An average India consumes about 500 kWh of electricity per year (a kWh is what we call a Unit in common language!). An average American consumes about 13500 kWh of electricity per year.
Hmmph. An average American consumes over 25 times the amount of electricity as does an average Indian!
Unbelievable? Now, listen to this. An average Cambodian consumes 100 kWh of electricity per year.
An average Cambodian consumes less than 100th of electricity as does an American. LESS THAN ONE HUNDREDTH, tell that to yourself again and again, until the utter humungouness or ridiculousness truly sinks in.
And it is not just in the electricity consumption. On possibly every aspect of sustainability, you will find the western “civilization” recklessly consumptionist when compared to the “developing” countries in the east. (This of course brings to my mind Mahatma Gandhi’s answer when asked what he thought of the western civilization: “I think it is a good idea”).
Thinking on these lines, I realised I am being overly critical of the west and almost eulogic of the east. Come on, I told myself, it is not as if every Indian or Cambodian wakes up in the morning and says to himself “I am going to help the world”. You and I know this is farthest away from the truth.
I think the reason – or at least one of the key reasons – why we are MUCH more sustainable than the west is sometimes because we do not have a choice and sometimes because we indeed are programmed to be a bit more careful while using natural resources.
Official statistics say about 30% of India are poor. Unofficial (and therefore, more reliable!) statistics suggest that about 60-70% of Indian population could be defined poor, earning less than a dollar a day. With such little money, these hundreds of millions of folks are not exactly going to be consumptionists, right?
An additional factor should be noted. People like me, while we could be well off today (all right, well off is an exaggeration, let me say I am no longer poor), came from lower middle class backgrounds where resource scarcity is a reality that stares in your face everyday. It had been grounded into our heads right from our childhood to conserve everything to the extent possible.
India has been a spiritual country for a long, long time, where material needs co-exist with needs of the spirit and the soul. Thus, we have been brought up in circumstances where sustainable living has become a habit for many. Note please that this habit was not deliberately formed by an individual or family, it simply existed.
I am often criticized by my friends when I say that the western countries are leading irresponsible lives by leading such automated and luxurious lifestyles, each component of which extracts a heavy price from the environment. They say I have become too much of a preacher. Perhaps, but the facts are as follows.
Every time we flick a switch on to do something that we could have easily done with our hands or feet, we are most likely using a lot more energy than we would have had we done it ourselves. I remember reading in an industrial magazine a few months ago that some sophisticated manufacturing processes used in the developed countries use tens or hundreds of times the amount of energy that less automated and sophisticated process in developing countries use for the same end product. Which is better? High automation and increased productivity at enormous costs (ultimately) to the environment or semi-automated, less productive but more sustainable processes? The answer to this depends on whether you are living just for today or whether you consider life to be a long term investment.
In the case of India, industrialists do not have much of a choice to make in many cases when it comes to a question of employing manpower over machines. Manpower is so cheap that it is indeed more economical to use manpower in quite a few cases. This makes the whole process more sustainable – you provide more employment and use less energy (because as mentioned earlier, highly mechanised processes guzzle far more energy than the same processes done by humans, when considered from a lifecycle analysis approach).
Of course this will appear to be an overly simplistic argument. For instance, how do we accommodate processes that will be impossible for humans to do on their own (say, making high quality solar cells)? Or, how can a country get on par with other countries if it uses relatively much slower processes to achieve the same economic and physical end? Good questions.
Let me provide an example to illustrate this. In the US and Europe, the highways (and even the city roads) are of such high quality that travelling by car is a pleasure. The same cannot be said of India, where travelling by car in most roads can be a torture. Add to this the insane driving practices by most folks (especially lorry drivers) and is it any wonder that most folks might feel safer taking the train than the car for long distance journeys (and thus becoming more sustainable without even realising it?).
In spite of the above, it is fairly clear that we are developing a car culture. Perhaps I should send an army of volunteers to dig up the roads a bit more?
So, these are some of the thoughts I have had when I asked myself the question “Are we sustainable out of choice or necessity?”. Tell me your thoughts – I’d like to engage with you all in a spirited discussion on this.