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Wednesday, 19 June, 2019, 16 : 47 PM [IST]

Overcoming Climate Change with Minimalism?

Ultimately, who is to be blamed for all that is happening with our topsy-turvy climatic pattern, unprecedented global warming, rising pollution, melting of ice-caps, rising tide levels, flash floods and high summer temperatures? In many cases the blame shifts to the poorest of the poor; be it underdeveloped countries or citizens living below the poverty line. Posturing on these lines has not changed too much and probably never will as it is well known that the feeble protests of the poor will be drowned by the grunts of the ‘refined’ upper class!

Close to a decade ago I visited a settlement bordering the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai with a group of dignitaries. Known as `Abbapada’, this settlement had no access to either water or electricity as it was claimed that the dwellers were the marginalised poor, immigrants from neighboring states and landless. Many of those living worked as rag-pickers. I began to wonder about the fruitfulness of my visit as I lay shell-shocked as I moved from door-to-door noticing the slums had nothing, but the bare minimum: a mattress to rest on, some cooking vessels and a shoddy cabinet. Bereft of electricity, the rooms were dark and damp.

I got into a conversation with the volunteer from an NGO who was trying to support this settlement and inquired whether it was correct to have these people living in shanties on the periphery of this city-forest in Mumbai. Weren’t they responsible for disrupting the balance of the eco-system and indirectly depriving the city of its meagre green cover and harming avian species? His reply had me flummoxed. He said that if these so-called disruptors were responsible for all the ills of our society, then so are the very people responsible for separating the wet garbage from the reusable garbage like paper, plastics, metal, etc. The so-called dry garbage was re-used after treating it in the best possible manner. In many ways he concluded the rag pickers were the guardians of the society by ensuring minimum wastage, maximum re-usage, resulting in conservation rather than being termed as disruptors of the environment. That they chose to settle on the outskirts was more because of the shortage of urban spaces and less to do with wanting to capture these precious ‘green spaces’. Chastised, it set me wondering and I have never forgotten this valuable input, especially during these times as we grapple with extraordinarily hot summer seasons in this bustling metropolis, Mumbai.

If you read between the lines these very group of people put the theory of minimalism to good use as did Mahatma Gandhi during his lifetime. A couple of years ago, I visited the city of Nagpur in early June when daytime temperatures exceed 40 degree Celsius. After completing my work, on a blistering Sunday morning, I boarded a State Transport Bus to Wardha about two hours driving time away and renowned for being the residence of the Mahatma for many years. On reaching, I located the campus, known to the outside world today as Wardha Ashram and entered the house where Gandhi lived. Devoid of electricity, naturally, there were no fans or air conditioning. Strangely the rooms were cool, the mud walls, high roofs and scientifically designed rooms ensured there was sufficient light as well as fresh air circulating during the day. Ofcourse, the sprawling trees encompassing huge spaces provided generous amounts of shade besides cooling the outside temperature. This is yet another great effort, I surmised at how minimalism could probably solve the challenge of global warming.

Satiated with this heart-warming experience I returned back to Nagpur where the gentle murmur of air-conditioning inside my hotel room made me conclude: I belong to the pampered lot and I am equally responsible for the predicament we find ourselves in.

The world we live in today is driven by the word ‘consumerism & materialism’. Speak a word against this and the mainstream would term you as being a misfit for society. In fact, today the economic growth of many countries is measured by the number of cars sold! Miss out on a target and the nation misses a heartbeat. To me and for a number of people who cannot afford cars or choose not to, simply walking by the side of these vehicles means local warming has just taken place from inside a rolled-up window.

As for public transportation, walking on footpaths to cover distances that’s meant for the poor, isn’t it? Quite naturally it’s the marginalised that bear the brunt of challenges caused by pollution and climate change. To mention a live example is the train journey ride from Mumbai to Goa where trains running on diesel pass through 55 tunnels some of which are up to a kilometre-long. While the journey itself is a feast for the eyes, and the entire structure an engineering marvel, the smoke that engulfs the non air-conditioned train compartments could make even the healthiest passengers choke on their breath. Remember in this ordinary class it is the ordinary passenger who travels.

Minimalism is the exact opposite of the more famous word `consumerism’ as it drives growth as well as the stock exchange. For an ordinary person who is sensitive to the changes taking place across the globe, it means buying and using items that are necessary and re-usable. It means leading a life of moderation, using public transportation where necessary.

There is an urgent need for adopting practical solutions that will help conservation. Some time ago I visited a hill station in South India, where we spent a couple of nights in a first-class resort.

Power cuts occur in towns and villages especially during the summer months. Each time the power switched off, there was a thud and the room shook as the hotel switched to power back up system entirely running on diesel. Talk of a sleepless night; this is the best example as the ‘thudding’ continued at least half a dozen times during the night. Next morning I spoke to the General Manager and gave him a piece of sound advice - as temperatures are generally pleasant all through the year, why not introduce windows that can be partially opened or maybe even windows with netting. At least there would be lesser need for the generator spewing out polluted smoke caused by the burning of diesel, thereby polluting the precious clean air of this pristine hill station.

To this there was no reply as hotel recognition norms advocate ‘sealed’ rooms with 24 hour air-conditioning. I am sure these laws will be modified soon. Yes, if we wish to fight climate change, we have to be prepared for some practical solutions and sacrifices from our end as well. As the world rolls on towards the series of potentially damaging disasters caused by the vagaries of climate change and our demeaning irrational behaviour, let’s for a moment stop blaming the deprived and the marginalised or have-nots for all the ills caused to our society. Let’s instead consume only what’s essential, believe the word ‘minimalism’ does exist and can play a strategic role in our lives.

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