Thursday, August 4, 2011

Experience it for yourself

I grew up in Mumbai, a mega-city if there ever was one. The pollution there wasn't as invisible as it is in many places here in the West. You could see the pollution every day, maybe barring the rainy days. This isn't like intermittent smog events because of temperature inversions that may envelope a city for a day or two. No. This is constant. If you haven't experienced this, it is hard to describe. And so it goes that our choices, our daily choices, here in the West, or anywhere else, are made without an understanding of their implications on places far away from us in this globalised world. In fact, one need not worry about a place far off like India. Just look around you. The implications of our choices are all around us, if we choose to look.

If we are then made to talk about sustainability, dealing with climate change and social injustice, without an understanding of our choices or how we've gotten to this point, our vantage point is one of an unemotional elite, one of privilege. It is very easy to recommend that we need more efficient cars and computers to power our society, without seeing the destruction that is caused in the preparation of these cars and computers. And of course, those that have the power to make such policy decisions are generally those who are furthest away from the impacts of those decisions, while benefiting the most. It is unclear to these decision-makers the true "costs" of building a bridge, or deciding that a rainforest should be converted into a biofuel production facility. Have these decision makers lived a life of hardship? Have they cut down a tree that has supported native peoples? Furthermore, the scales of the decisions being made, with their environmental finality, with their centralisation and a lack of nuance, and at times downright arrogance, have the potential to further worsen the situation. And therefore, such decisions cannot be made in a vacuum, whether at an engineering firm, or the state capital, or the White House.

I'd like to end today's post with a quote from one of my student's journals, who was writing about his time in Delray, Detroit, for the class on neighbourhood sustainability I was helping teach last semester.

"This trip has made me realize, first hand, the pains of environmental hardship. You can be told things many times and still never understand fully what you are being told. It's not until my eyes burned, my throat was scratchy, my lungs were continually being vacated of air from the coughing that I could really understand. I smelled some of the foulest air I have ever inhaled, and it was all different varieties. I don't blame that lady who leaves two or three days a year because she just can't take the smell mixed with the heat. I wish they cold all get up and leave forever, but then again, I wish they didn't live in a situation where that was the best option."

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