Don’t worry world, I’m gonna catch you!
Don’t drink milk, don’t travel by air, switch off that AC, bathe from a bucket… Environmentalists tell us to change our lifestyles or else global warming will drown the planet. How practical are their suggestions in urban India? We lived green for a day to find out.entertainment Updated: Jan 09, 2010 19:20 IST
You want me to do this story?” I ask my boss, astonished. “To live green the way environmentalists say we should, so we can see whether all they preach is possible to achieve without actually moving to a cave in Madhya Pradesh, living by hunting and gathering? But I’m the wrong person to do this! I already live green.”
There is a sceptical silence at the other end of the line. Already live green? Okay then, I hear. Prove it.
Okay then, I say. I will. It won’t be difficult, I figure. I am already green because:
* I’d much rather read than do anything else, so shopping, partying, going to movies and so on are not frequent occasions in my life.
* I don’t particularly care how I look, so new clothes are purchased on a need-to-have basis, and worn till they’re worn through (then they become jharans). And since I don’t use cosmetics, colour my hair or have complicated hairstyles, that’s a large amount of packaging waste, chemical waste and electricity waste I do not inflict on the planet.
* I never leave the tap running while I clean my teeth, and when I shower, the tap is turned off while I soap, and only turned on for the rinse.
* Switching off lights, fans and so on when I don’t need them is a habit.
* Remembering how I grew up in the Kolkata of the ’70s, when electricity was in such short supply that for several years we had load-shedding that lasted 16-18 hours a day, I didn’t use the air-conditioner at home last year. After all, I had done everything a person needs to do without the electricity even for a fan, let alone an AC. So I would be unlikely to congeal if I didn’t use the AC now.
* While I do use a washing machine, which is an evil appliance in the world of environmentalists, I wash clothes only when I have a full load.
* I do not shop at energy-inefficient malls and supermarkets. Instead I keep the neighbourhood sabziwalla, phalwalla and bania in business.
* I always carry cloth bags for my shopping.
* I am terminally lazy, so I don’t have a car. Because even the thought of the paperwork, the insurance, the driving lessons, the search for a place to park, the need to give up beer or be jailed for drinking and driving and the necessity to know something about tyres exhausts me so much, that I’d rather use public transport or my own two feet.
I am SO green, in fact, that there is big shiny halo hovering above my head.
Just call me bigfoot
So you see, it isn’t difficult to live green. You just have to be antisocial, dysfunctional, boring, lazy, self-righteous, miserly, and me. However, since I’m in the process of buying a flat in Mumbai and while I love the Arabian Sea, I don’t actually want it in my bedroom, I’m taking this story seriously.
First, I read about global warming and ways to reduce, re-use and recycle the things that keep my life going. Next, I need to figure out the best way to live. I try in vain to contact environmentalists who only last week were pontificating on giving up everything so our grandchildren still have a planet to exist on, but this week seem to have vanished. Walking back from the climate change conference in Copenhagen? I wonder snidely. Then I buff my halo, smile smugly, and log on to a website called
to calculate my carbon footprint.
Ten minutes later, I am not smiling and my halo has turned black. My carbon footprint is 2.4 times the size of the average Indian’s, I have been informed. “Just what is the size of the average Indian’s carbon footprint?” I demand when I speak to environmental engineer and co-founder of the
site Vivek Gilani. It turns out the Indian average is about 1.6 (while the world average is 3.9) and it’s calculated keeping in mind the practically zero footprint of our very poor and the enormous footprint of our very rich.
My footprint is big because I take cabs. I am non-vegetarian. I make round trips by air at least once a year to visit my parents in Kolkata. And I use a shower for my baths, not a bucket.
doesn’t ask about the industry I work in and my lifestyle preferences, but I confess that I work for a newspaper – very paper intensive; my biggest passion in life is reading – very paper intensive; and while I am not into parties, I do eat and drink out often.
My halo has gone up in smoke.
As the bucket for my bath fills, I read reports that tell me that because of the bad monsoon last year, we have only a hundred-odd days of water left in Mumbai for our needs. I don’t know if 2009’s pathetic monsoon was the result of climate change, but I had better get used to bucket baths because some time in the near future, I may be lucky to get to do even that.
I have filled the bucket to the top – and am astounded to see that I need just half of it for my bath. Soap, rinse, splash and I’m clean and fresh – with just half a bucket? I am seriously impressed. The rest of the now soapy water, I decide, I’ll use for at least one flush.
Next, I head out intending – genuinely – to say thank you and bye-bye to my regular cabbie and take a bus to the station instead. But I can’t do it.
As I stand at the bus stop, smothered in the dust created by the two-year-long road concretisation project in my neighbourhood, I remember why I stopped taking trains for my great commute roughly two years ago. It was because every single road on the way to the station has been dug up for long-term projects. To get to the station took anything between 40 minutes to an hour, after which I’d need to wait for a train (about 10 minutes), travel to Mahim (about 20 minutes), and walk to the office (about 15 minutes). So I needed to factor about 90 minutes to two hours only to get to work. By cab however, I am usually at the office within 30 minutes.
It was also because the local trains are impossibly crowded. I used to love the trains. I still do – I think of them longingly because they give me the freedom of the city. Nothing seems far away. But the trains are a nightmare these days.
I cave. I step out of the bus shelter and return to the wide grin and open door of Yadavji and his cab. I cannot take a bus or train. At least, I’m not brave enough to do that today.
Nothing unofficial about it
I’m thinking about the ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’ philosophy of life at the office. There are many things I can do at home, but at the office, I have little or no control.
