Friday, February 11, 2011

Just Pontification 4: Science of Small Things

I may acknowledge the obvious borrowing of the title of this Blog from Arundhati Roy's best seller titled "God of Small Things". I have not read the book though I held it in my hand several times, including an indonesian version in Roman script from Google Books. I can only guess therefore how that book is related to what I have to write on the Science of Small Things. According to one review, Roy's book "... is a description of how the small things in life build up, translate into people's behavior and affect their lives."

This blog and all our human yesterdays will take that last statement as obviously given. It may have escaped the attention of our (desi) tomorrow's and yesterday's budding/budded scientists who (except J C Bose notably, and few others) try to be clones of other (non-desi) exalted scientists. Originality is not usually our forte.

The role of the scientist in the western world has always emphasized its part in the conquest of harsh nature as in their winter months. It is the drudgery of their winters that led them to the printed novels and music scores, and room lighting and central heating, and radios and televisions for their recorded home entertainment, all of which followed and helped build their science culture and their precision.

The value systems of these scientists are good for their society and produce their essential and probably vital things which seem unique and even desirable even if they may be unnecessary to us.

We have our own weather, our long history of having our own social systems for living and amusement, and dealing with our weather and their attendant complications and health problems. We have analyzed them and have formulated ways to handle them and the long-term benefits of this analysis has survived 5000 years of civilized living.

Do we need to follow the objectives of the recent science of the western world?

I would think not --- even if I think so belatedly. My views in this blog may not be the prevailing view of Indian scientist. Science is universal they would say. So it is. The objectives of science to an inquisitive mind require being shaped (and is usually shaped) by one's real environment and not by one's images of a different picture on travel brochures or advertisement billboards or even by the editorials of science periodicals.

After sixty years of independence, when the newly independent people have retired with their mindsets, it is time for the new generation to take over as truly independent minds. I do not think that this new generation, now in their twenties, is as much worried about a western hand that feeds and nurtures their scientific curiosity. Thanks to many modern young men --- and I would include A R Rahman and Ashoke Sen and Saina Nehwal and even Rahul Gandhi --- of a truly original tribology (science of interacting surface; interacting and interfacing is essential) one may visualize the beginnings of a new day in Indian Science.

In the past sixty years efforts are made to remove the so-called small irritants in a scientist's (usually trained abroad) life, that is thought to prevent him from practicing his science (of relevance to life abroad) in an unperturbed (which really means with all the western comforts) manner. I think that all that is now dismissed as droppings of a bull. Perhaps this post Egypt era can actually be an opportunity to rediscover oneself with respect to one's environment and benefit from this understanding and from this rediscovery.

The term rediscovery does imply that we had known about our environment earlier but it has been obscured and buried under our present modes of "learning" from western "gods".

It also stems from the belief that luxury breeds more and more luxury so insatiably that all the small things in life have to be trampled and buried without ever savoring their essence although they always will remain the essentials.

It is time we thought back on our value systems.

Howsoever, as they say, as a pre-independence man, I think it is my prerogative to rediscover and re-preach.

It should also be my duty to have practiced what I now preach. I plead guilty that I may not have done so ... but then, I may say, I did not preach as much when I was practicing.

I have included some old poetry in lieu of my preaching for old poetry never dies.

That is why this blog is a pontification blog?

However, I warn, that my future blogs (at least three) will attempt to point direction of what kind of science of small things that we can do. I will put my head on the block to be chopped off then, even if that will not be my purpose.

We (my siblings) were brought up with as children with family values that shunned the pursuit of material gain of the chalaak and caused much avoidable un-naturalness and asthma and cancer. I cannot find a particular reason why we should have been so. I now think that it was mainly influenced by the buddhist sack-cloth-and-ashes attitudes of my mother which seemed to so easily fit into the history and culture of resident bengalis (see my blog "The Bon of the Bongs, Part I: East or West, East is the Best (Sometimes)" of November 7, 2008) or indeed the resident Indians from any place.It is this attitude that makes people sympathetic to concerns about social injustice as also to love nature and to desire it as a sufficient enough luxury.

