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Autological | Deepa K S

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Deepa K S has been a student of the Masters of Public Policy programme at NLSIU, 2014-16 and is also one of the co-founders of Lokniti. In the capacity of an outgoing editor, she offers some perspective on the inception of the blog, along with its potential as a policy forum.  

Autological is a borrowed title from one of my favourite poets. Like most borrowed things, it gets things going in interesting ways and serves the purpose more than originally intended. I do believe it is better than ‘autobiographical’, at least in the case of Lokniti that began as a journey committed to finding nemos, dorys and other voices that mattered. This is not to sound glib, but the first group of students who signed up to be part of Masters of Public Policy at National Law School had to do two things at once – they had to find both intellectual spaces for themselves and make it as meaningful as it was diverse and they had to announce to the world that they were a distinct species of scholars who could work deliberately different because they were trained to do so. There will be other meanings and other contexts for Lokniti in the coming years, but these were the very first ideas and ideals that shaped the space and lent it whatever voice it has today.

It was born thus on a December morning squeezed in a small tea break, its arrival noiselessly announced through the click of a button. In the first year classroom, when a slide show opened to empty space, we had the joy of having that created space entirely for ourselves. The best thing I remember about working for Lokniti was that it worked on borrowed time and effort always. Like its birth, its form and shape was carved out of talented students chipping away at their assignments and finding some miraculous time to caress the blog as they went, teachers who came with tight schedules from all over the world but generously offering thought bytes to short interviews, and more and more students drawing, designing, writing, thinking and shooting videos to keep this space alive and well. It was teamwork and idealism that gave birth to the blog like all other student-led ventures we had in class.

Anyone who wrote for the blog wrote passionately about what they had seen and inferred from the ground that could shape public policy, laws and vision of this country. I believe it was the confidence that what they thought mattered and consequently what they wrote could influence the world around, that encouraged contributors to keep coming back with work to the blog. And yet to everyone who has been involved, it was primarily a space for friendship and easy comradeship as well as a democratic space to respectfully argue and build a world of ideas. For both this freedoms-freedom to live together and disagree- the cornerstone of every macro institutional setting we will inhabit in future, we are grateful. About the implications of the work presented and the tenderness of labour that nurtured it, we are thankful.

Adios!

 

Ramblings from an Alumnus| Mounik Lahiri

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Mounik Lahiri has been a student of the Masters of Public Policy programme at NLSIU, 2014-16 and is also one of the co-founders of Lokniti. In the capacity of an outgoing editor, he offers some perspective on the inception of the blog, along with its potential as a policy forum.  

It just dawned on me a few days back that I am no longer a part of this experience of learning and debating Public Policy with some of the best professorial minds and the brightest students that I have had the privilege of sharing a classroom with and of working in an unending array of projects (published or otherwise) during my two years as a student of the Masters of Public Policy programme at NLSIU. And I realised the best way to give vent to my current state of mind would be through the blog which I and some of my enthusiastic classmates who are now friends for life co-founded two years ago and which is now managed quite brilliantly by our equally enthusiastic juniors and the current editorial team.

At the outset, it gives me immense pleasure and satisfaction to narrate and perhaps offer some perspective to this space (this blog), which belongs to all of you to share your thoughts, ideas and ramblings on the theoretical and practical manifestations of public policy. Two years ago when we jointly founded this blog to give a voice to all of us and to successive batches of public policy students who will occupy the coveted positions of being participants for the Public Policy programme at this prestigious institution, we had no idea where this blog would go but had to start it nevertheless. And now I feel the blog is not just in safe hands but that it has great possibilities ahead. And it must be mentioned that it wasn’t easy, we were a group of students enthusiastic to jointly embark on a journey of exploring the contours of public policy in India and globally and by virtue of being the first batch of students here, we were attempting to do so in a law school that has had no legacy of prior public policy education.

Carving out our own space for expressing our views and perspectives and to give vent to unending intellectual discussions and debates in class and outside, we felt this was the best platform and so we gave to ourselves this blog. My earnest appeal to all of you is to give more thoughts, ideas and contributions to this blog and to make it grow to a collection of the best that students of Public Policy at NLSIU has to offer. In the next few paragraphs, therefore, you will find some perspectives on our common purpose with respect to this space in the worldwide web through this blog and in the practical realms of the world and our shared discipline and passion – public policy!

If you are reading this article it is highly likely that you are a public policy student here at NLS, and if you are, the chances are you will belong to one of the two categories. Either you will be a new entrant to law school, which are the physical and the intellectual space that is encompassed within the boundary walls of this colourful institution or you will be one among quite a few who just moved a year closer to graduating with a public policy degree. One of the most beautiful features of this programme is that it makes all participants go through a series of systematic learning and training exercises on how to most systematically think of public policy and its various manifestations, irrespective of their disciplinary background.