For instance, at this moment, I am frozen because the AC is on so high. Then, my office, like most offices, gets very little natural light and air, because the windows are only on the periphery. And this is a newspaper, so there is no 9-5 schedule. So lights and ACs get only a very brief rest. And there is an enormous carbon footprint because of the number of computers in use, the printers and the paper they use, the servers we function on, the amount of water used in the bathrooms and for drinking, the use of the coffee machine, and paper cups, the paper we print on and the inks we use... I feel ill.
“Should I lobby for laptops instead of desktops?” I think. The ‘Minimise’ page on the
website suggests they are better because they use less energy and, face it, are a boon for those thoughtless people who have yet to learn that, hello, it is no great strain to switch off a monitor – just extend your arm and index finger and jab.
But I quiver at the thought of suggesting that we junk all our machines and buy laptops instead. Somehow, I don’t think it will be welcomed with any warmth.
So what to do at the office? “Research has shown that Indians generally feel good at a temperature of 25 degrees, though ACs are usually set at 17-18 degrees. Suggest that the office ACs are never set lower than 25. The lower the temperature, the higher the energy used,” says Gilani.
This requires lobbying. If I truly want a smaller footprint, I’m going to have to become an activist.
This I can not do. I react very violently to people who tell me what to do and how to behave, and I cannot bear the idea of doing that to other people. Also, I am likely to have things thrown at me and I have a low threshold of pain. But if I want a decent supply of water at home and at work, I need to lobby for rainwater harvesting. If I want to return to my trains, I need to be tough on institutions that ignore the need for decent public transport. If I want a patch of green near my house, I need to keep a stern eye on my surroundings and make a fuss when I see encroachments. Essentially, if I want to act, first, I need to talk. A lot.
I just don’t have the personality to do that. So I return to work, thinking sadly that, at least on the way home, I must take a train.
I get a lift. Yippie. According to everything I’ve read, private transport is bad, but it isn’t so bad if it’s shared. So now I know how to continue taking cabs. I shall put up a notice on the building board, asking my neighbours to call if they’d like a lift.
I need to shop. Veggies. No problem. Except that I have to fight with the sabziwalla who reaches for my cloth bags with one hand and shovels my veggies into plastic bags with the other.
Fruit. That is a problem. Environmentalists tell us to buy locally and seasonally grown produce. But I don’t know which of the many kinds of apples at the stall is Indian, I don’t know if pears are in season, and I know for a fact that the papayas have been artificially ripened (and taste terrible). So I stick to bananas and guavas. They can’t have come from very far away, I think.
Across the road is the dairy. Milk and therefore milk products, I have learned, is bad. Cattle require huge inputs to maintain and also produce methane (a greenhouse gas that contributes greatly to global warming) from both ends.
I don’t drink milk. I don’t even need it for tea, which I have black because I like light teas that are destroyed if you add milk. But I do enjoy dahi – and I should stay away from that. And… err... milk goes into chocolate. And come to think of it, my tea is far from locally produced. Indian, yes, but from Darjeeling or Assam, both across the subcontinent, so can I really think of it as local?
I don’t like the way this day is shaping. I also don’t think that, if I had kids, I could do without milk. There are alternatives, I know. I could buy soya milk. Soya is a plant. But soya is a cash crop, and cash crops are terrible for biodiversity. So, if I had kids I’d buy milk. The planet would just have to take a hike.
Back home I defiantly make a cup of tea and sort out my purchases. Bag of rice. Bad. According to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, rice is terrible for global warming because its cultivation requires quantities of water; plus it releases vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Wheat is better – but I have a gluten problem and I cannot eat a lot of wheat.
In my bag, there is also a bag of atta, three kinds of dal, a packet of cooking oil, a packet of biscuits, a loaf of bread and a bottle of amla juice.
Having transferred all this into boxes and jars, I am appalled by the pile of packaging that remains. What am I to do with all of this? Can I re-use or recycle? Sure, I can sort my veggies into the rice and atta and dal packets before I put them in the fridge and re-use them till they wear out. But I can’t do that with all the packets, so now...?
Could I use them as garbage bags?
Yes, that seems reasonable. I sit back, exhausted. I don’t think I have physically done much to reduce my carbon footprint today, but I have thought long and hard about every single action I have taken and it is very tiring.
To live a properly green life, I need to know everything about everything – which would make me a bigger genius than Albert Einstein. At this moment however, I feel like Alfred E Neuman, the character from MAD comics, wondering, am I nuts? Can I really think so hard about every routine action I make every single day?
It’s about 9 pm and so far I haven’t even got to examining my cooking and eating habits (curd-rice – lethal, in terms of methane production; LPG – bad; microwave ovens – apparently good; toast made on the tava as opposed to toast made in the OTG – I don’t know). Or begun to wonder how I can con my boss into giving me longer leaves so I can make two-day-one-night railway journeys to Kolkata to visit my parents instead of 2.5-hour trips by air. I don’t know how to reduce my paper usage the way I have just figured how to reduce my plastics usage. I just cannot THINK any more.
But that is what a good environmentalist would have me do. “All we want you to do is think about the way you live and the little, easy ways you can change it,” says Vivek Gilani. “We’re not saying stop buying milk, stop doing everything, we’re just saying, look at your life, be aware of what you do and then see what you can or can’t do without.”
Anumita Roychowdhury, associate director of Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, says the same. “Live frugally,” she says. “We’re Indian, we’re famous for it, but we seem to have lost it.”
This is marvellously reassuring after all the finger-wagging self-righteousness I’ve unearthed in my quest to live a green life in a city. I sip my tea (no, I cannot give it up) and think, not bad actually. I’ve learned that a bucket bath is impressively water-saving. I’ve learned how I can take cabs and still be a good green girl. I’ve figured out how to manage at least some of the plastic in my life. I have had three massive revelations in a single day – and all of them are easy, do-able and sustainable.
My halo is back.