Friends frequently bring me gifts from recycled products. I find this sweet as well as disturbing. It is nice that they think about what their environmentalist friend is likely to appreciate. But it is worrisome that unnecessary consumption is becoming acceptable as long as it's bathed in green. This is a trend we should re-consider, if environmental destruction bothers us.
The most obvious examples of urban feel-good follies are hand-recycled paper or goods made from reused plastics. For those not in the know, waste paper is a valuable commodity for India's paper mills. Since many of them don't get enough supply, they import waste paper from as far as Boston. The paper they produce finally is clearly recycled stuff but not marketed as a green product.
Most sweet boxes, dull white cartons - the kind bakeries pack cakes in - are also made of recycled paper. Yet, successive projects centred on waste, including those by the government, invest in hand-made paper recycling plants, ostensibly to save precious resources. Production of these uneven thick sheets does not create significant employment for the poor (as compared to the mills) nor can they be used in printers or any mainstream work. It is the users who end up feeling that they've acted in an environmentally responsible way. Plastic products have a different problem, because converting plastics into attractive products diminishes the possibility of reducing these further and of holding the manufacturers responsible for the trash their products have generated.
Waste is only one example. Across India, forests and wetlands are rapidly diminishing thanks to poor policy, illegal extraction and rapid expansion of building activities. Planting a sapling is less than tokenism. If the planter is not a part of the movements to save forests and bio-diversity, directly or through other forms of support, they are not likely to have an impact. Similarly, tigers cannot be saved through television-based campaigns and text messages. The tiger needs space, which is diminishing with urbanisation. Our energy needs are expanding, which will only lead to more power plants outside protected areas like Tadoba, Maharashtra. The market for wilderness tourism has also exploded, resulting in noisy colonies on the peripheries of vulnerable habitats.
The key problem is excessive consumption; the solution, consuming less and equitably. This includes products, food and travel. The environment cannot support today's middle-class consumption patterns, and the decline in the tiger population and other species of fauna, deforestation, increased pollution and climate change are a testament to that fact.
On World Environment Day today, those living above the poverty line must make it a point to consume less of everything and make certain sacrifices for the planet. This includes not having 24x7 access to water, enduring planned power outages and bearing with other inconveniences. But powerful interests are predatory and texting, signing petitions, and writing is far from enough.
There is no option but to move, and to act. This means organising people, holding meetings, keeping oneself informed and taking concrete action that directly supports change. It is also important to support ongoing movements through volunteering in one's own city and building momentum. There is no time now for smug consumers indulging in armchair environmentalism.
Bharati Chaturvedi is director, Chintan, a non-profit organisation working on green issues in Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal