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Thoughts on India & the Environment

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Who doesn’t worry about the environment these days? It’s been an emerging issue for so long and I very much grew up with it. My mother has always been very conscious and taught us kids to take the environment into account making daily decisions about transport, buying food and cleaning supplies, clothes, and using utilities.

Because of how I was raised I’ve never been able to buy a flight ticket without at least paying the carbon tax (though I admit I forget). I feel a massive pang of guilt when I buy bottled water, and I reuse these bottles for weeks. Politically speaking, I’ve always defaulted to voting for the Green Party because it seems like a no-brainer. But perhaps due to this lifelong awareness I think I lack a sudden urge to stand up for saving the environment and, for example, join the Extinction Rebellion. I just keep looking around wondering why people don’t treat the planet better than they do, and try to figure out if things are what they seem. In every country I I live I find new answers.

As you can imagine, India isn’t the kind of place where only the cleanest, cutting edge environmentally sound technology is being used.  Particularly in big cities, which are as big as many small and medium sized countries, pollution is extreme. People need to be fed and clothed, and new roads and buildings need to be built desperately—it’s a mad rush to keep up with filling people’s basic needs. In India, 99.9% of the population doesn’t have the luxury to wonder if their next car should be a hybrid or a fully electric, or how to make their house energy neutral, or which political party has the best green initiatives. These are the concerns my family in the US and the Netherlands have. It’s hard to imagine that in a country with 1.4 billion people they will ever get to that level of prosperity any time soon, or if it even makes sense that all of these people should make ‘good’ individual decisions about the dozens of daily things that impact the environment one way or the other.

But collectively, Indians are doing a lot to help the environment, at least from what I can tell. I haven’t seen many of those fancy Teslas cruising around here, but hybrids and fully electric vehicles are fairly common. Everyone drives tiny cars and you rarely see one that’s single-occupied. I can easily see that if we impose these habits in, let’s say, the Netherlands, car emissions would be cut in half. Instead, the Dutch are still switching to SUVs at an alarming rate and find carpooling too inconvenient.

It’s become clear to me that the whole idea that China and India are the reason we can’t reach global climate goals is flawed. These countries may be unwilling to commit to changing certain agricultural and industrial processes until they’ve had a chance to develop to a level where people have an acceptable standard of living, but they like new technology as much as the rest of us, and they’ve achieved progress on an impressive scale. Plus, they simply don’t do many of the unnecessary thing we (in the west) do, like eating food that’s not in season, fly across the world for short vacations, live in large houses, or buy individually wrapped food and drinks. We complain about “them” but if they started to live anything like “us” we’d be in a lot more trouble. The individual carbon footprint in India is tiny compared to western countries.

Anecdotally, I found that Indians have some surprising and admirable ways to avoid waste. One of them is how they drink water. Indians drink from a bottle without touching their lips—a trick that takes some practice, like eating with chopsticks, but is certainly attainable for everyone. As a result, they can share bottles with others because there is no risk of transferring germs. I’ve seen many public water fountains where people used the same cup, which saves hundreds of disposable cups per day. Toilet paper and napkins are not commonly used in India, instead people use water to wash off. Clothes aren’t quickly disposed because they get tailored outfits that look a lot nicer than what you can find in fast fashion chains, and the fashion doesn’t change every five minutes.

India also instituted a ban on plastic bags, cups and straws that has led to a small surge in sustainable industries. Many straws are now made of rice, for example. My kids love it because you can chew on them (and they know it won’t end up killing some future fish in the ocean). An NGO I visited this week is paying 500 poor women to make carry bags out of recycled newspapers, which provides them a decent wage.

Of course, a big part of the reason why Indians have a low carbon footprint per capita is due to poverty and politician problems, so I don’t want to idealize the situation. The fact that people can make a living from repairing old electronics or melting old soap and plastics and turn them into basic consumer goods isn’t exactly a sign of economic success. And if India didn’t forbid import of Chinese products due to a border dispute there would probably be a lot more crap lying around. People share small cars and houses, sometimes sleeping in shifts, and these small spaces take a lot less energy to climate control, but of course nobody finds this ideal.

Then again, people here enjoy a togetherness, as opposed to the very common loneliness in the west, that they treasure. A friend of mine who moved to the US as a child told me it took a long time for her to get used to being alone a lot, which had literally never happened to her in India. The food culture here also reflects that. In my office, my Indian colleagues often eat in groups, ordering a big batch of some dish that they share. This is a far cry from all the individually wrapped stuff my American colleagues eat, often alone at their desk.

The skills and the mindset to share, repair and reuse things is still well and alive here, which could make it a lot easier to adapt to environment saving measures than it is in the west. When certain US states banned plastic straws my husband complained for years!

What stands out to me about the climate debate is that many people claim that because climate change a global problem we can’t do much as an individual, or as an individual country. But that’s only partially true. It’s true that large companies can (temporarily) avoid climate regulations by relocating if rules become stricter. But when it comes to individual behavior and national industries it doesn’t make sense. Countries are still largely sovereign, last time I checked, and the specific challenges and opportunities are a bit different everywhere so they do, in fact, need local or national approaches.

So: pointing out problems elsewhere is good, but using ‘bad” behavior by others as an excuse to pollute is a terrible tactic that only leads to conflict and (deliberate) inertia.


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