The challenge though is that most of the humanity does think and opine on public policy anyway, we discuss it over the morning newspaper, the dinner table with family and friends and on weekends or when glued to the twenty-four-seven news channels at the fag end of a tiring day. And unlike astronomy or medicine, the majority of individuals anywhere on the planet think they do not need any special training or specialist knowledge to think or opine on issues of public policy relevance. Even though all of you would have a multitude of reasons for wanting to study public policy as an academic discipline, it shall be really unfortunate if you do not find yourself in the tiny minority which believes that public policy deserves no less of academic, analytical and intellectual rigour that is reserved for some of the most elevated natural science disciplines.

This is because this conviction is what will get tested and decide what you do with the discipline as you deal with the multitude of ambiguities and policy paradoxes over the course of your interaction with the various theoretical dimensions of public policy. And since you will be in the tiny minority with this conviction, you shouldn’t be surprised when you come across people or even voices within you that question the desirability of abandoning an intuitive common sense approach to policy studies for a more rigorous analytical approach to solving policy problems. Of all that the theoretical discipline of public policy and the practical world of policy making and evaluation needs is the conviction of policy scientists like you, who can believe against all temptations, in a rigorous and systematic study of policy sciences and take it upon themselves to inform and educate the world on how better policies can be made, understood and implemented. Therefore the task ahead of us is not slight but one that shall be immensely satisfying and meaningful at the end of the day.

Finally, to all of you who have gone through a rather long list of ramblings which are packaged as perspectives and experiential learning, thank you for your patience and may you all find this journey as meaningful and satisfying as I have and be as nostalgic as I am currently, at the end of your respective journeys. May all of you also be successful in spreading your passion for public policy wherever you choose to go and make a difference with your training and intellectual curiosity.

 

Unlimited Growth on a Finite Planet

Vivek Raj Anand

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Background

Aurelio Peccei, an Italian scholar and industrialist, looked at the contemporary national crisis of the 20th century as symptoms of a larger insidious global crisis. He founded the Club of Rome, a virtual think tank —consisting of scientists, educators, humanists, and businessmen who were concerned with global issues— in 1968. Peccei believed that the new problems faced by humanity could not be categorised solely as economic, ecological, social or security problems. Rather, each problem is multi-faceted, where all the aspects are interconnected and interacting amongst themselves. It is the design of these interconnections and patterns of interactions that determine the nature of such dynamic global problems. Furthermore, cause-effect relationships inherent in such problems are counter-intuitive in nature, as the human mind has not gathered requisite intuition for understanding complex systems. Human intuition is trained to work in the context of simple systems; however, complex systems like Earth do not behave in the same way. Dynamic correlations between various subsystems determine the behaviour of complex systems.

System Dynamics is the science that studies interconnections between complex systems and Peccei wanted a system dynamics based scientific simulation model to forecast the future of humanity and planet earth. Dennis Meadows, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, took up the project of constructing a simulation model, with funds coming from Volkswagen Foundation.

The team worked on the hypothesis that unlimited growth —propelled by population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and non-renewable resource utilization— is not sustainable because of the limited physical endowment of planet earth. The outcome of this project has been described in this book “Limits to Growth”.

Exponential Growth

Modern economics presume that despite the peaks and troughs of business cycles, economies would always continue to grow in the long term. This book rebuts the aforesaid presumption of perpetual growth and ascribes the reason to the finiteness of Earth’s physical resources, which would eventually exhaust due to exponential growth in material demand. While authors acknowledge the diminishing marginal utility of material consumption —only after having met the threshold limit necessary for ensuring the basic well-being, the argument presented by the unrestrained growth is not on ethical or ideological grounds.  

The book explains the concept of exponential function in a rather lucid and non-mathematical manner, and provides an intuitive understanding of reasons behind the exponential growth in population and industrial output through the use of “feedback loops”. The study group observed the dominance of positive feedback loops in all the studied variables – population, industrial output, pollution, food production and non-renewable resource utilisation.

Further, the book juxtaposes exponential growth in aforesaid variables with a decline of finite physical resources of the planet, so as to ascertain the overshoot[1] and cross point. Those physical resources determine the carrying capacity of the planet, and are hence the ‘Limits to growth’.

