Speeding up the micro-grid revolution

Access to energy in remote rural zones has not been an easy task for local governments to address. Low population densities, consumers below the poverty line that cannot afford their bills, and the infringement of local communities’ rights due to the construction of electricity lines are just some of the obstacles that stand in the way of rural electrification.

Decentralised solar or wind power micro-grids and stand-alone systems mean these regions can now be reached and the Sustainable Energy For All goals achieved; but to be effective, policies to support access to these sources of energy must be approached in different ways, recognising technological progress in other areas.

A proper technological integration would make feasible the implementation of more micro-grids such as this one, pictured, on Chile's border with Bolivia (Photo: Boris Lopicich)

A proper technological integration would make feasible the implementation of more micro-grids such as this one, pictured, on Chile’s border with Bolivia (Photo: Boris Lopicich)

In Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, for example, companies such as SunFunder are implementing solar projects funded by a mix of crowdfunding and private donors. While in India SELCO Foundation has already launched its first off-grid photovoltaic plant in Mangalore.

Unhappily the expansion and success of these innovations might be partially eclipsed due to regulatory and legal barriers in some regions, which make it difficult to access enough funding sources for renewable energy. This is the case in Latin America and South East Asia, as a recent report from IIED shows.

India is a perfect example of this: banking regulations that restrict foreign donations and loans for security purposes are limiting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from using resources that would otherwise be available to fund decentralised energy plants.

Restrictive regulations like these are the most critical factor affecting both funding mechanisms and trust from private sector investors, as they can increase the risks and diminish the returns on an investment. However, a way to enable an adequate regulatory environment that avoids unnecessary restrictions might be by including co-evolutionary innovations in future policies.

Co-evolutionary technological improvements

Co-evolution refers to two different processes that are inter-linked and inter-dependent. This means that sometimes developments in one field influence developments in another sector; a situation currently seen with technological improvements in telecommunications which are boosting energy access all around the globe.

For example, mobile phones need electricity in order to be charged but also help make energy services more affordable as they can be paid for in small installments just by sending a SMS to the energy utility. Since the return on investment through customer billing is a critical factor for the long-term efficiency of rural electrification, the exponential increase in the spread of mobile technology is good news for the low-carbon energy transition.

Ryan Levinson, chief executive officer of SunFunder, says: “Increasingly, the story is about how cell phones and the need for power are linked. Cell phones are significantly increasing both the demand for and the viability of solar energy in off-grid communities.”

This co-evolution is triggering a process of “leapfrogging” (PDF), with sustainable technologies available to communities potentially bypassing the need for carbon, nuclear or hydro-based grids in some developing contexts. This can also help avoid future carbon emissions in the battle against climate change.

Project-level barriers and innovation strategies

There are a number of project-level barriers affecting the trust of the private sector in micro-grids that might be overcome by using these co-evolutionary technologies. Common concerns for investors include the maintenance of unreliable technologies, challenges of collecting payments from final users, grid ownership and eventually, the need for hardware and software for smart-metres.”

The “mobile revolution” is improving the collection of payments and this has a direct influence on the credibility of the project presented to potential investors. Technologies such as Pay As You Go (PAYG), for example, mean that individuals no longer need to collect payments from remote villages.

PAYG can also cope with a rapidly expanding customer base, which was creating problems for the old-fashioned method, where companies collecting the money could not cope with the growing numbers. So a regulatory environment is needed that allows large numbers of people to use PAYG systems. This could eventually help lower the tariff paid by PAYG users.

However, some countries such as Bolivia are struggling to keep up with mobile and remote monitoring technologies. Although not banned by law, mobile infrastructure in remote regions is so limited that PAYG remains practically unknown.

To ensure micro-grid reliability, local communities must be willing to pay. Issues with poor maintenance, resulting from longer distances to rural communities, can be avoided by implementing new approaches to operating and maintaining plants, or even by alerting local suppliers about technical issues via SMS.

Micro-grids such as this one in Salar de Tara, Chile, are helping to achieve Sustainable Energy For All goals (Photo: Boris Lopicich)

Micro-grids such as this one in Salar de Tara, Chile, are helping to achieve Sustainable Energy For All goals (Photo: Boris Lopicich)

Having a reliable service that works also stimulates the end user to pay on a weekly or monthly basis, ensuring the continued sustainability of the micro-grid.

Looking forward, improvements in technology are already helping businesses absorb a higher level of capital and meet the risk requirements of more conventional investors, expanding the funding mechanisms available for SMEs and local entrepreneurs.

In this sense, innovations in data collection are boosting energy delivery models and could be used to unlock funding opportunities within the private sector. But to have a successful technological integration, regulatory and financial environments need to be properly designed, especially those promoting the access to long-term credit.