Oliver Goldsmith ( have been one of these kinds. One of my earliest literary impressions has been his poem "The Deserted Village" which, it seems from Wikipedia, was the pangs he felt when an ancient village was being demolished to make a garden for an wealthy man. This was in the middle of the eighteenth century. Such demolitions persist even today. Those of us who live in Pune know how a garden city has been converted to a concfrete jungle.

I still remember the voice of the English teacher reciting the first lines from this poem (not only because of the strange word 'swain'):

Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheered the laboring swain

The lines that impressed us most (perhaps because of my mother's subconscious buddhist leanings --- she was born in Burma and her family lived long in Burma --- and also because we were averagely poor) were

O, luxury! thou curst by Heaven's decree,
How ill exchanged are things like these for thee!
How do thy potions, with insidious joy,
Diffuse their pleasures only to destroy!
Kingdoms by thee, to sickly greatness grown,
Boast of a florid vigor not their own:
---- ---- ----
Till, sapp'd their strength, and every part unsound,
Down, down they sink, and spread a ruin round.

Tagore's "Dui Bigha jomi" had a similar theme (see although the beauty of the poem is always lost in its transliteration:-

Of my land only a little remained, the rest having been mortgaged away.
The zamidar (landlord) said one day, “Know what Upen? This too should come my way”.
I said, “O Lord, countless are the plots of land you already own,
But consider --–I only have land enough to bury me when I’m gone!’
The zamindar brushed me aside saying, “Upen, I’m building a garden,
Your half-acre will allow me to design for it a lovely fountain–
You’ll have to sell it to me!” ……. I replied, tears in my eyes,
and hands on my heart, “Spare this poor man’s land, or else he dies!
For seven generations we’ve tilled this plot and it’s everything to me,
Selling it will be like selling my mother because of poverty!”

Tagore's poem would go on to reflect the mindset of the Indian rich which does not seem to have changed since the time he wrote it more than a hundred years ago:

In six weeks I was forced out of my ancestral land and into the road
By a court decree. Falsely, it said I had defaulted on a loan and owed
The zamindar the whole lot! Alas, in this world those who have most want all
Even the king won’t stop until he has grabbed everything–big or small!

I think (Shiva's Dance and the Stock Market: Creative Destruction, October 26, 2008) Goldsmith's the "down, down sinking" part in recent times came with the stock-market crash of 2008 the repercussions of which is manifesting in several ways. The not least of these is the Egypt phenomenon which would require another blog.

Tagore's "dui bigha jomi" must find its equivalence in the several new SEZs (Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is a geographical region that has economic and other laws that are more free-market-oriented than a country's typical or national laws ... to enable a private sector developer to obtain a reasonable rate of return (20%!!!, emphasis mine) --- Wikipedia).

Both of these poems show that those who have the wealth use it many time for their trivial conspicuous consumption. Those who have nature's wealth and are content to live by it end up as losers, increasingly so in this modern world.

This trend requires to be reversed, hopefully bloodlessly.

The science of small things (SOST) should be concerned with the way this reversal can be brought about.

This blog will not consciously be on Schumacher's theme of Small is Beautiful though I agree almost instantaneously with his almost opening statements:
"They may disagree on many things but they all agree that the problem of production has been solved; that mankind has at last come of age. For the rich countries,they say, the most important task now is 'education for leisure' and, for the poor countries. the 'transfer of technology'.
"That things are not going as well as they ought to be going must be due to human wickedness. We must therefore construct a political system so perfect that human wickedness disappears and everybody behaves well, no matter how much wickedness there may be in him or her.
Schumacher finds these assumptions to be erroneous. "The arising of this error, so egregious and so firmly rooted. is closely connected with the philosophical, not to say religious, changes during the last three or four centuries in man's attitude to nature. ... since the whole world is now in a process of westernisation, ... modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.
"... illusion of having solved the problem of production ... is based on the failure to distinguish between income and ... the irreplaceable capital which man had not made, but simply found, and without which he can do nothing."

The "irreplaceable capital" must include "Sweet Auburn" and "dui bigha jomi".

Schumacher quotes Keynes as saying '...For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair,; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.’.

