My travel goal is to deliberately take myself out of my comfort zone, to cause myself a bit of discomfort. Trips to strange places challenge my conventional wisdoms, confront my biases and cause me to think more deeply about all sorts of things.
India is a challenge; more than 1.3 billion people in the world’s largest democracy, functioning in 22 languages, wildly different ecosystems from the foothills of the Himalayas to the sweltering delta of Cochin, so many religions it befuddles. Yet, Indian democracy works and India has managed to lift its people up; most demographic markers are improved and improving.
The poverty still grinds, needed changes across such a vast population are overwhelming, many cultural and religious practices are barbaric by western standards and the country struggles to provide basic services; clean water is a privilege, clean water that doesn’t have to be carried long distances is joy, attendance at public schools is high because of the free lunch program (the only meal most children are likely to get) and per capita income is shocking even if it is heading upwards.
Here’s how my India trip captivated and challenged me.
At the same time as I was traveling in India, in another universe COP21 leaders were deciding to alter the course of human destiny to achieve a more carbon free future. I read Velma’s notes from Paris and tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to connect her observations with what I saw out of the window of my bus.
I am not a climate change expert and I am not an expert on India’s economy; I am a tourist passing through, trying to connect the two. How can we engage 1.3 billion people in India in our struggle to achieve climate goals that, science tells us overwhelmingly, are necessary to our survival?
It is a yawning gap. From what I can understand, countries like India see the West as having created the problem; they see the rest of the world being asked to sacrifice their future economic prosperity (and that of their billions of constituents) by committing to join the West in a post-industrial world when they haven’t managed to reap any benefits from their own industrial revolution.
It is impossible to NOT get their point. Serendipitously, this trip has graphical exposed the gap between the West and the rest.
When access to water, healthcare, jobs, foreign exchange, economic growth and improving standards of living from grinding poverty are on the agenda, saving the planet is at best an afterthought and at worst, laughable. I can see most political leaders refusing to handcuff themselves. I can also see them accusing the West of continuing their energy spendthrift ways. The demands for monetary support from the West makes perfect sense. That COP21 got any agreement at all from participants is startling.
In some ways, grinding poverty has made Indians efficient consumers. Their per capita energy use is infinitesimal compared to mine. They walk, or use tuk-tuks; quaint and adorable to us tourists but far more efficient than my SUV.
The one million slum dwellers of Dharavi township are recyclers extraordinaire, reusing 60% of Mumbai’s plastics, recycling paper and cardboard, forging ingots of aluminum from cans and recovering all manner of containers for re-use. They make my feeble attempts at recycling farcical. It seems counterintuitive that Indians amy be more intelligent and efficient recyclers, out of necessity, than I am out of virtue but my eyes do not lie.
Maybe we ought to change the economics of recycling – really rewarding our binners and scavengers for their efforts and really charging Starbucks for littering our cities with plastic?
Vegetarians put less stress on our resources. I am not about to renounce beef altogether but, in India, it isn’t found on the menu, nor is pork in a land that is 20% Muslim. Chicken is the omnivore’s option – free range, grass fed chicken! Again my western lifestyle seems profligate. As a non-expert, food and food production in North America may be as bad for our planet as it is for our health.
I’m not sure what strategies policy makers can employ to ensure that India can continue the necessary advances in bringing a better life to its people. The old industrial revolution powered by coal, oil and gas is now denied India. A substitute bridge to a better life for Indians is not clear to me.
What is clear is that throwing money at government, in India or elsewhere, seems doomed. Corruption and bureaucracy were not invented here but they are rampant and embedded. The early successes at bridging to a new economy, in IT for example, have increased the gap between the haves and the have-nots; unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism may go only so far.
India, like China, is also seeing significant degradation to their environment as they pursue economic development. Deforestation, excessive water use, single-crop agriculture, air pollution, stressed urban environments, increased use of artificial pesticides. … the list goes on and on. Today’s immediate problems are in their face immediate and, while linked, the urgent is crowding out the important.
I expect travel to make me uncomfortable; challenge and change do not come with Linus’s security blanket. My trip has forced me to see COP 21 in a different light; unexpectedly, India has added a complex personal dimension to my otherwise esoteric view of how this global issue plays out.
India has forced me to accept that it is personal; I have the responsibility. India has taught me to view resources as precious and finite. COP21 is about changing my behaviour.
While it is way too soon for New Year’s resolutions; I have a few that I’m considering;
I might save beef consumption for very rare occasions,
I must use less water and turn out the lights more often.
It is time to simplify my possessions and send everything I can to a better use and the recycle bin.
I think I will stop and consider every purchase I make – the lunacy of a storage locker to store stuff I don’t want while the rest of the world would see a storage locker as comfortable housing for a family is evident.
An electric car…
Well, it’s a start.