Consequently, the public sector’s role and responsibilities to improve energy access cannot be underestimated.

What’s needed now is for regulators to pay special attention to different co-existing technological improvements in the energy field to see if they can overcome project-level barriers. For remoter regions, as in Bolivia, it will be necessary to stimulate the private sector by public sector regulation aligned to ensure that technological tools are also in place.

This article was first guest posted on the IIED energy blog. Boris Lopicich is legislative counsel and policy advisor on climate change, energy and environment at the National Congress of Chile, and managing director at the NGO Innovation, Development and Equity.


Time for Change: The People’s Climate March

ScrewYouShellOn Sunday 29th of November, thousands congregated in the streets of London to make the voice of the climate movement heard. The streets resounded with the noise of drums, chants, and Thom Yorke’s electronic beats. It was all very loud, festive even. Few seemed to be deterred by the rain, for coming together for a common cause serves well to lift the collective mood. That sister marches were simultaneously taking place around the world was only further comfort and confirmation that the people have decided to speak up.

Deciduous was there to listen. We joined the smiling faces of the Divest movement, were introduced to the BP monster and an indignant young man with something to say to Shell. People of all ages brandished signs rude or factual, gloomy or optimistic, reflecting the range of emotions ignited by global warming: the anger, fear and frustration, but above all else the hope that this crisis represents an opportunity to create a better world.

Whatever the feeling, the message was clear: the destructive, extractivist system we rely on is no longer viable. We have known this for a long time, yet somehow failed to face the implications. The ways we produce energy, conduct politics, and go about our daily lives as if nothing is happening, that will all need to change. We have reached decade zero of the climate age: the window to a world of ‘safe’ climate change under 2°C is about to close. So enough with the denial and lies. Enough with the inaction behind the lofty rhetoric. Enough with the active undermining of climate progress.

Now is the time to act for change.





Lima’s Costa Verde: A Casualty in the Run for Economic Development?

Spring has arrived in Lima, along with clear, blue skies. Standing facing the Pacific, the refreshing scent of a cool, salty breeze fills the air. The ocean glistens under the beaming rays of sun, its foamy white-crested waves roaring before crashing on the rocky shore. The calm inspired by this sight is one of the many perks of living in a city by the ocean, along with fantastic seafood, enviable surfing spots and postcard sunsets. In the otherwise colourfully chaotic metropolis that is Lima, being able to witness such a display of still, natural beauty is nothing short of astounding. I now grow increasingly worried about its future.

Lima is South America’s only capital city by the sea. Along part of its desert shore, a natural cliff 50 metres high extends parallel to the Pacific for just over 20 km, across 6 different districts. A superb example of Peru’s natural heritage sites, it has come to provide one of the most iconic scenes of the city.

Costa Verde

Over the past decades, significant investment has been allocated to projects surrounding this attractive area, which locals refer to as the Costa Verde, or Green Coast. In the mid-90s in particular, Peru was enthusiastically embracing foreign investment after an economic hiatus due to the terrorist conflict endured over most of the 80s and early 90s, which deeply scarred the country. In this historical context, a specific deal took place. The sub-soil of a park sitting over the cliff and part of the cliff itself were conceded to a Chilean retail real-estate developer for a period of 60 years in 1995. The project encompassed the construction of a mall, parking lot, night-club, cinema, theatre, infrastructure to access the beach, green areas and a +250-room five-star hotel; covering a total space of 45,000 square metres. That is roughly the size of 8 American football fields. Of all the project’s components, the infrastructure to access the beach, green areas and the hotel have not been yet built.

Until now.

In the spring of 2015, it was made public that the Chilean group wants to move forward with the construction of the hotel. Yet one very important fact has changed in the intervening 20 years. In 2010, the cliff was declared intangible by Lima’s Metropolitan Municipality. The Municipality of Miraflores, which awarded the concession, is choosing to disregard this. It is enabled to do so as, from a legal standpoint, the ruling cannot be pushed retroactively, meaning that the city ordinance stating that any work done on the cliffs must safeguard the natural landscape does not apply to this project.

Costa Verde complex

I am baffled by the mixed response to this news. I would say about half of what I’ve read is hands-down for the construction of the hotel, even now, when it has been revealed that a water treatment plant will be built on the beach in the future hotel’s surrounding areas. Arguments range from “at least the hotel chain will undertake the upkeep of its part of the cliff” to “our authorities already granted the licenses, and the hotel industry will bring more jobs”.

What about the value of our city’s unique landscape? The identity it forges? Emotional bonds with this natural heritage have been built over a lifetime. Picnics shared with friends on parks atop the cliff. Countless sunsets colouring the sky with a palette of reds, oranges, purples and yellows I’ve witnessed from the boardwalks along it. The first time I surfed, I remember looking at the cliff right across the ocean from me. I can’t possibly be the only one to have these memories.