The Science of Big Funding may unconsciously be aimed at supporting the gods of "avarice and usury" towards the utopia of an universal well being.

This must be the thoughts of our (strictly non-original and therefore non-Indian) economists like World-Bank-serving Manmohan Singh and his much more presentable and much more wily clone Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who would have petrol taxes be reduced and diesel subsidies removed.

There are statements such as "The road to peace, it is argued, is to follow the road to riches." "The dominant modern belief is that the soundest foundation of peace would be universal prosperity."

Every tranquil lake of equality will inevitably and spontaneously make a wave from a fluctuation or an external disturbance. The wave of inequality cannot be suppressed and will propagate unless there are different cultures that do not recognize the wave.
Universal difference-less prosperity is not the road to permanence in relationships but the cliche unity in diversity is likely to be. The Science of Small Things (SOST) may require providing social science inputs that makes social differences (perhaps including caste differences) stigma-less without pandering to the masses of conspicuously consuming invasion of tourists; it will also require suppressing differences that serve only the purposes of profit-making commercial advertisements.

The sharpest and most adventurous Indian minds are now busy making copies for advertisements and scripts for mass-entertainment. Would that they could use it for SOST.

The question to ask is whether the world would have been a better place, say, without the glamour of the Shah Rukh Khans or Amitabh Bachans or NDTV for saving the Tiger.
The Tiger and the Elephant and the woodchucker would have certainly not preferred their tinsel attention.

The Science of Small Things (SOST) must bear in mind the obvious (Schumacher) 'Nothing makes economic sense unless its ontinuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities'.
In the absence of these absurdities there will be no inflation. SOST must help in pointing out the absurdities.
Inflation-less permanence is "incompatible with a predatory attitude of conspicuous consumption which rejoices in the fact that what were luxuries for our fathers have become necessities for us', ... a "taxation which the public find hardest to evade" (Keynes)

Permanence is a virtue that must assert itself without succumbing to the delusions of change. There is enough change in nature that can be amusing for one's lifetime especially if this change includes changes in watching one's creation grow.

... It is more than likely, as Gandhi said, that 'Earth provides enough to satisfy~ every man's need, but not for every man's greed
'. Modifying Gandhi one may add 'the people of the world cannot be helped by mass production, only by production by the people'

It is nice to have a refined taste by sampling and tasting to one's refinements various food and wines than to have built up a stock of fine wines based on the gloss of some baron or castle or (more likely) some glossy advertisement print even if it features the singularly featureless Vijay Mallaya and his very imitating calendar girls.

Although we may not have realized it ourself, Schumacher points out that Gandhi had said 'Every machine that helps every individual has a place, but there should be no place for machines that concentrate power in a few hands and turn the masses into mere machine minders, if indeed they do not make them unemployed.'

SOST could train its mind on machine-busting than machine minding.

Happiness is, of course, no use to economists as there is no way to quantify happiness. It is not certain, for example, which one is the more happier. Is it the man in his Audi caught in busy traffic (Fig below left) the children playing on the kerb at the same point (Fig below, middle) or the old lady in the old building (figure below right) on the old Lakshmi Road of Pune? (click to expand)

One of the favourite tools of economists is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is a measure of long term economic growth even if the more important stock-market profits of parasites comes from short-term business cycles. Ignoring the modern trend of stocks-and-shares parasitology of the upwardly mobile and inwardly insecure, SOST may still ask what the GDP means in terms of permanence. By permanence we will use the Schumacher approach of idenifying permanence with the permanence of our natural resources, our natural capital.

If one takes a GDP as a measure of a nation's luxury quotient,LQ, one naturally assumes that if luxury is a wasteful expenditure then the energy-luxury quotient, ELQ (ELQ = Energy/GDP) will increase with time --- all else being the same. In the Figure below the energy used by Japan and its GDP is plotted for various years starting from 1958 (data from Wikipedia). The S-type plot for GDP may be interpreted in terms of kinetics of phase transformation from a GDP-low to a GDP-high phase. The low GDP initially may be attributed to a low life-style contrast that does not motivate the population. In the intermediate rapid growth phase old frugal habits die and new spending sprees grow with the intentto produce more to aquire more for wasteful expenditure. In the latter stages this transformation is either completed (every body is wasting) or draws to an end because the cost of energy becomes prohibitive.

