Monday, August 22, 2011

Man is a pest

[Acknowledgment: This article is inspired from Ranjan Malik's TEDx Talk, "Fool and his kind of innovation"]

Big Bang, as he was fondly called, once decided to make a time piece. A time piece - he would make just once and will run forever without any intervention. He designed the time-piece as self correcting as possible and vowed to not touch the system after it is made.

Being a connoisseur of art, he created several spherical objects and kept them such that the force between them kept them "stable" as well as in motion. They repeated their motions after specific periods. It was a pretty complex time-piece as it contained hundreds of particles - each with its own motion and time period.

Big Bang painted one object with utmost interest. He painted 70% of it blue and 30% of it green. He, then, added texture to the surface. There were areas that were higher and rocky while others that were plain.

Slowly and steadily the termites started increasing their colony on this most favorite object of Big Bang. They had their king and queen termites along with worker and soldier termites. Worker termites undertake the labors of foraging, food storage, brood and nest maintenance. The soldier caste has anatomical and behavioral specializations, providing strength and armor. Many soldiers have jaws so enlarged that they cannot feed themselves, but instead, are fed by the workers. [Source]

Soon, their nests started reaching above ground forming what is called mounds or anthills. In certain areas the mounds became very high. Then, there started a crazy competition among the different colonies of termites to create the tallest of mounds. The termites eventually forgot the purpose of creating mounds and started digging into the surface of the-once-upon-a-time-beautiful object. They started making the object weaker and weaker. A few, too few, worker termites realized that making such insanely high rise mounds is only going to bite them back. They tried convincing others. But the kings, the queens and the soldiers didn't listen to them. Other worker termites were too busy doing their daily chores to even think of long term repercussion of the high rise mounds.

Eventually, the object that Bing Bang had created with immense love and affection was dotted with high-rise mounds. The balance that the object was to maintained changed slightly - though not significant enough for the termites to perceive. The termites kept eating their own 'home'.

Big Bang helplessly watched his most favorite object in the time-piece rot.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Price Rationalization

When you buy something - anything - say an apple, what do you pay for? You pay for the cost incurred in procuring the raw material - seed, fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides. You pay for the services used - water, electricity, transportation, storage. You pay for the human resource at each point of the supply chain right from the wages of the farmer to the salary of the salesman. You pay for the taxes and the profits for each party involved.

Is that all you pay for? Given the inflation and the macro-economy, I wouldn't want to pay for any of these things! But then there are a few things we don't even consider we need to pay. But as the law of Karma goes, one has to pay for everything one has used.

Nothing is free.

Have you considered who pays to neutralize the pollution created by burning the  fuel used in transporting the apple from the field to the retailer? Who pays for the decomposition of the plastic bag that is give "free" along with the apple?

There are umpteen initiatives by the civil society to counter the climatic deterioration - plant trees, car pool, turn-lights-off-for-an-hour. These all are great initiatives and does help. However, to reduce the problem the pricing in the whole value chain needs to be rationalized.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we have started adding value to things based on the price (the converse,  however, should be true). So, if we really want people to stop using the plastic, the best solution, in my opinion, is to 'rationalize' its price. The moment we start adding the 'cost' of decomposition to the costs of the plastic considered currently, its price will go up and will automatically deter people form using it.

Basically, the idea is that people who does the crime pay for it. If someone is using more plastic or more fuel then he should pay for the treatment of the pollution he creates. Currently, everyone pays the price - either in terms of tax which is used in green initiative by the government or in terms of the diseases we gets because of the pollution.

It's analogous to going for an equal-contribution-lunch with a large group to a very expensive place. Each one in the group thinks of ordering the most expensive item as the value he gets by eating it is much less compared to price he pays (given, it is shared by a large number of people). When everyone starts thinking in that way - the overall bill becomes much higher and so does each person's share. However, if we change the system to - pay-for-what-you-eat instead of equal-contribution, then each person will only order things he likes and are within his budget. This reduces the personal bills and hence the overall bill.

But currently, everyone is paying.

Sadly, changes will not happen over-night. There are huge vested interests that believe in ordering the most expensive dish in an equal-contribution system. These influential people will obviously not allow the system to change to pay-for-what-you-eat. Perhaps, I'll explore in a later post the topic of how these 5% of the people make policies which are beneficial to themselves but still impose it on the 95%

As civil society, we should start thinking and discussing the rationalization of the prices in the value chain. There a host on intangibles involved and converting them into dollar/rupee value will be challenging. Convincing the powers that be to incorporate these challenges will be even more difficult. We have seen a glimpse of this brazen futility at Copenhagen in December 2009. However, it's only when we start debating and discussing about price rationalization and more so questioning the price of things that we buy, we'll be overwhelmed by the "irrational" prices. And as a society, we might want to pay in money than by deteriorating our health due to environmental issues.

I guess, i now understand the proverb better - There is nothing called a free lunch.

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