Surely a more substantial kind of gratification is to be found in the preservation of our environment than amassing wealth from selling off part of our heritage. The geology of cliffs is an incredible story that has unfolded over millions of years. How can we be so fast to put it in harm’s way in the name of economic development? We need to make a conscious attempt to attune to this part of our heritage by way of questioning the perilous decisions our authorities make about the landscape, and ultimately the socio-environmental future of our city. Not to mention the fact that Peru sits on the Ring of Fire, putting Lima under permanent tsunami risk. The cliffs and the constructions above it, regardless of their seismic-resistant structures, would be the first to be compromised in the event of a high magnitude earthquake that will inevitably happen in time.

Investment is all good and well and truth be told, Lima could use some sprucing up in the tourism department. This would generate jobs and, if executed correctly, a trickle-down effect that could benefit peoples’ livelihoods. Alternatives exist that consider not only the creation of value for shareholders, but for every stakeholder involved. The Certified B Corporations, for instance, are for-profit organisations that willingly comply with high environmental and social standards whilst fulfilling their market-based goals. Despite them only just starting to take off in Lima and the tweaking such initiatives might need on a larger scale to achieve a significant, measurable impact towards sustainability, their utmost value in my opinion lies in the fact that they represent a much needed systemic view towards business. Profit is not bad. But if it is only being maximised for one constituency (i.e. shareholders) like business-as-usual tends to do, then social and environmental aspects will continue to be overlooked. As a society, we should be far more invested in pushing for change.

In general, Peru is poorly prepared and apathetic towards civic cohesion and involvement. We have a tendency to stop cold in our tracks after the initial knee-jerk reaction of consternation news such as the construction of a massive hotel in our Costa Verde trigger in, apparently, not even all of us. We still have a long way to go concerning how to actively participate in ways that enable us to truly influence policy. A remarkable example of such participation in Latin America is the #RenunciaYa (Quit Now) campaign, which started as a peaceful protest in Guatamala earlier this year, spearheaded by a young middle class group when a report was published by a UN anti-corruption agency implicating high-profile politicians with organised crime. The political pressure exerted by the campaign, with over tens of thousands of supporters taking to the streets, has resulted in a wave of resignations, including the Vice-President and most recently, the President. It is a noteworthy illustration that sets a precedent for orderly civic participation in the region, and what it can achieve.

Time will tell if natural heritage in this case will be a casualty of our enduring habit to choose wealth over and in spite of, literally, everything else. I hope reflecting on the potential impact of this project will finally tip us over in the direction of action and away from an all too present convenient numbness. There is too much at stake not to.

A curious and extroverted limeña, Paloma enjoys listening to other people’s stories and sharing her own. Born and raised in Lima, she is (obviously) obsessed with Peruvian cuisine and will let you know about it. A BA in Communication for Development and a MSc in Environment and Development, sustainability is her passion. Paloma currently resides in Lima working as a development consultant for several private and public organisations. She will never say no to travelling, dancing or cookies.

A Harping Crampon: Stok Kangri and the modern adventure travel industry

Going back a few centuries, almost all travel could be considered ‘adventure’. As the modern paradigms of travel have evolved and tourism has emerged as a well-defined sector, adventure travel is now a diversified industry offering adrenaline laced experiences for the discerning traveler. The tourism industry in the past couple of decades has shown a significant inclination towards the ‘experiential’ as opposed to the traditional ‘leisure’ ethos, both in India and elsewhere. In this age where ‘lifestyle diseases’ and mental health are the new medical challenges, adventure travel emerges as a natural recourse towards a healthy lifestyle. However, consequent anomalies have also arisen from inflated or misdirected perceptions and over-reliance on these recreational mechanisms to deliver physical or psychological remedies, and this newfound enthusiasm for the outdoors is fraught with the danger of being counterproductive, both for the product environment as well as the adventurer.


Snuggled cozily inside the kitchen tent at the base camp, the base camp is full of summit stories, the successes tiredly drawling on the atrocities of the night over a beer (sold at a measly INR 300, that it should be offered à la carte in such surrounds being another debate), as the misery of the ‘turned backs’ becomes more and more evident. So much has been attached to the summit, nothing else remains for those having toiled along the fringes. ‘Tis not the place to downgrade the climb and hark about far more challenging pursuits below 6000 meters either.

Mountaineering has always defied the traditional economist’s assertions on the otherwise blooming concept of ‘utility’ and its diverse determinants, the aversive nature of almost every aspect of climbing nullifying any apparent ‘consumptive pleasure’. Rather, it plays exactly on the parameters that economic analyses ignore, viz. self-esteem, goal completion, mastery and significance. It is rare to come across a climber or a memoir deriving ‘pleasure’ or ‘enjoyment’ from the endless privations of an expedition. F. Spencer Chapman’s works often draw comparisons between his wartime and climbing experiences, both in terms of the sensations as well as the post facto recollections of misery from an abstract level, one that does not compel any change in the overall attitude.

John Thackray’s essay on ‘The Psychological Utility of Mountaineering’ (The Himalayan Journal, Vol. 49) also elucidates this ‘counter phobia’ or ‘overcompensation against fear’ compelling individuals into such catatonic pursuits. This was not always the case, as the early expeditions almost always had one or more non-recreational motives – medicine, botany, zoology, navigation and discovery among countless others.

In the 21st century, however, we can safely surmise ‘recreational mountaineering’ has easily surpassed all these aforementioned motivations. From an Indian perspective, the last two decades have induced the ‘critical mass’ of economic prosperity and activated localized adventure businesses enabling the youth to financially and logistically afford such explorations, which were hitherto restricted to the domain of a small adventure fraternity or the armed forces.

As a negative fallout though, adventure has also become the latest ‘urban fad’, offering the Indian populace the kaleidoscope of salvations akin to what yoga promised the western civilization during the 1970s. While 21st century India is brimming with optimism and enthusiasm for new challenges, reconciliation with our rural fabric, traditions and religions is an aspect where our society has just started enlightening itself.


We start climbing at midnight, the ‘slow’ ones having started as early as 9am, a concept I still find difficult to fathom, for if they were slow at the bottom, what divine acceleration would propel them towards the summit later? Such questions though, we are warned, are for those imbeciles intending to destroy the local village economies and livelihoods, which are so quickly siphoned off from agrarian and other traditional subsistence with the promise of ‘easy money’ and ‘good commissions’. Nor would the Sherpas tell you of the ignominy of being dragged to the summit on a couple of knots.

While adventure may at first appear to be the next big niche in the tourism sector, in the rush towards administrative reforms and infrastructure augmentation, the average Indian adventurer somehow seems to have left the spirit of adventure behind. The very purpose or innate objective of any adventure activity is the reconciliation of the human spirit with its natural surroundings, to rekindle the appreciation for one’s ecosystem and foster a systemic learning process that derives from the adventure rather than focusing on the activity itself. Since the past few years, this has somehow been eclipsed by the ethics of ‘record’, ‘capture’, ‘display’ and ‘assertion’.

We can to an extent justify these ego-driven motivations in the case of mountaineers dedicated to their craft, for such personality extremes would be indispensable in riding over the mortal fears, as well as sustaining the mental and physical gruels of preparing for such undertakings. For others, however, this often proves to be a dangerous disposition, where the anxiety of ‘achievement’ overrides their physical and mental inadequacies.


It is 3 am, and we hit the ‘summit mass’ a little ahead of ABC, my left is flanked by the about a dozen European climbers rhyming their steps up to the hump below the summit ridge, while the right is a symphony of half dead whimpers being dragged by their respective Sherpas. I am appalled by the state of a few climbers, but of descending they would hear nothing of, despite repeated coaxing from their Sherpas, who in this rather ’bored’ state start asking around for cigarettes. We had decided to send my partner back just before the glacier, much against his will, but I was now guiltily contemplating the decision in this melee of ‘summit fever’.

The case of Stok Kangri becomes interesting from this viewpoint. It is not the ‘climber’s mountain’; on the contrary, it is more of a ‘climber’s ire’, a pursuit more for the undaunted hiker rather than the scrupulous mountaineer. ‘India’s highest trekkable summit’ is its claim to fame, drawing in visitors from all across the globe, from the ‘IT industry mélange’ to troubadour French and Israelis among many others.

It is disheartening yet not very surprising to see the ‘cognitive apathy’ in a majority of the summit hopefuls. Stok Kangri cannot be considered a tough summit even from the duration or difficulty of the hike – a confident and fit disposition can do the summit from Leh and be back in 3-4 days. With these parameters, it is not difficult to see the relatively ‘easy glory’ on offer here, a summit to show for 2-3 days of intensive exertion, the magnanimity of which more experienced climbers hardly ever seem to recollect or be fazed by. Yet, all is definitely not lost, and hopefully our generation can be the flag bearers to improving the ethos of travel in India, making it a catalyst to national growth and pride.

The ridge is where the traffic jams begin; we skirt around a few, but have to excruciatingly wait through a few patches of Verglas. I don’t know if ‘ladies first’ is a relevant chivalry in such environs, but there it was. The clouds do relent to give me a glimpse of K2 I was so hoping for, but the last group of ten dragging their way up the ridge offer a few good silhouette frames. Their guide is nearing exasperation now, pleading for some strength and speed, and is duly rebuked by a couple of clients for not being patient enough despite being paid in full. “Worth their weight in glacial ice’, I surmise, as we descend swiftly through a ’short cut’.

