Thursday, September 23, 2010

India: Third most powerful (and greenest) nation say reports

US Report Finds India 'third most powerful nation'!
National Geographic finds India to be 'greenest' country in the world!
Is there anything in this news to be proud of?

The other day, an 'official US report' found India to be the third most powerful country in the world. The report based it's assessment on things like GDP, population, military spending, technology, etc. There must be more than a few happy faces in South Block this week, in spite of the other troubles that are currently plaguing the land--no, I'm not going to list them all, just read the newspaper.

Long time readers of the Dhaba will have little trouble inferring my opinion on the kind of 'power' apparently assessed by this report.  Yes, a country with a lot of people, a large military, and a large GDP can influence the world economy and politics. But power like that is worth little if we can't feed and house our people. Yes, our economy--as measured by GDP--is growing. But even GDP is a very limited indicator of national health, especially if you look at the numbers superficially.  (For a slightly deeper look, see our 'The world is not fair and GDP is stupid: GDP for nine year olds.') 

In the long term, I don't think the assumptions that this and many other studies rest on--that you can measure the strength of nations by their consumption of consumer and military goods--makes any sense at all.  Which leads me to the news, which came out earlier this year, that India is the 'greenest' country in the world.

Yes, it's true: for the second year running, India has come first among 17 countries in a comprehensive environmental assessment of consumer behavior carried out by National Geographic. The National Geographic "Greendex" is based on a survey of 17,000 consumers and looks at housing, transport, food, and goods.  Brazil ranked second, and China took third.  The US, not surprisingly, came in dead last, though they are, it seems showing some improvement.
In fact, it is easy to be a bit cynical about these results. After all, much of our sustainable behviour is due to things other than a conscious effort to be green.  Saloni Tandon, writing on Delhi Greens, put it nicely when she asked, "Are we helping to protect the environment by chance or by choice?" Nagraj Adve spelled things out even more bluntly in a guest post he wrote here at the Dhaba last year:
The report by the Committee on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganized Sector revealed that a jaw-dropping 836 million people in India consume less than INR 20 a day, of which 444 million ‘marginally poor’ people consume less than INR 15. Needless to say, at INR 15-20 a day one cannot contribute much to global warming, however hard one might try.
Fair enough.  Under-consumption by millions of poor people too poor to consume even basic necessities should never be celebrated. And Tandon makes a good point: "When we say that we Indians are less likely to install a home water heating system we forget to mention the fact that we hardly need it!"  
But need has never been a prerequisite for consumption.  A few years back, I overheard an American expat at a party complaining that the geyser in her bathroom hadn't been working for the past few days.  It was a sultry August evening, and someone finally asked why she had such an urgent need for hot water.  "But my AC is so strong, I can not stand to bathe in cold water!"

Yes, it is true, that some of India's "eco-friendly" behavior is based on poverty. But these days, more and more Americans seem eager to blame the world's environmental problems on China and India. It is important that people living in those countries be given every opportunity to understand what they are doing that is not working.  

And I do think it is important to celebrate the positive things we are already doing. If we try to follow a Western development model, we will fail, and likely we will destroy the world's environment in the process. We need to learn from both the old and the new; In fact, when you really get down to it, traditional ways of doing things are often more environmentally friendly than "high-tech" ways of doing things; and their superiority is not, in most cases, a result of "chance."  Traditional knowledge, like newer learning, is the product of human intelligence; traditional knowledge just has the added benefit of being time-tested!  That does not mean we should give up on science, just that we need to be thoughtful about adopting new, resource and technology intensive ways of solving problems; if you've got  a working clothesline, why would you need a solar cell powered clothes dryer?

That's why we spend so much time talking about low-tech examples of greentech, like matkas, ceiling fans, clothes lines, water coolers. For essays about these and other kinds of low-tech green, have a look at our special page, here.

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