On the other hand, it is seen from the graph that the ELQ shows a (what one can call) a "mrror-reflected S-shape curve" where the ELQ is high in 1958 and tapers down to a constant value towards the year 2000. If one were to normalize the purchasing power (PP) of the dollar over this time (the dollar value is reduced) the plot of ELQ(PP normalized) or ELQpp vs time would be rather flat since the purchasing power of the dollar was from about ( $6 in 1958 if the purchasing power in 2000 is taken as 1$.

In terms of this dollar normalized sense we may look at the ELQ by some other standards. Assuming one trillion to be 10^12 1$ to be 100 yen then an ELQ of neaqrly 1 exaJ/100trillion yen works out to be ~ 1 million calories per dollar of GDP.The energy required to boil one liter of water is nearly 6.5 x 10^5 calories so that an increase of 1$ in GDP is equivalent to the energy used to boil one and a half litres of water per year. An Indian per capita GDP of 1000$ is equivalent to boiling 1500 litres of water per year or nearly four litres of water per day per person in India. To burn petrol it is nearly 10,000 calories per g or 8x10^6 calories per litre. A GDP of 1000$ is equivalent to burning about 300 ml of petrol per person per day.

This seems reasonable.

To achieve an US GDP of 40,000$ we will require burning 12 litres of petrol per day per person or boil 160 litres (16 buckets) of water per day per person.

This certainly seems unreasonable!

But still there could be hope. The curves are flattening out and saturating in the above figure. The Energy used may slow down and start decreasing as population stabilizes and energy use becomes more efficient. Will GDP become less as population decreases in some foreseeable future?

One view ( is the following:

"The population bomb and its resource-scarcity corollaries have a quaint ring now, like bellbottoms, gas lines, Jimmy Carter’s grin, and other totems of 1970s sensibility. It is this kind of ecoapocalypticism that Bjørn Lomborg called “The Litany”:

We are all familiar with the Litany: the environment is in poor shape here in Earth. Our resources are running out. The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat. The air and water are becoming ever more polluted. The planet’s species are becoming extinct in vast numbers--we kill off more than 40,000 each year. The forests are disappearing, fish stocks are collapsing, and the coral reefs are dying. We are defiling our Earth, the fertile topsoil is disappearing; we are paving over nature, destroying the wilderness, decimating the biosphere, and will end up killing ourselves in the process. The world’s ecosystem is breaking down. We are fast approaching the absolute limit of viability, and the limits of growth are becoming apparent.

At the same time the article cited above goes on to add
"Gus Speth, author of Red Sky at Dawn, is currently dean at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and was chairman of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality under President Jimmy Carter, where he was the driving force behind The Global 2000 Report to the President. Global 2000 had the misfortune of offering specific predictions for the year 2000, such as $100-a-barrel oil, a 40-percent loss of forestland in developing nations, and a 20-percent increase in desertification. Some of these predictions were not just wrong; they were wrong by an order of magnitude."

From the hindsight of 2011, Gus Speth was not all that wrong. Changes due to the economic policies incorporated in Globalization that unexpectedly made China and India and so many other poor rich was not taken into account.

On top of it, changes due to the freedom of expression brought about by the power of the internet, has not been factored in. The exploitation of Oil sources has now unseen future because of the unforeseen political changes.

SOST will require answers to these questions... more importantly it will require framing questions. ... Ahluwalia's planning commission will certainly not do it.

Goldmsith said what is known through ages

"Teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain;
Teach him, that states of native strength possess'd,
Though very poor, may still be very blessed;
That trade's proud empire hastes to swift decay,
As ocean sweeps the labor'd mole away;
While self-dependent power can time defy,
As rocks resist the billows and the sky

Among the ancient civilization, Iraq could not resist the billows and the sky. China and India have not learnt to spurn the rage of gain. The hope lies in Egypt's "self-dependent power".

Science of Small Things can make a beginning in true self-dependence and freedom into which Tagore (for another reason perhaps) would want us to awake.