Back at the base camp, my partner is decidedly glum as the kitchen tent spurts out summit experiences. My Sherpa had thankfully left me to my own devices for most of the climb, and I let him take a snooze back at ABC and head back to the joys of the base camp. My acclimatization ghosts had departed long back, but those of guilt now emerge, having succumbed to a promise with superficial rewards. It is a tent full of egotistical faux pas, and I somehow feel more ashamed than jubilant.

Stok Kangri is located 15 kms northwest of Leh, a part of the Stok subrange of the Himalayas, its summit looming the highest over the ancient city at almost 6100 meters. Its relatively gentle climbing route is almost completely non-technical, and it sees heavy traffic from July-September. Its sister peak, Golep Kangri, is also a popular climb, and many hikers often attempt both together.

Parth Joshi is a conservationist, adventurer and development professional who regularly contributes to Deciduous. His project to raise environmental awareness is called the Environment Education LabYou can also check out his photography, as well as previous photo-essays for Deciduous on the mangroves of the Sundarbans and conservationism in the Great Himalayan National Park

Automation’s challenge to manufacturing job growth in India

With the rapid development and deployment of industrial robots and intuitive artificial intelligence (AI) globally, manufacturing in India may not actually lead to job growth and poverty alleviation.

Industrialization as an epoch was a sociologically definitive moment in human history, leading to the class based stratification of society. Deplorable working conditions and unfair terms of employment led to the formation of unions, an attempt to rebalance power in society, an epic tussle between the ‘capitalists’ and the ‘workers’. Industrial relations evolved as an academic and managerial discipline to bridge this gap, becoming increasingly important in keeping factories online and ultimately, profitable. Bad negotiations led to strikes, lost productivity and dented profits. Corporations began spending huge sums on arbitration and appeasing the demands of workers to keep their factories going. From the workers’ perspective, organizing and forming unions was and remains an important mobilization to resist anti-labor managerial decisions, lead collective bargaining and communicate grievances. Trade unions, till date, are considered a proverbial thorn in the side of management, accentuating political and ideological conflicts in workplace. Therefore, the ‘management versus workers’ dynamic stylistically characterized ‘class conflict’ in the industrial age, aptly identified by Karl Marx as a phenomenon arising from process of industrialization itself where profiteering comes at a cost, the toil of workers. It is this Fabian socialist foundation on which post independence India developed her labor laws, which dangerously persist in an age where India is positioning herself prominently in the global economic supply chain as a prime mass manufacturing destination.

Mass manufacturing transformed industrialization, introducing the assembly line accelerated by conveyor belts, arguably the first step towards automation. 1938 saw the world’s first industrial robot introduced on the factory floor, a clunky and rudimentary crane which relied on punched paper for instructions to grab, rotate and drop an object. The first robotics patent was filed in 1954 by Unimation (now owned Westinghouse Electric Corporation), essentially becoming the first robotics company in the world. ‘The Stanford Arm’, a robotic contraption developed at Stanford University by Victor Scheinman was later bought by Unimation. Scheinman then developed ‘The MIT arm’ at the MIT artificial intelligence lab, which also ended up in Unimation’s portfolio. The company later licensed the technology to the Kawasaki corporation and GKN, an automotive and aerospace multinational based in the UK. With the research floodgates open and science fiction literature sparking the minds of young engineers, the 1970’s saw several Japanese conglomerates develop their own industrial robots, ushering in the era of industrial automation which spread throughout the industrialized world. Supercomputing facilitated the processing of codes and algorithms, and AI was born.

Fast forward to today. China, a global manufacturing destination that traditionally relied on the availability of cheap labor, just saw its first fully automated factory installed in Dongguan, China. The factory’s only human workers sit in a control room, simply monitoring or tweaking operations. Welcome to the age of ‘lights out manufacturing’, i.e. 24 hour, non-stop, zero defect production. To err is human, not a trait of pre programmed robots that can perform operational tasks unflinchingly. This further affirms the notion of automations being an endeavor to improve efficiency, save time, cut costs and conserve scarce resources. Given this dynamic, manufacturing is also shifting back to the United States, the global leader in robotics and AI, where up to 200% ROI on employing robots and algorithms is too convincing a business model not to consider.

The service and creative sectors aren’t being spared either. The Google search engine is the most advanced artificial intelligence currently in the public domain, revolutionizing ‘knowledge’ access with accelerated information flow making it available to anyone with an internet connection. It is replacing the need for tutors and teachers in some global communities. iPhone owners are using Siri to create to do lists and automated call centers are voice activated. A boutique investment house in Hong Kong recently appointed an algorithm to its board, to assist other board members in taking pragmatic business decisions. Accused of being gimmicky, the investment house is exceptionally vocal about the software’s analytical and interactive capabilities. To cream it off, an AI designer uses complex algorithms to design websites based on the users’ preferences and upload habits. Slowly, yet surely, the knowledge and creative workers of the 80’s and 90’s fame are also slowly being replaced with increasingly cheaper and high ROI robotics and AI. They are becoming incredibly complex, intuitive, interactive and perceptive, highly accentuating their disruptive traits. We are entering a brave new world.

