the retreat of the elephants

Working on the hydel stories, thinking about how these dams will change the Brahmaputra, feeling the country will have to live with the consequences of these decisions for a long, long time, I am reminded of this passage from Mark Elvin’s The Retreat Of The Elephants.

A paradox has to be confronted. The same skill in water control that had contributed so greatly to the development of the Chinese economy in ancient, medieval, and even in the early part of late-imperial times, slowly fashioned a strait-jacket that in the end hindered any easy reinvention of the economic structure. Neither water nor suitable terrain was available for further profitable hydraulic expansion.. A remarkable but prescientific technology was approaching the limits of its capacities. Deadliest of all, hydrological systems kept twisting free from the grip of human would-be mastery, drying out, silting up, flooding over, or changing their channels. By doing so they devoured the resources needed to keep them under control or serviceable. And made these resources unavailable for other purposes prior to the coming of modern engineering. No other society reshaped its hydraulic landscape with such sustained energy as did the Chinese, nor on such a scale, but the dialectic of long-term interaction with the environment transformed what had been a one-time strength into a source of weakness.

The context:  For hundreds of years, the Chinese have been trying to control their great rivers — the Yellow, the Yantze and the Huai. Take the Yellow. Carrying large volumes of silt down from the mountains, it used to make frequent (and sweeping) alterations to its course. Once, it swung so far south it actually merged with the Huai. This was a problem. For one, Beijing, up in the north, was serviced (transport of goods, etc) by the Grand Canal which connected in the south to the Yellow. And since you cannot have a functional canal if the river feeding it with water keeps swinging here and there, the Yellow needed to be tamed. So, in the 16th Century, the Chinese built massive embankments, got the Yellow to flow along one predetermined channel. In response, the river began dumping silt. So much that, as Elvin writes, the river bed rose by over 2 metres in just 13 years. Higher and higher embankments had to be built.

A technological lock-in without fully understanding the attendant consequences.

Turn now to Arunachal and Hydel. Developments here are taking India down an irreversible direction as well. And the strange thing is this. We know enough to not take such decisions. But all that knowledge and wisdom seems to be powerless before the political economy at work. For, what we have is a system of environmental governance which only pretends its decisions are scientific. But take a closer look — at the minutes of the MoEF committees set up to evaluate projects or how our policies on environmental clearances are created — and you see that it is the political economy that calls the shots.

That is one question. How does one create a system where political economy stays subservient to reason and science? Also, is such a system desirable — or can it become a technocracy? So, maybe I should rephrase my question as “How does one create a system where political economy stays subservient to interdisciplinary reason and science”?


(Also cross-posted on Anomalocaris, my blog for the Economic Times).

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