“To know, and not to act, is not to know”

Finding the right solutions and implementing them better than passing the buck when there are breakdowns

“To know, and not to act, is not to know”

—  Chinese philosopher Wang Yang-Ming

One of the most marking events of 2013 was no doubt the severe flood of 30 March which hit the City of Port Louis in particular. No less than 150 millimetres of torrential rain fell over the City in less than two hours. Ten persons died, most of them trapped in rapidly rising flood waters in the underpass of the Caudan waterfront. Vehicles floated on the roads which quickly converted to waterways.

The unforeseen strike by nature was widespread, sudden and unexpected. It is difficult to forget the images of devastation in places like Canal Dayot and Ward IV along the Pouce Stream. To this day, the psychological dread of flooding has caught up the imagination so that the Caudan waterfront poses at once as an attractive commercial centre but also as a threat to life in the event of a sudden downpour.

Many scoffed at the explanations provided by the official side that the flooding could be due to climate change. The critics attributed the catastrophe to negligence, claiming that recent road works around the City main entrance (undertaken by the government) had had the effect of clogging down the natural outlets for flood waters. Attempts were also made to shift the blame on the Municipality (in the hands of the Opposition) which would have failed to remove rubbish abundantly thrown into the City’s water evacuation canals by citizens.

We do not know on whom the burden of the blame game has fallen finally. But it goes to the credit of the authorities that they acted promptly immediately after to remove physical obstacles to water flows by widening up canals and deepening water evacuation systems. There was a response to a perceived inadequacy and this is what matters even though the remedy came only after the catastrophe struck.

Blaming is not all

The same pattern of exchange of accusations for neglect was noted in the other case of a major road accident involving a NTC bus on 3rd May. It ended up with a capsized bus, killing eleven persons on board, due to a presumably faulty braking system not only in this bus in particular but in the entire batch purchased some years past.

But such exchanges of accusations and counter-accusations for inefficiency in public administration are legion. The opposition picks up an issue of contention to blame the government for. Shortly after, the government side digs up an identical sore point to demonstrate the opposition’s inefficiency or want of adequate action when it was in power.

This is perhaps the way politics is done. Unfortunately, blaming each other does not help; it ends up undermining the credentials of both sides for effectiveness. Voters are eventually more confused than before as to who should be trusted. Meanwhile, when the wrangling is going on, the solutions do not materialize. On their part, lobbies having opposing interests either manage to preserve the status quo or to advance their private interests as it suits their convenience.

The same pattern on global climate change

Some may surmise that such buck-passing would be the exclusive preserve of Mauritius. It is not so. While governments and private sectors minded to advance their private economic interests and influence waste no time when it comes to seizing opportunities for making profits, their effectiveness suffers from serious shortcomings when it comes to matters of broader public interest.

Consider the issue of global climate change itself. Surveys show that 90 to 97% of climate scientists affirm that the planet is getting hotter. They attribute it to human activity. This situation is putting an existential threat on the sole human habitat we have. Scientists say that we need a sharp reduction in global CO2 emissions in the hope we could bring back the situation under control.

How have politicians and members of the public reacted to this existential threat? Politicians have kept issuing a generic injunction stating: “we should act on climate change”. But these are hollow words given the scale of the problem and the limited action they are endorsing to keep carbon emissions under check. Others have blithely mixed up the essential issue of sustainability associated with global warming with global environmental issues involving pollution, etc. This is how the focus is lost, hopefully not deliberately.

Business leaders, on their part, have looked at the heating problem on a unit-to-unit basis but not from the global perspective of reducing emissions overall at a quick pace to reverse the harm already done. Companies’ goal should have been to wind down their extensive use of fossil fuels; there is nothing on offer from this front. Both governments and big business find it imperative not to interfere in their competing demands for energy security and economic growth, no matter if an unsustainable environment hit public health directly.

Individuals don’t feel personally involved. Either, they are emotionally not upset about climate change or they dismiss it as not having anything to do with them individually or they feel powerless to be able to do anything.

So, at all levels, the vacuum of inaction sets in. The world is caught up in a dissonance trying to minimize carbon emissions at the national level while maximizing fossil fuel production. Solutions are thus hard to come by at the global level. Of what use will it be when the climate change disaster is already upon us and we have no ideas to act on?

Conclusion

When we come by situations like this, when we know for sure that the earth has been becoming warmer since the Industrial Revolution (1760), when we wait for a paternalistic government to help us do what is right and ought to be done straightaway, we find nothing to say when disaster finds us out. At that moment, we look for scapegoats, who did not do what he/she ought to have done.

One cannot wait for breakdowns to be at our doorstep to take the action that was to be taken long back. If climate change is upon us already, it means we are acknowledging that disasters of a higher scale will have to be dealt with. It requires some amount of preparedness to tackle catastrophes on that scale.

How will it matter then if one went around to say that such and such a land parcelling should not have been undertaken without fulfilling prerequisites relating to avoidance of flooding? How will it matter if the fossil-fuelled energy producer is the one you’ve come to depend on for another couple of decades or more for your energy needs? The crude reality will catch up with us except that, by that time, those who endorsed half-baked decisions to be made will no longer be here to answer. Or, even if they were here, how will it make a difference? Everyone has a responsibility and it is everyone’s duty to ensure that actions which are necessary and sufficient to the best of one’s knowledge are actually implemented to pre-empt future disaster.

 


* Published in print edition on 20 December 2013

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