Scenarios

The mandate of the research was not to make a doomsday prediction. Rather, it was a mathematical modelling exercise whereby endogenous variables like population growth, industrial output, pollution, food production and non-renewable resources were iterated so as to project different future scenarios of the world. The iterations of these variables represent different growth trajectories adopted by world economies, and hence it was left to mankind to choose a particular trajectory. The team developed twelve such scenarios, which included the collapse scenarios and the equilibrium ones.

The book concluded that human ecological footprint, if unchecked, would grow beyond the carrying capacity of globe i.e. what planet can provide on a sustainable basis. In the long run, it is impossible that humanity can use more physical resources and generate more emissions every year than what nature is capable of supplying and absorbing in a sustainable manner. As demand can never overshoot supply, the human ecological footprint will eventually decline either through “managed decline” or through “collapse” to sustainable levels. An example of managed decline would be limiting the annual catch of fish to a sustainable limit through legislation. An example of the latter would be the elimination of fishing communities because there are no more fish left in water bodies. The authors also argued that while market, technology and government are capable of making positive interventions, such interventions would only defer the crisis and not solve the problem, as long as there is no check on exponential growth. Hence, the cross and overshoot will still happen, but only at a later date.

Standard run. The model was tested under various assumptions, beginning with the “standard run”. Standard run assumes business as usual conditions as it existed in 1972, i.e. in the next one hundred years, there will be no significant changes in the nature of growth in the five variables. Not too surprisingly, the model projected disaster long before the end of the twenty-first century because of complete exhaustion of resources (Refer Figure 1).

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Figure 1 Standard Run – Business as usual – Resource exhaustion

Succeeding runs These were made with more favourable assumptions, but all indicated collapse within a hundred years.

Stable model or Equilibrium. The study group wanted their proposed model to be self-sustaining —sustainable without sudden and uncontrollable collapse— and at the same time capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of the world. Authors called such a state as ‘Equilibrium’, a state where population and capital are stable,  and the forces tending to increase or decrease them are in a carefully controlled balance. This is possible when birth rate equals the death rate and capital investment rate equals the depreciation rate. Now, this equilibrium —i.e stable population and capital— can be at high or low levels of population and capital. Authors say that the level of capital and population, and the ratio of the two, should be set in accordance with the values of society. They may be deliberately revised and slowly adjusted as the advance of technology creates new options. (Refer Figure 2).

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Figure 2 Sustainable development or Equilibrium Scenarios

Authors claim that this equilibrium does not refer to the stagnation of an economy; rather, it is dynamic in nature. Within stable population and capital, corporations could expand or fail, local population could increase or decrease. Services provided by a constant stock of capital would continue to increase due to technological advances. Besides that, human activities that do not require a large flow of irreplaceable resources or cause severe environmental degradation might continue to grow indefinitely. In fact those pursuits which are most desirable and satisfying like education, art, music, religion, basic scientific research, athletics and social interaction could flourish. This could be made possible through an increase in leisure. Such increase in leisure can be made possible only through improvement in production methods using technology. This increased leisure time could be devoted to any activity that is relatively non-consuming and non-polluting.

Readability and Limitations

The book has been suitably written so that general public can understand a rather complex subject matter of system dynamics based simulation model. Mathematical concepts like exponential growth, compounding effect, etc. have been explained in an intuitive manner. However, readers who do not have exposure to mathematical modelling will face difficulty in understanding the scenarios developed by the team.

The book can be critiqued on multiple accounts, more specifically on its assumptions and simplifications made in the model.  Authors themselves acknowledge that there are many imperfections in the model, and the same can always be improved upon. However, all those critical comments belong to a single genre, which is the limitation of any modelling exercise conducted in social sciences. No model can truly predict the future that is related to human actions or inactions. Furthermore, history has always advanced through lurching discontinuities, most of them were utterly unpredictable and hence they are not programmable.

Conclusion

The book has significant policy implications, especially for problems that are global in nature. It also exhibits the power of data analytics and computer simulation in making objective future projections. No model can fully represent the complexity of a society that consists of human beings who are invariably guided by bounded rationality and whose response is extremely dynamic. Moreover, no mathematical model can factor in all the tangible and intangible variables that determine human actions or inactions. However, the world model developed by Dennis Meadows’ team was successful in providing a heads-up to an ensuing crisis if business as usual continues. Such a heads up is all the more important for phenomenon related to complex systems with high time-constants as it warrants forthwith action. The book projects a crisis that is a necessary —but certainly not sufficient— condition for inspiring policy actions.

[1] Overshoot refers to going too far i.e. going beyond the limits. For instance, if too many trees are cut every year, the forests will ultimately vanish despite natural regrowth phenomenon.

 

(Vivek Raj Anand is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. He can be reached at vivekrajanand@nls.ac.in)