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Going green: Take the bus or buy a hybrid car?

January 15, 2010 11:28 IST

Do we want to take the modern convenient bus or celebrate the new hybrid car? That's the choice, says Sunita Narain.

A new decade. For me, three decades of work in the field of environment. I wonder: Have earth matters improved since the early 1980s, when I began? Or, are things worse off? Where do we go from here?

Two things are evident. First, there is no doubt that environment holds centre stage in the country. It is talked about extensively; considered in policy; frankly, nobody today would dare to say they aren't environment-friendly.

Car companies sell their products for luxury and sustainability; real estate giants boast about rainwater harvesting systems; Bollywood stars dance their fondness for all things green. And governments say they want low-carbon economies for the future. Being green is the "in-thing".

This is an achievement of three decades of environmental activism, but a key difference as well. In the early 1980s, there was some awareness about environmental issues, but these were thought fringe, marginal, seen at best as a fad of some lovers of bees and birds.

Second, in spite of this phenomenal growth in green consciousness, the real matter is going from bad to worse. The pollution in our rivers is worse today than what it was three decades ago.

The garbage in cities is growing by the day, even as governments scramble to find ways of reducing plastic and hiding the rest in landfills in far-off places. Air pollution in cities is worse and toxins hurt our bodies, damaging our lungs. All in all, the report card is not good.

Perhaps, the only sector which can claim success is forest protection -- remote-sensing data shows green areas are growing. But such protection has come at the cost of local economic growth of people who live in and around these areas. The poorest people of India still live in its richest forests. Clearly, not the way ahead.

So, where do we go from here? As a society, we increasingly care about environmental issues. This is good. But as a society, we are increasingly failing to manage the environment. We are failing in two ways here. One, in managing the ecological fallout of economic growth -- pollution and toxification, which come from generating wealth.

Two, how to use the wealth of the natural environment to build economic well-being, what I call the development challenge of environment.

This is really because we, as a society, have to now graduate to not just caring about environment but also doing something. Very difficult: The answers will not come easy or cheap. They will require a new understanding of the way we do things, tough policies which change the direction of growth and difficult choices we make in our personal lives. This is the crossroads.

These are the same choices the environmental movement of the rich countries asked their countries to make, some two generations ago. They failed. This is why the challenge of climate change remains a challenge.

Today, these societies are rich; they have cleaned up their streams and their black smoke. But their economic growth and their lifestyle are putting the entire world at risk and they have no real answers to the future because they want to keep tinkering with the present.

They are looking to find small solutions to the massive problem of increased emissions, linked to growth.

The western environmental movement also has a history different to ours. It began after these societies had acquired wealth. So, the movement was a response to the garbage, the toxic air or the polluted water, resulting from the growth of their economies.

They had the money to invest in cleaning and they did. But because they never looked for big solutions, they always stayed behind the problem -- local air pollution is still a problem in most western cities, even if the air is not as black as ours. It is just that the toxin is smaller, more difficult to find or to smell.

They keep spending -- keep investing in technology to deal with the present. As such, the rich world's environmentalists are garbage managers, nothing more.

We want to emulate them, with much lesser resources and much more inequity and poverty. The fact is we cannot find answers in the same half solutions they invested in. This is the challenge of our next decade.

The next decade awaits us. Will we drown in our excreta and the spit of our cars and pretend that the problem has gone away? More talk, more conferences and more buzz about all things green? Or will we do things differently?

For instance, take the modern, convenient bus, and not just celebrate the answer of the fuel-efficient or hybrid car? Find different answers. The choice is ours to learn and make. Only ours.

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