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May 05, 2019 Sunday 05:49:02 PM IST

Environmental Activism: Are They Feeding a Fed Horse?

Guest Column,Reflections

I often wonder who is doing good to the environment. The environmental activists who raise slogans and hold demonstrations or others who don't care a damn about it?

Recently I had the opportunity to take part in a discussion on environmental justice attended by experts from academia and industry. I was a bit amazed by the overwhelming sentiment against the use of plastic-everything from plastic pen, folders, plastic chairs were seen as damaging for the environment. In most places, where environmental activism gets to the extreme levels, emotional judgment clouds the facts and data.

Take the case of plastic itself. It has lesser carbon foot print than most other products or goods that we consume in daily life. Tim Harford, the best-selling author of The Undercover Economist writes in Adapt-Why Success Always Starts With Failure says that "plastic bag is responsible for only about one thousandth the carbon emissions of the food you put into it." Most often plastic is not the villain but the way we dispose it carelessly in drains, on the roads, rivers and all places where it can't be recovered for recycling or processing. Certain kinds of used plastic mixed with bitumen was found to be good for laying roads giving it superior strength. Now many companies use plastics that are 100% recyclable or biodegradable which makes the case raised by environmental activists quite weak. itself had carried a brief on the efforts of scientists to create thermosets, the most widely used plastics, capable of being reshaped and recycled. (Source:

Horse Manure Crisis and Co2 emissions

In the 1800's, the world faced a severe horse manure crisis as horse carriages used for passenger and goods transport increased in rapid numbers. While the contemporary nature lovers may call it an eco-friendly transport with no smoke and no blaring sounds, horse carriages caused a major headache for the municipalities due to the huge amount of dung it produced which in turn attracted flies and caused typhoid fever. The menace created by its urine only added to the woes of public authorities. In 1884, it was predicted by The Times that London would be under nine feet of manure in fifty years. However, all this did not happen because of the genius of Henry Ford who built motor cars by 1912. Thus, the fear of manure explosion was replaced with optimism as motor vehicles could move men and materials at a faster speed and efficiency  on the roads.

Hardly, one twenty years down the line, the world is now worrying about the carbon emissions created by diesel and petrol vehicles as their production and use have grown multi-fold over the years. And now the worry about vehicle exhaust emissions are being replaced with hope regarding the electric vehicles that are going fill our roads by 2030. But before the green activists talk about its merits such as silent performance and no smoke, one must look at two possible crises emerging from it. One is the high level of carbon emissions due to mining of lithium, cobalt and manganese for storage batteries. According to a study by Munich's Institute for Economic Research, electric vehicles can cause more carbon dioxide emissions than diesel or petrol depending on whether coal was used to produce electricity (whether carbon sequestration was used to neutralise carbon emissions or not in the power plant) and the increased mining of lithium and other minerals which again will utilise high amounts of energy. "Take the example of a Tesla Model 3 battery. They say that just one represents anywhere from 11 to 15 tons of carbon dioxide. When calculated across a lifetime of ten years travelling 15,000 km per year, it sees 73 to 98 grams of CO2 for every kilometre driven" (Source: However, European Union has classified electric cars as 'Zero Emission' products!

Lessons from Deepwater Horizon Explosion and Oil Spill

Much has been written and debated on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It is considered the largest marine oil spill in history killing 11 workers and injuring 17. It was found that BP, the owner of the Macondo well, Transocean which owned the rig had contingency plan for a major spill and it included measures to protect the Walrus population. "This was not actually necessary, walruses typically look after themselves when oil is spilled in the Gulf of Mexico by staying exactly where they are, in the Arctic Circle. The implication was clear: BP and others seem to have grabbed a contingency plan off the shelf, one that was originally designed for drilling in Alaska or the North Sea," according to Tim Harford quoted earlier.

Cow and Methane

Cows are revered in many countries which have economies dependent on dairy sector especially India. However, there are some efforts by perhaps the powerful US lobby of farmers of soya and corn to promote plant milk. A BBC report said that switching from dairy milk to soya milk will help save 250 km 'raised to 3' of irrigation water a year. It would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions (methane) from cow dung by a billion tonnes a year. What are the plant alternatives apart from soya? Almond milk, rice milk, Oats, coconut milk.... They too have environment costs- for eg. it requires huge amount of water for almond cultivation. The bacteria underneath the rice paddy fields have bacteria that also give of methane as part of their respiration process but may be less than the cows. But the relative advantage of profit from dairy business and the fact that people love to have their cup of coffee or tea enriched with dairy milk makes it difficult for the plant milk enthusiasts to make much headway soon.

Cow slaughter was banned in some states in India citing religious reasons but many argued that if cattle past its milking capacity were left to wander in the streets it would create much more of an environmental problem that the consumption of beef would create.

Activist Support for Whales and Shark But not for Chickens

More chickens are killed worldwide than whales, sharks and walruses which are in the endangered list. But there is seldom any demonstration against killing of chickens. Robert H Frank writes in the Economic Naturalist that whale populations have been dwindling because no one owns whales. Japanese and Norwegian Whalers know their practices cause a threat to the sea animal but if they don't harvest some one else will and hence no whaler stands to gain by self-restraint. Large number of tigers and elephants are killed in the Indian wilds for theirs skin, horns and other organs. Will giving ownership rights to individuals or groups ensure them from extinction?

Are the Climate Change Fears Justified?

There are many who feel that climate change fears are hyped up by scientists and the media. Bjorn Lomborg, popularly known as 'the skeptical environmentalist' is one. He thinks we worry too much about climate change and not enough about clean water or malaria. He argues that we must spend fifty times more on research and development into clean energy and geoengineering.

The problem with the arguments for and against carbon emissions and climate change is that we cannot do a controlled experiment on it. "We won't know exactly what our carbon dioxide emissions will do the climate until they've already done it, even then we won't know for sure whether a different course of action would have had a different effect," writes Robert H Frank in The Natural Economist.

Does Anti-animal language matter?

In December 2018, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA India) released an advisory stating that we must avoid idioms that are rooted in 'speciesism' and anti-animal language. For eg. we should instead of using 'killing two birds with one stone', use 'feed two birds with one scone", 'feed a fed horse' instead of 'beating a dead horse' and instead of 'take the bull by the horns', 'take the flower by the thorns'! Truth is that such idioms originated under different set of circumstances and they convey some meaning in a particular context in day-to-day communication and there is no reason to believe that such idioms  create anti-animal feelings.

In discussing environment, climate change and carbon emissions taking it to an emotional high, aren't we 'beating a dead horse' or perhaps as PETA India argues 'feeding a fed horse'!

(Photo Courtesy: JuergenPM,




Sreekumar Raghavan

Sreekumar Raghavan is an award-winning business journalist with over two and a half decades of experience in print, magazine and online journalism. A Google-certified Digital Marketing Professional, he specialises in content development for web, digital marketing and training, media relations and related areas. He is the recipient of MP Narayana Pillai Award for Journalism in 2001 and holds a bachelors degree in Economics and Masters Degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Kerala University.





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