Historically, technological breakthroughs have always disrupted the status quo in industry, forcing new fields of specialization for the labor force. More factories adopted robotic arms as they became cheaper, and the heavy lifter was either forced out of work, or to learn a new skill. Redundancy is righty lamentable, especially when the reason given is that your skills are out of date. However, as one skill is replaced, others are learnt and thus human civilization progresses. Whether technological explosions are a sign of progress is another debate worth having, but for the sake of this article, let’s assume that technology leads to the adoption of new skills and is therefore an evolutionary process.

Given these global developments, substituting labor with technology will also become a rational choice in India. To protect the Indian worker from the threat of robotics and AI, we must build an adaptable and creative workforce with unique skills which equip them with creative comparative advantages, considering the vision is to include them in a highly competitive global industrial supply chain. This will require a radical re-thinking of primary, secondary and higher education where the liberal arts play a central role alongside traditional subject fields. Spurring creative thinking is the need for the hour as it seems certain that the promise of human job growth will be in the creative domains. Ingenuity and creative thinking are still far from being replicated by AI and firmly remain in the human domain. Robots can’t build robots, yet.  It is therefore hoped that this salvo nudges Indian lawmakers to modernize India’s restrictive labor laws, education curriculum and skills development programs to match the pace of rapid technological development, of which robotics and AI are just some. The laws were drafted at a time when centralized mass manufacturing was the norm with an overwhelming objective of protecting the worker. Today, in India job growth is increasingly led by micro, small and medium sized businesses (and not necessarily large corporations) which coupled with a technology propulsion towards ‘general intelligence’ insists that our labor, education and skills development strategies are injected with a dose of reality and vision.

However, short term realities dictate that India is still far from the dystopian nightmare of robots running everything from boardrooms to factory floors. Whizzing robots and AI requires a substantial amount of energy, and given that the country is currently suffering a 10% energy deficiency coupled with the relatively slow pace of power plants coming on line, a robotic future is not knocking on the door, yet. Also, AI ‘general intelligence’ is still in the early stages, relatively clunky and not getting everything right. For example, a trillion dollar stock market crash in 2010 was triggered by trading algorithms gaming each other to the bottom, underscoring the perils of leaving critical decisions, like financial ones, in the hands of AI. In manufacturing, a robotic arm recently killed a human co worker in Germany and investigators are completely puzzled as to what triggered the robot arm to do such a thing. Closer to home, a robotic arm killed a co-worker in Manesar, just outside of Gurgaon. There is still a strong need for human involvement in manufacturing and decision making. However, while there are anomalies and grey areas still to be explored in AI, given that billions of dollars are being pumped into research, the kinks are slowly being ironed out. Case in point, Toshiba recently announced a billion dollar investment into AI research at MIT and other American institutions basis the promising progress made till date.

If our goal is to provide sustainable employment to hundreds of millions of Indians we need to figure out how to ensure the labor force is skilled up to work in an automated, highly intelligent and evolving global industrial landscape. To a certain degree, mass and niche manufacturing in India is already automating, especially in the automobile and electronics sectors. The class struggles of the future are therefore anticipated to be AI vs. human being, redefining the very notions of class conflict and industrial relations.


Nitin Sukh is founder of Deciduous. This article was first published on the Yes Institute Blog

Fossil Fuel Divesters: The Political Iconoclasts of our Time?

Iconoclasm  – “the action of attacking or assertively rejecting cherished beliefs and institutions or established values and practices”.[i]

Throughout history there have been several iconoclastic eruptions. Examples of religious iconoclasm can be found in the 8th and 9th century Byzantine Empire, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and also in our century with the actions of some adherents of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Historical examples of non-religious iconoclastic actions are found in the secular movements of the French Revolution in 1789, and the Russian and Chinese communist revolutions[ii]. These outbreaks have all engaged in actions of physical image‒breaking. Iconoclastic actions challenge established institutions or values and practices, for better or for worse, by either physically destroying relics or objects, or by revolting against dominant ideas governing the establishment.

Such revolts need not necessarily be physically violent, but they can be violent in a philosophical sense by putting significant pressure on established belief-systems. The New World Encyclopedia appropriately lists Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. as iconoclasts: Einstein challenged Newtonian physics and King criticized racial segregation.[iii] Both challenged dominant paradigms that have lead to an expansion of space for alternative thinking and doing, at least to a certain extent.


