New Internationalist

Mirror, Mirror…

Issue 313

new internationalist
issue 313 - June 1999

A typical Dutch citizen contributes 14 times as much carbon dioxide pollution as the average Indian. (Indian pictured here)
CHRIS STOWERS / PANOS PICTURES

Mirror, Mirror...
Amsterdam is one of the most eco-aware capitals in the world.
Dinyar Godrej compares it with his Indian hometown of Indore.

‘What a lot of rubbish for just one person,’ said 12-year-old Monica peering with characteristic nosiness into the small tin wastebucket in my room. Despite the fact that the contents of the bin were mainly debris from gifts I had brought from the Netherlands for my family in India, and so, strictly speaking, not my rubbish, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of guilt. For the amount of rubbish that issues forth each day from my parents’ two-storey house, even at full occupancy, is miniscule.

No food gets thrown away. My mother buys just enough to last for a few days. Her refrigerator is a transit lounge; nothing stays long enough to grow mould. Bottles, boxes, containers never make it to the bin – spices and oil get stored in them, plants start life in them, children lay claim to any cardboard and scribble and paint on it, and sculpt it into ‘creations’. Old newspapers are sold off. Old clothing either gets handed down or, if it’s the worse for wear, it gets torn into rags that polish shoes, clean windows and mop up after male toilet-goers who have wobbly aim. Tea leaves and eggshells propagate rosebushes and fruit trees.

None of this is taken as evidence of any particular stinginess on my parents’ part – it’s just common sense. Indeed, I doubt anyone in their right mind in Indore, the city where my parents live and where I grew up, would want to get the reputation of being wasteful, as rubbish here doesn’t disappear anonymously in black bags into the cavernous maw of compressor trucks. It gets carried by hand to the local dump, where it lies, odorously, until the open-backed municipal truck comes to cart it away. But before that happens, it will be combed over by rag pickers who retrieve anything recyclable. The containers are invariably broken into to allow access to the squadrons of slate-coloured pigs that patrol the city in search of titbits.

Indore is no green haven – it’s sprawling in every possible direction and builders are blocking up every available space with a vengeance. Scooters, three-wheelers and cars choke its streets and its residents. Rates of asthma, especially among children, have surged. Nevertheless, the city survives and indeed thrives with an economy of means that would be the envy of many of its Western counterparts. And, importantly, it lives in its own mess, rather than hurling it halfway across the globe.

As I currently live in the Netherlands, amongst the environmentally sanest of European countries, comparisons shoot across my mind whenever I return to Indore. Though most Westerners are unaware of Indore’s existence, its population of over 1.4 million beats Amsterdam, the Dutch capital, hands down. However, unlike Amsterdam which isn’t growing, Indore’s population has tripled since 1971, accreting in concrete folds around the old city. The sleepy residential area where my parents live has had a rude awakening – any house that gets sold is promptly demolished to make way for blocks of flats. Each time I visit they have planted more trees in an attempt to preserve some of the privacy they previously enjoyed.

The residents of Amsterdam have, of course, had a longer period of time to get used to the idea of living on top of each other. The moment the clock strikes ten, legions of the Dutch dash across living rooms to turn down their stereos out of consideration for their neighbours. Houses and gardens don’t even begin to figure in an Amsterdammer’s scheme of things. The city is compact apart from the suburbs and most distances are walkable. Cars, excepting taxis, are banished from central Amsterdam and, anyway, trying to find a parking space is reputed to take years off one’s life. Trams and buses are frequent, and cyclists rule. Wherever possible in Dutch cities, cyclists have their own lanes and people of all ages take to their bikes. So strong is the cycling culture that doctors often advise patients suffering from work-related stress to try cycling to work.

Indeed, environmental consciousness in the public sphere is all-pervasive. Local Agenda 21 groups in the various cities are routinely consulted before municipal corporations undertake projects with environmental implications.

Even at the national level, public participation in environmental lawmaking is well-established. And the results are impressive – ozone-eating substances have been phased out, industrial waste reduced dramatically, and most emissions have abated. Household energy use fell by a modest but significant five per cent between 1990 and 1994.1

Some commentators crow about the ‘decoupling’ of economic growth and environmental pressure. For in this country where most people work four days a week and job sharing is commonplace, there have been no fallbacks in public and social service provision and the Gross Domestic Product remains one of the highest in Europe.

It would appear that with their focus on solutions, the Dutch have achieved the impossible – cleaning up their act whilst keeping the cash tills ringing. Or have they? For, when discussion turns to sustainability, it’s still a case of two cheers rather than three. And here’s why.

The price of pears
This tiny densely-populated country has a purchasing power that is two-thirds that of India, a land 93 times its size. So while Amsterdammers can be justifiably proud of how clean and green their city is, their purses are hoovering resources from far-flung areas of the world whilst leaving the environmental costs behind. Whilst Dutch architects have come up with prototype houses that can cut energy use by 60 per cent, the Dutch consumer’s use of primary aluminium, the extraction of which burns up obscene amounts of energy, is actually increasing.

In the festive atmosphere of the local market it’s easy to overlook those Cuban oranges and Argentinean pears selling at ridiculously cheap prices. Or indeed to forget when looking at the rounds of cheese piled high, that the cattle were fed with grain often sourced in the Majority World.

