anything, much less coordinate efforts and share benefits and costs.

Putnam’s argument

Robert Putnam, the American social scientist who developed the idea, discovered that diversity diminishes social capital. People hunker down, become less trusting and less cooperative when they encounter people who are different from them. Within Indian society, teeming as it is with jati, ethnic, linguistic, vocational and class divisions, the sense of common community is restrictive. When we say we”, it seldom means the whole city, state or population. It mostly means my family”, my community”, my group” or at best my neighbourhood.” This is the likely reason why public property in India — toilets, parks, buildings and cityscapes — is in bad shape. We Indians overexploit, underinvest and under-maintain our public spaces because our sense of common community is inadequate.

More on why jatis or castes are anti-national

Ambedkar nailed it when he warned that How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realise that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us.” We can symbolically become Bangalorean from time to time, for instance by cheering for RCB, but the number of Bangaloreans in the civic, social and psychological” is too small to take a city-wide view. The bad infrastructure, terrible traffic and apathetic governance is the inevitable consequence.

India’s international climate commitments, national policy goals and many government initiatives are truly impressive. Investments in renewable energy and electric vehicles will continue to make a difference in situations where there is a clear economic case. An electric vehicle, for instance, is not only good for the environment but is also cheaper to run. It will get more difficult when people have to give up what they already have or expect to get. Road pricing, paid parking and compliance with traffic rules can substantially reduce atmospheric pollution and traffic congestion. They are unpopular and very few cities have implemented them. Yet these are the kind of things we will have to do keep the earth cool. We cannot do them until we build the necessary social capital.

Unfortunately, contemporary Indian politics is weakening the kind of social capital that bridges different identity groups and creates a sense of shared nationhood, statehood and cityhood. Religious and sectarian polarisation, caste-affirming politics and geographic chauvinisms are undermining what little sense of commonality we have. I am afraid we cannot make meaningful progress towards saving the planet without first seeing each other as us”.

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