Green with envy: A little environmental competition can be healthy

I just got back from India. I hadn’t been back in seven years.

I was looking forward to seeing the 8 percent GDP growth Prime Minister Manmohan Singh always talks about.

I was expecting more towers, more plumes of smokes, more industrialization, and more waste.

Prosperity was definitely palpable. Indians had better computers and TVs. Most families, even middle class families, had several motor scooters and at least one family car, dishwashers in some households and washing machines in some higher-end homes.

But, for the most part, India seemed the same. The deeply-rooted values of conservation were also palpable.

As an environmental journalist and an efficiency enthusiast, I was in a kind of conservation heaven.

In the United States, I’m praised for carrying my own recycled bag to the grocery store. Indians barely use polyethylene bags.

Here, I’m praised for turning off my lights, unplugging my appliances when I go away on a long trip, for thinking about what time to run my dishwasher and washing machine based on the price of peak power on the grid.

In India, lights are only used when necessary, as are appliances which are plugged in only when it’s time to use them.

By and large, for the middle and upper classes, dishwashers in India are the day laborers who come in with a bucket of warm water once a day to wash the dishes and pots and pans.

Some people have washing machines in India; I saw no dryers. And, Indians use those washing machines to wash towels, and the one sheet on the bed.

In India I realized I wasn’t a model for conservation, but doing the bare minimum of my small part to save our world’s natural resources.

I feel like in my small way, I represent the United States. Just as the U.S. has taken measures to cut emissions, to conserve resources, it can’t even compare to the subcontinent’s approach. Even Indian energy companies like Coal India Ltd. are beginning to adopt clean-energy technology.

 Green to its core

No one in India talks about global warming, sinking islands or tsunamis or employs any of the hyperbole we as Americans use to govern our “green” movement. 

For example, Indians don’t generally use paper towels or large domestic trash cans. They clean the house with washable towels. No one uses presoaked wipes for their hands, for their floors, or for their windows; all of that is wasteful, more trash. The largest trash I saw in a home was the size of a hotel ice bucket; Each day my aunt filled that bucket with vegetable peels, fruit pits and other easily biodegradable matter and then threw it out. Oftentimes it’s eaten by the animals roaming around. Sometimes it just gets thrown out and burned in large fire pits.

In light of all of this, I think the world is finally starting to recognize that India is truly doing its part to combat climate change, maintain resources and still grow economically.

It’s worth noting, more Indians are without electric power than the entire population of the United States; About 400 million Indians still live without electric power every day despite the overall growth of consumption by the “haves” due to economic prosperity.

One thing I hope is that as India continues to grow, it does not adopt our wasteful Western propensity.

I noticed one way I was more environmentally conscientious. Unlike my Indian counterparts, I use an aluminum water bottle that I refill several times a day from the tap.

Why? Here in the U.S., according to Food and Water Watch, bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year.

That plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce.  Only about 20 percent of our water bottles are actually recycled. (see posting on alternatives to bottled water)

While Indians don’t dispose of their water bottles as often as bottle users in the U.S. do, they tend to refill large plastic bottles an average of 50 times each before throwing the bottle away.

Scientists have disagreed about whether dioxins or chemicals like bisphenol A leaches into water from overused bottles. But the reused water bottles certainly do breed extra bacteria and fungi. Some scientists also say freezing the plastic water-filled bottles releases dioxins from the bottle into the water. The people I talked to in India were not aware of this threat.

One Response to “Green with envy: A little environmental competition can be healthy”
  1. Steve Ellis says:

    It’s a sobering statistic to think that more Indians are without power than there are Americans. Uhe U.S. and greens get preachy without really understanding what is going on around them and how the rest of the world lives. Thanks for your insights – great work!

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