Monday, August 20, 2007

Material Differences

During our trip to India, I tried to pay attention to the material conditions that my family there live in and the way they choose to consume. Last year, the state of Gujarat, where my family is from, grew at a 10 percent rate. That is equivalent to China’s growth rate.

So the material conditions and choices I want to describe are those of middle-class Indians in one of India’s most prosperous states. The very poor in India consume a fraction of the resources used by people in the US, but what about the rising middle-class? Is the Indian middle-class copying American behavior? For example, George W. Bush defended his decision not to sign the Kyoto agreement by saying, "Kyoto would have wrecked our economy. I couldn't in good faith have signed Kyoto," and claimed that the treaty didn't require other "big polluters" such as India and China to cut emissions. Indians were quick to point out that pollution rates per capita for India are extremely low. But even environmentalists in the US shake their heads and lament the thousands of new cars on the roads in Asia canceling out the virtues of those who buy hybrids in America.

What I saw was that the middle-class in India go to great lengths to conserve energy and resources. We ought to consider carefully how middle-class Indians live and actually compare, in a detailed way, their lifestyles with those of people in the US before we come to conclusions about what respective initiatives are needed by each nation. I wrote out a list of sustainable practices and design choices that I noticed in the homes I visited in Gujarat:

  • Multiple overhead fans strategically placed over seating areas that rotate at extremely fast speeds
  • Window air-conditioning units in specific rooms that are kept closed when the unit is in use, so that people gather in an air-conditioned part of the house rather than air-condition the entire home
  • Easy to open shutters that let breezes in
  • Marble or tile flooring that stays cool in the heat
  • Reupholstering of old furniture rather than purchasing new
  • Lines strung in the balcony for drying clothes
  • Long rows of switches that can turn off each light, appliance, plug, or electrical device so that nothing is left running on standby
  • Western-style, sit-down toilets with a knob that controls water coming from the pipes so you can flush using just the right amount of water rather than always having to empty the entire tank.
  • Bidets rather than toilet paper, so less trees cut and less water required to flush
  • Solar water heaters or small, gas water heaters that make hot bathing water on demand rather than the huge contraptions we have in the US that keep a big tank of water hot all day and night
  • Buckets in the bathroom for “dhol” baths
  • Rooftops that collect rainwater and channel it into wells, which prevents flooding, replenishes aquifers, and averts salination in seaside areas
  • Pressure cookers with stacked containers inside of them, which make the most of the energy used by their gas stoves
  • Wall-mounted water purifiers rather than bottled water
  • Numerous stainless steel canisters for efficient storage of dry snacks, lentils, grains, and rice instead of disposable containers
  • Scooters for small commutes and running errands

  • My relatives in India live in comfort. They have refrigerators, air-conditioning, washing machines, microwaves, gas stoves, hot water for baths, good drinking water, well-appointed living spaces, and their own transportation. And yet, they use a fraction of the resources that people in the US do. (My cousin said he would share his utility bills with me so I can back up my claim with some numbers in the near future.) When middle-class Indians – the so-called biggest polluters according to Bush – have gone to such efforts, how can we in the US demand “equal” commitments to reductions in emissions. The burden is on those of us in United States and Europe.


    Anonymous said...

    testing testing 123

    Henitsirk said...

    It's amazing how much conservation just involves a little effort. You have to pay attention to when it makes sense to keep the windows open for the breeze and when to shut them against the heat. You have to hang each piece of clothing in the sun and remember to take them down if it rains.

    Nothing hard, just a little consciousness of our actions. And an adjustment to what we consider "comfortable" and "easy".

    cake said...

    i love the photo of the kitchen cabinets. it appeals to me aesthetically as well as environmentally...

    also, i was wondering if there might be more significant financial rewards for less consumption of energy and water there than here? and, do you think your cousins are especially conscious, and make the effort to conserve, or is this a general practice?