The fossil free movement has been targeting bodies including educational and religious institutions and governments with a simple message: “if it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.[iv] These activists are rocking the foundations of the fossil fuel industry that currently influences our economy and our governments by challenging the status quo and going against the power of fossil fuel companies. As Sidney Tarrow points out, a society’s historical, cultural and power conditions determine and are determined by contentious politics.[v] Contentious actions in this context could be demonstrations, protests, essentially any action that confronts opponents, authorities or elites. Fossil fuel divesters understand this. They challenge fossil fuel fundamentality. They are modern day iconoclasts.

Fossil fuels have long been integral to the narrative of societal and economic ‘development’ and ‘prosperity,’ words that are often used when talking of processes of industrialisation. However, the industrial revolution, with its advanced mode of production and the associated integration of such processes within the fossil fuel economy, has contributed widely to the spread of environmental degradation.[vi] Indeed, most climate scientists agree that burning fossil fuels is one of the main causes of man–made climate change.[vii] If we hope to stabilize global warming at a mean temperature increase that we as co-inhabitants of Planet Earth can live with, the scientific community largely agrees that we need to transition to a societal model that is nearly carbon neutral by the middle of this century.[viii]

The case for fossil fuel divestment is twofold: moral and financial. In order to avoid dangerous climate change (the internationally agreed threshold of this is set at 2°C temperature increase[ix]), a large share of proven fossil fuel reserves will need to remain untouched.[x] Fossil fuel companies are currently valued on stock markets for their proven reserves which means that fossil fuel companies as well as the institutions and individuals investing in them are betting on climate targets not being met. Making such a bet is problematic since a temperature increase beyond 2°C will have negative implications for many forms of life on Earth. Humans included. There is as such a moral argument for pulling investments out of fossil fuel companies.

The financial case is that investments in fossil fuel companies will be rendered redundant in light of international agreements on climate change being met. As Professor Nicholas Stern states in the foreword to Carbon Tracker and The Grantham Institute (LSE) report Unburnable Carbon:

“Smart investors can already see that most fossil fuel reserves are essentially unburnable because of the need to reduce emissions in line with the global agreement. They can see that investing in companies that rely solely or heavily on constantly replenishing reserves of fossil fuels is becoming a very risky decision.”[xi]

The global fossil fuel divestment movement has emerged from the realization of these contradictions, and the movement is gaining ground.  Powerful institutions are supporting the fossil free campaign. The UN is lending its ‘moral authority’ to the movement.[xii] Pledges to divest from fossil fuels have been made by more than 450 institutions and 2000 individuals, including the World Council of Churches, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, University of California, University of Glasgow and Guardian Media Group.[xiii] While some have initially limited their divestment to coal and/or tar sands companies, others have pledged to divest from all fossil fuel companies.[xiv] Even the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which was essentially built on oil revenues, has pledged to divest from fossil fuels and has not regretted it.[xv]

The most recent numbers indicate that divestment pledges have exceeded $2.6 trillion.[xvi] More will be added to the flow. The fossil fuel divestment movement is likely to trigger a process of stigmatization of fossil fuel companies,[xvii] a discourse that might open up political will for giving more serious priorities to investments in and development of renewable sources of energy. In the words of Karen Litfin:

As determinants of what can and cannot be thought, discourses delimit the range of policy options, thereby functioning as precursors to policy options … The supreme power is the power to delineate the boundaries of thought – an attribute not so much of specific agents as it is of discursive practices.”[xviii]

The fossil fuel divestment movement certainly contributes to fuelling a challenge to a narrative of ‘development’ and ‘prosperity’ that is often directly linked to and at the mercy of fossil fuels. These are interesting times.

Karen is editor for Deciduous. Watch this space for more deep thinking from her. 


[i]            http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/iconoclasm

[ii]             http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Iconoclasm

[iii]            Ibid.

[iv]            http://gofossilfree.org/about-fossil-free/

[v]              S. Tarrow (2011). Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (3rd Ed). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[vi]            G. Kütting (2004). Globalization and the environment: moving beyond neoliberal institutionalism, International Journal of Peace Studies, Volume 9, Number 1, Spring/Summer 2004.

[vii]           Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Assessment Round 5: http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf

[viii]          Ibid.

[ix]             http://cancun.unfccc.int/cancun-agreements/main-objectives-of-the-agreements/#c33

[x]              Just how large a share is a contended subject and it depends on many factors – an illuminating article on this can be found here: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/keep-it-in-the-ground-blog/2015/mar/25/what-numbers-tell-about-how-much-fossil-fuel-reserves-cant-burn

[xi]             Carbon Tracker Initiative & The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (2013) Unburnable Carbon: wasted capital and stranded assets, p. 7.

