In little over two generations, advances in technology have changed computers. In today’s world, the computer is thought of as “personal” or as a “communicator.” It has seeped into every facet of human activity and what we can get done today on our phones, let alone laptops, would have been unthinkable sixty years ago. But what accounted for the huge change in perceptions about the role of computers in society? For example, to demonstrate just how pervasive the notion that computers would remain large, clunky metal boxes, Thomas J Watson, the president of IBM, is famously misquoted as having predicted in 1943 that the world market for computers would be less than the fingers of two hands.
Manuel Castells, the “philosopher of the Internet” and professor of sociology and city and regional planning at the University of California, has suggested that the remarkable changes in the shape, form and function of the computer have been driven by politics, as much as by technological breakthrough. He illustrates by saying that a “personal” computer would have been a political and, hence, technical impossibility in Cold War Russia. The state itself would have been forced to oppose technological advances that promoted private property. Western politics, by way of generalised distinction, has focused more on the individual. No wonder, then, that iPods are icons of individualism as well a particular political ideology.
The environmental and development challenges facing the people, economy and ultimately politics of this country are of epic proportion. Our population is underestimated at 160 million and we have a poverty rate, depending on whether you believe the figures approved by the World Bank or put forward by the Planning Commission, of anywhere from 17.2 to 37.5 percent. At the same time, the scandalous failure of every one of our populations stabilisation policies means that, in as little as the next thirty to forty years, our population is set to double. Rural-to-urban population shifts, motivated by a desire to engage in the cash economy of an urban area, will mean that, by such time, over half of the population of Pakistan will be crammed into its cities.
Our politicians are busy investing in infrastructure in their larger cities. It is their belief that it is infrastructure like roads and underpasses that will provide people the mobility they need to exploit their potential, that it is things like road infrastructure, five-star hotels, fast-food chains and airports that convinces foreign investment that Pakistan is a viable home for their money. But our politicians they have not considered any of the environmental and development challenges facing us. For example, last week, the Government of Punjab announced it was going to be “e-governed” by next year. I’m all for the efficiency of e-government and I’m sure e-government initiatives will bring transparency and speed to bureaucratic inefficiency, but clearly no one has given thought to the energy crisis. How is anything going to be e-governed when there’s no electricity?
Our politicians appear to be concentrating on investing in the infrastructure of large urban areas. Smaller urban areas are ignored, and the lack of investment in infrastructure there often adds to the population migration to larger urban areas. The government, meanwhile, in order to find the energy to run the current model, has been forced to turn to rental power. The recent exhortations of the Minister of Water and Power pleading for people to “conserve more energy” and directing government offices not to use air-conditioners are platitudes at best. The energy conservation we need in Pakistan is beyond the scope of individual actions. What is needed is institutional change. But if we really listen to what people like Manuel Castells are saying, we also desperately need a change of the current political ideology that reinforces environmentally-unfriendly and unsustainable urban growth.
Pakistan’s energy infrastructure relies on sources of electricity large enough to cater to the energy demands of its large urban areas. It’s because our cities are so large and so full of people that we need things as large as dams or massive gas- or furnace-oil based IPPs to provide them electricity. It’s because our cities are so large and energy-inefficient that alternatives like solar, wind and run-of-the-water power will never be able to provide for them. For example, both the cost and the amount of land required to accommodate a solar power station large enough to provide a city like Lahore or Faislabad makes the entire project unfeasible. But the cost and amount of land required for a solar or wind or run-of-the-water power station to provide energy to a city of 200,000 to 300,000 people is totally manageable. Also, the sewage and sanitation requirements of a small city are much more manageable than the hundreds of tons of raw sewage and solid waste a city like Lahore produces every day.
Smaller cities? Cities of 200,000 to 300,000 people! Impossible, some will say. Well, that’s exactly what people said to anyone who suggested, only 60 years ago, that computers could have a “personal” use. In little over half a century – in fact, since the time this Islamic Republic was founded – the ENIAC has shrunk to the size of a Blackberry or iPhone.
And according to Castells, this remarkable change in technology has as much to do with innovation as it does with political ideology. In order to have environmentally-friendly and sustainable cities, we need to have a political ideology that recognises that small is good. It’s an ideology that recognises that public good trumps personal interest. It’s one that respects the person and does not treat one only as an economic entity. It’s one that believes that energy conservation is more important than energy generation.