Rejecting the Power to Waste

SINGAPORE – Our ancestors preached it. Our parents taught it to us. The West is adopting it. So why are we Asians abandoning it?

I’m talking about environmental consciousness. Conserving water. Switching off a TV that no one is watching. Calling the municipality to get a recycling bin in the building. Not flushing the toilet at night (that one always raises eyebrows).

Growing up in India in the 1980’s, our lifestyle was very different from today’s. There was hardly any waste generated in a typical household. Everything was used and reused until it fell apart.

We traveled in trains. We were reprimanded for wasting food. When my parents visited the United States for the first time, I didn’t hear the end of their shock at the excess they saw – from the wastage of paper napkins and plastic cutlery at fast-food restaurants to the average household’s usage of cars and electricity.

At the time, as a young Indian recently relocated to the West, I didn’t want to be associated with stodgy parents who patiently folded used wrapping paper and stored it under their mattress. But now a renaissance of their mindset is taking place, as climate change becomes common knowledge. The wisdom of my parents’ generation speaks to me again.

Losing touch with that wisdom was, perhaps, understandable. As India’s economic boom has transformed it from a global laggard into one of the world’s key emerging powers, the new generation of Indians finally arrived – in business, science, and politics. Indian diasporas in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Southeast Asia are among the richest communities in these countries. We don’t want to reuse paper bags anymore. We don’t even want to be seen conserving. We now have the power to waste, and we want to flaunt it.

The same change in mindset can be seen in other emerging Asian economies. Conservation is regarded as a sign of weakness in this era of rising economic wealth. The desire to claim one’s rightful place under the sun – to share the planet equally – is a driving force throughout the region, from Southeast Asia to Korea and China. Why should we conserve? The West was responsible for all the pollution and waste in the first place. It is our turn now to ruin the planet, and no one should try to stop us.

Unfortunately while we are queuing up for our BMWs, the rules of the game changed. The new lifestyle is no longer sustainable. It’s the end of the road for gas-guzzling cars, glass apartments that need constant air conditioning, water-thirsty washing machines, and wasteful packaging. By 2050, Earth’s population will be more than nine billion, and more than two-thirds will live in urban areas. We cannot survive the lifestyle that we desire.

There is an opportunity here for leadership. Infosys is redesigning every aspect of how it provides lighting, cooling, water, and transportation to their more than 100,000 employees, and aiming to reduce costs ten-fold in the process. The Indian army is using solar steam cooking in Ladakh to cook for the 500 jawans (young army recruits) stationed there, and so is the Shirdi Sai Baba temple in Maharashtra.

Elsewhere, prisons in Rwanda are using their 30,000 inmates’ sewage to provide biogas for cooking and compost for growing vegetables. Sunlabob, a private company in Laos, is renting solar lanterns to poor villagers, who find them more affordable than candles. The UAE is spending a chunk of its oil money to develop Masdar, the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste city. Singapore is using Newater, a treated form of wastewater that is potable. And British schools now include sustainability as a key part of the curriculum.

But some are falling behind in this thinking, namely well-to-do Asian households – and some Asian governments. Just five years from now, developing countries are projected to emit more greenhouse gases than all developed countries. We can either shrug our shoulders, or we can use the opportunity to revive our old values, rethink how we live, and change that projection.

Whether it is through low-energy housing, planting trees, teaching children to respect the environment, boycotting incandescent lightbulbs, or wrapping gifts in old newspapers, we have the opportunity to lead by example. Governments, too, should collaborate with their developing-country counterparts to provide much-needed leadership in the climate-change debate.

Asia must leapfrog the unsustainable stage of development. We already have a deep-rooted tradition of conservation. Reclaiming it would make Asians trendsetters, and make the Asian way of life an example for others to follow.