[xii]           http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/15/climate-change-un-backs-divestment-campaign-paris-summit-fossil-fuels

[xiii]          http://gofossilfree.org/commitments/

[xiv]          Ibid.

[xv]            http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/27/rockefeller-fund-chairman-moral-duty-divest-fossil-fuels

[xvi]          http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-22/fossil-fuel-divestment-movement-exceeds-2-6-trillion

[xvii]         A. Ansar, B. Caldecott, J. Tilbury (2013) Stranded assets and the fossil fuel divestment campaign: what does divestment mean for the valuation of fossil fuel assets? Stranded Assets Programme. Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford.

[xviii]        K. Litfin (1994) Ozone Discourses-Science and Politics in Global Environmental Cooperation. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 13.

Re-view: ‘Common Ground’ by Rob Cowen

One night, feeling an urge to escape the sickening smell of fresh paint and beckoning boxes waiting to be unpacked, Cowen wanders out of his new home in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. On the edge of town, he discovers a half-forgotten forest and fallow field hemmed in between housing and countryside, a place to which he feels a connection from the first instant. He begins to explore each part of this unkempt space, examining each patch of ground, interrogating every inhabitant. Inspired by the ensuing discoveries, he consigns his observations, visions and emotions to the page. The resulting book could have turned into a boring botany lesson, a dry record of changing seasons and animal habits. Yet Cowen’s narrative transcends all this. His writing is often surprising in form, and the resulting hybrid of memoir, novel and natural history is a highly engaging take on nature writing.

Photocredit: Paul Jarvis

The most interesting aspect of Common Ground is how animals are treated as characters in their own right. While Cowen does not pretend to know what really goes on in the mind of a fox, mayfly or migrating swift, he is enlightened enough to imagine, and their consciousness is as lively and fascinating as that of the spliff-smoking teens, dog-walkers and illuminated rough-sleepers he encounters in the edge-land. One time, a deer leaps over him as he lies hidden in the grass, and the momentary rush of adrenaline suddenly reminds him of a primitive connection. His visceral account of the encounter is genuinely gripping, seamlessly transitioning to a vision of a hunt from the stag’s perspective. These empathic exercises are for me the high points of the book. They are the key to its appeal for renewed connection with our environment, allowing Cowen to avoid an overly didactic tone. They infuse the book’s coverage of wide-ranging environmental concerns – most notably the excessive commoditisation of nature and privatisation of land, and our apathy in the face of climate change – with greater passion. The ambition of this approach makes his love of nature and anger at its destruction self-explanatory.

‘Common Ground’ is also a very personal book, often emotionally charged. When he is not plunging into the consciousness of wild beings, Cowen rummages through his own mind. He spends so much time in the edge-land that it begins to colour his every thought. It is unpredictable, stimulating. It offers him new perspective on his life at home, his wife’s pregancy, the interrogations that come with it. Some of his conclusions about “love” and the “universe” can sound a little grandiose, but they are clearly the product of an earnest, sensitive mood. Such openess is to be valued and admired. In fact, I only thought this when picking the book back up after a pause of some days. I felt most in tune with his words when I really immersed myself in them, reading several chapters in one go.

It’s easy to be absorbed by Cowen’s prose, as it is marked by a knack for alliteration and is profusely laden with often inventive metaphors: “A grey wagtail waits and watches on a semi-submerged stone. Breast a bright cadmium yellow, body tapering into the fine point of its long folded wings and tail, it looks like a horsehair brush halfway through a van Gogh sun”. At times this can feel excessive, when he finds himself unable to settle on a single image and ends up with more than I can count: “a thunderclap of riotous applause greets us as hundreds of little hedge birds burst from their roosts in a cloud flurry, like flies from a cowpat. They bounce away along the hawthorn and blackthorn, barely touching it, the way a finger tests a red-hot surface”. Still, I hesitate to call it overworked, as it means the text is never dry, often surprising with an unexpected image.

In the end, Common Ground is a welcome reminder that nature is often much closer and accessible than we expect. Nature isn’t just to be found in the ‘wild’. You don’t need to change your name to Supertramp, burn all your money and traipse across a continent to reconnect with it. In this unmanaged corner of an otherwise planned-out urban landscape, signs of humanity are never far. We find discarded cigarette stubs, tractor tires and cold campfires. Dogs bark from rows of semis, engines rev in the distance. Electric lines scar the sky. Life can be surprisingly resilient to our best efforts to control and sanitise our surroundings. It flourishes right there on the edge of town. Experiencing this may be easier for Cowen than for those of us living in large cities with little time on our hands. Still the suggestion stands: walk out, and you may be surprised.

Cowen, R. 2015. Common Ground. London: Hutchinson.

David Durand-Delacre is lead editor for Deciduous. Watch this space for more book and film reviews from him.