World Environment Day was celebrated recently in the ritualistic fashion as usual. Some saplings were planted here and there, a few politicians gave some cliched speeches and school kids sat through yawn-inducing lectures on the importance of environment protection. Our fetish for allocating a day for everything we feel guilty of ignoring or damaging is exasperating. There can be no denying that we have already toppled down the cliff as far as sustainable development is concerned.
Just look around the streets you walk through and you will see gigantic faces of impossibly beautiful men and women hovering above you from advertisement boards. Corporates and political parties spend a fortune in erecting huge flex boards at every possible space in a cityscape. It is impossible to see what lies on either side of the congested roads or to catch a glimpse of a slice of sky. Where do all these huge plastic sheets go once they are replaced? Every street tree has hundreds of plastic advertisement sheets nailed to them. Our drains are clogged with disposed plastic covers. We cannot visit a tourist place without encountering piles of discarded mineral water bottles and disposable plates. Every road side tea vendor will have a broken, dirty plastic bucket overflowing with plastic cups and countless sachets of gutka.
Lest we think it is a problem of the uneducated and the poor, one has to see how airline services and airports have changed over the years. Instead of silver or steal cutlery, we have flimsy plastic cutlery now for the stale food served by the airlines. Everything is covered with cling film. Water is served in a 100 ml plastic bottle. If a passenger wants to drink half a litre of water during a two-hour flight, he would have generated five bottles.
Paper napkin companies have convinced us that carrying a kerchief is an uncivilised habit and we reach out for that paper napkin box after every wash. The swanky airports have come up with irritating water dispensers where one has to stand in an acrobatic pose and suck water like an animal from a spout. This unhygienic habit is enforced to ensure that one has to pay through one’s nose to buy water from overpriced vendors.
Milk sachets, shampoo sachets, biscuits, provisions—if one takes an audit of how much disposable plastic is sneaking in our day-to-day life, one can understand the mindboggling problem we are going to face. No government can cope with such an environment and economic disaster in the making.
Plastic is not the only culprit in making our lives unsustainable. Imagine a time when our one and a half billion population reaches the living standards that our urban middle class is taking for granted. A western style commode flushes down more water in a day than what a rural household uses in a week for all their needs. In cold countries, it makes perfect environmental sense to make buildings with huge glass walls. Glass ensures better heat transmission and light, which is necessary in Europe. Why are we imitating such an architecture style and then spending a fortune to air-condition it?
What sense does it make to wear clothes that are unsuitable to our weather? If a man roams around in dhoti in a country with cold weather, say in Russia, and spends a fortune to keep himself warm using artificial means, he would be ridiculed, but in our country, such madness is considered fashionable and respectful.
If we visit old houses that were built a century or more ago, one can see how much care it was taken to make it congruous with nature. Take the example of a typical Kerala house. The roofs were sloped on all four sides. There used to be central courtyard with open roof and all doors and windows opened to it. There used to be a running veranda that ran around the outer wall with projections on all four sides. This ensured that sun’s rays never fell on the wall and prevented radiation.
The central courtyard provided a funnel effect, sucking away hot, trapped air and releasing it. During rainy season, water fell on this courtyard, which was connected using a storm water drain to the pond in the yard, ensuring rain water harvesting. The pond had a grove for snakes on its shore and it was considered a sin to even take out a twig from the sacred grove. Banana leaves were used instead of plates for eating and this became manure or fodder for the cows. It also ensured that not much water was spent on washing the used plates. As people wore white clothes, respecting the tropical weather, anything over a pair of clothes was an avoidable luxury.
It is impossible to go back to the past and such thoughts have only nostalgic value often. However, if we look back, one can see that some solutions do lie in the past. It is foolish to carry the burden of false pride about the past, yet do nothing to draw lessons from it to solve problems we have created. We are a confused civilisation. We have lost what we had and never gained what we should have. Unless we change our lifestyles, no count of saplings planted is going to help us. One has to just look around to see what a disastrous path we are hurtling down. The time bomb is ticking. firstname.lastname@example.org
Author, columnist, speaker