Friends of the Earth Netherlands have estimated that one-and-a-half times the country’s total land area is under forest abroad just to supply it with its wood and paper needs. Indeed, if one looks at that engine of consumption, the automobile, one sees that carbon dioxide emissions are actually rising despite impressive falls in other types of emissions. The level now stands at nearly 11 tonnes per person, several times the sustainable figure of 1.7 tonnes. The average Indian’s contribution despite the choking cities is 0.81 tonnes. Then there is the other tell-tale sign of over-consumption; the increase in domestic trash.2

It is estimated that the average Amsterdammer would have to cut her consumption by a whopping 70 to 90 per cent in order to live within her environmental space.1 This is a figure that no doubt baffles a nation where zuinigheid or thrift holds great cultural value. Clearly there is a gap between frowning upon conspicuous consumption in public and indulging in a little of what you fancy at home. In a Europe-wide survey of public opinion the Dutch came out strongest in favour of much higher prices and taxes to protect the environment. They were less keen on the idea of cutting down on consumption.1

There are some encouraging signs though. The third Netherlands’ National Environmental Policy Plan addresses over-consumption – for the first time. Environmental lobbyists are arguing that Dutch industry which has been so willing to grapple with environmental issues at home, must now look at sustainability as well and offset the environmental costs in the land where the resource is being mined. There are calls for greater grain sourcing from Europe and a pricing policy that would reflect real costs.

One of the things that becomes acutely apparent whenever I return to India, is this issue of cost. Even though I tend to have very little left in the bank at the end of the month in Holland, the price of food is not quite the issue it is in India. At my parents’ home prices are carefully monitored and the food bill is a much greater proportion of their overall expenses than mine ever is. In Indore consumption has to fit every purse, the greengrocer will sell you wares in the tiniest amounts and manufactured goods come in much smaller sizes. No-one flings stuff at you for a pittance in order to get you to buy more. The trick wouldn’t work once prices rose again.

A typical Dutch citizen contributes 14 times as much carbon dioxide pollution as the average Indian. (Dutch pictured here)
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES

A bucket of water
In global terms Indian cities like Indore still do not take up their ‘ecological space’ and consumption can grow with their ‘newly industrializing’ status. But local environmentalists would beg to differ, for the scale of sustainability is completely different here.

Take the ever-present water shortage in Indore. I have never taken a shower in all my years there, apart, that is, from jumping around in the monsoon rain as a kid. A bucket of water is sufficient for the daily bath that most Indians can’t do without. Yet the city is drawing water from the Narmada river depriving villages where the supply is sourced. The Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment is campaigning vigorously for increased harvesting of rainwater instead of draining the rivers, arguing that supply on tap encourages an irresponsible attitude. Indore does vividly illustrate the environmental virtues of investing in sanitation for slums, however. A pioneering slum-networking project has provided the city’s slums with good drainage and sewerage. Once this investment had been made, the people living there felt more secure and got to work improving their houses and taking care of the trees planted in front of them. There were palpable social effects too – the organization of schools, women’s groups and community centres. The sewerage system has benefited the entire city and the river Khan that flows through it is no longer quite the open drain it once was. Similar projects are now starting up in other Indian cities.

Economists predict that countries like India and China will be the superpowers in the coming generation. I’m not holding my breath, but the rhetoric of the good life is already strong amongst the Indian middle classes. On the outskirts of Indore lies Pithampur, an industrial area that has contributed greatly to the improved fortunes of the region. One industrialist speaks of an impressive raft of environmental regulations and spot checks by government inspectors – but adds that a bribe is the usual substitute for actual controls. Despite every effort on his part, the factory which has been running for years still hasn’t had its application with the environmental board considered. Recently he added a neutralization plant to deal with its waste entirely on his own initiative.

Industrialized nations that have polluted the planet for years and continue to gobble up its resources, have an environmental debt to the rest of the world. The repayment must take place not only by easing up on resource use, but also by supporting Majority World industries in cleaning up their acts and by giving them the benefits of the latest technologies.

The West must also change the example it has set. It has made over-consumption seductive to the rest of the world, even though it has led to stress and the erosion of public spirit in the wealthiest of nations.

An old school friend who had recently come into money took me out to dinner at the local club in Indore. Towards the end of the evening and a bottle of rum downed between us, he said, ‘Come back to India, Dinyar. Why are you wasting your time in Europe? In ten years time we’ll be the future. Europe and America are fucked.’ The violence of this statement, with its implicit assumption that I was living in Europe purely for material advantage, rendered me instantly stone sober.

For years, we Indians have been spiritual snobs, deriding the materialism of the West. Now the new rich could well be on their way to flipping the coin, holding consumption up as the prize.

Dinyar Godrej is a former NI editor

1 The Netherlands’ National Environmental Policy Plan, (Resource Renewal Institute Website, 1988) and Environment Statistics 1996 (Eurostat, 1997).
2 Sustainable Netherlands Revised, (Friends of the Earth Netherlands, 1996); and Michael Carley and Philippe Spapens, Sharing the World, (Earthscan, 1998).

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