From the natural grasslands of Scotland to medieval Europe and North America, grass and lawns have a long history that coincides with industrialisation. Rapid industrialisation caused the growth of cities which were not emblems of beauty. To make cities beautiful, British estate grounds were reimagined as parks, which were later adopted into backyard or lawn designs in suburban development. Chronologically, the lawn mower (1830) seems to have preceded the lawn and park (1850): the lawn mower made the lawn possible, and what was earlier a luxury became a common landscape feature.
The point of synthesising this information is to share that often times our lifestyle choices and consumption habits are created by industry. Highways were not constructed because road trips and weekend getaways were needed for our wellbeing, neither were they built keeping in mind a rural citizen’s need for access to urban infrastructure, such as hospitals. Highways and city or municipal roads, in all likelihood, were built to help transport minerals from mining sites to factories, goods from factories to markets, and people from homes to workplaces.
We (customers and citizens) are not at the centre of this story—the story of development—industry and commerce is. Industrialised nations pride themselves to be developed countries, while the agrarian world is the underdeveloped or emerging component of this binary system. None want to be underdeveloped, therefore we are stuck in this pursuit of industrialisation. Perhaps, what needs to be revised is the definition of development or developed. An understandable, human view of a person who is developed is one who is mature emotionally and mentally, and is not a burden on those she relies on. She contributes positively, and is not self-absorbed, but is compassionate, caring, and inclusive.
If this is our perspective of developed or at least our starting point, then how did we fall for the economic definition that reduces development to industrialisation? That too industrialisation at scale, where to be efficient or successful we need to keep machines working at maximum capacity, stores need to sell all that is produced, and people need to keep buying to help stores sell inventory.
We are not merely consuming too much. We are producing too much, and therefore we are consuming too much, so please do not get tricked into taking complete responsibility for the problem, as a consumer. Be cognisant of the other positions that you occupy in this interconnected system.
Consider a small exercise of role play to test the contribution of the following stakeholders: Put yourself in the position of each stakeholder in the list, and use the suggested standpoint to see if you can turn around the situation illustrated below. Feel free to improvise and share your insights with the rest of us.
Situation: Each year, more than 100 billion garments are made (-for 7.9 billion people, of which at least a billion or more must be naked or semi-naked! 1.3 billion people live in multidimensional poverty – U.N Development Program)
Stakeholders with suggested standpoint.
1. Governments need to revise their view of development to include ecology and welfare.
2. Economists need to view their subject not as scientific but as conceptual/theoretical
3. Investors need to stop weighing all decisions against profit and include equity (none excluded) in their calculation
4. Engineers and designers need to consider lifespan, use, and reuse of resources
5. Producers need to limit size and capacity
6. Marketers and retailers need to reimagine their roles as providers of service (to society)
If we don’t produce to reuse, then we are the problem. Electric cars are needed to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, but to make them we need to mine copper, cobalt, and other material, and when the lithium-ion battery, a component of an electric car and our mobile phone, reaches the end of its life, our capacity and ability to recycle it displays its insufficiency (According to Greenpeace, more than 12m tons of lithium-ion batteries are expected to retire between now and 2030. What then?).
Roads are built, motorbikes are sold, cars are aspired for, gasoline is needed, greenhouse gases are emitted, waste is created, solutions are needed, investments are made, manufacturing is ramped up, perishable resources are extracted, more greenhouse gases are emitted—wow, that’s a circular economy!
I don’t mean to sound like a postmodern thinker, but really do we need solutions to an endless problem of production and consumption, or do we need a new way of thinking, living, and making?
Money is being invested in recycling innovation but it requires time, and time is what we no longer have: This is the deciding decade for climate change, we need to halve our emissions now, because the ones to be ravaged by its effects include millions of species threatened with extinction and a few billion of us.
The super-rich can build bunkers in New Zealand that are called survival shelters but for most of us the solution lies in choosing what and how much we consume, and thereby stepping out of the unsustainable, industrial cycle. If there were indicators to assess whether we will survive climate change then choice should get the highest weight. Let’s not hand over agency, and devalue our choice, or we will be like the Tesla Bot (a humanoid in development or not?), a new thrill or antic of a bored billionaire.
Voices for a green future and the children interviewed inspired me to reflect, reimagine, and come up with a wish list, which I have shared below. While using chocolate to run a car may be possible but not yet feasible, and were it to be, conditions to limit over-harvesting of cacao and clearing forest land for cocoa cultivation will surely need to factor in given our track record, we can take inspiration from these children to reimagine a “climate accord.”
Wish list for citizens and planners to consider and improve, in the run up to COP26, the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change to be held from October 31, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland:
- Let your cell phone batteries (lithium-ion battery) discharge fully before you recharge, the life of a battery is two to five years or 300 to 500 discharge and recharge cycles, whichever comes first. Read more.
- Stop the use of non-natural composites in packaging. Composites include more than one material, a man-made or natural component combined with a synthetic polymer. Packets of chips are an example: They are hard to recycle and their recycling releases harmful chemicals. The more we source locally, the less the need for long-life preservation.
- Build roads in conjunction with well planned public transport using electric-vehicles or 100% ethanol-fuelled vehicles. This will eliminate exhaust fumes and the number of batteries that need to be recycled or mined for, and urban roads will become joyful to walk or bike on.
- Ask and plan for better infrastructure in rural areas. Give villages access to all necessities at local facilities. Roads that enable villagers to travel to cities or towns are options only for those that have a personal vehicle or the money to hire one during an emergency. To enable someone is to respect their reality and help enhance it.
- Rethink and rebuild our education system: It cannot be that villages or rural settings in India or elsewhere lack youth who can be trained to become educators, engineers, healthcare professionals and more. To underestimate their intelligence, prepare them for a biased college and university setup, and not provide adequate training and support to harness skills is a systemic shortcoming. Skill development needs to look at local problems that rural youth can solve using their training, and not at how they can contribute to the required industrial workforce.
- Develop highways that carry not trucks or cars but have integrated electric or ethanol-fuelled tram systems to carry produce and people, encouraging relationships through shared journeys, and cultural exchange through food and small scale goods. I like the idea of a zip line suggested by a child to the COP26 President. Maybe this is technology that we need to invest in to improve interstate travel.
- Redefine renewable sources of energy to include reusable technology. Not so far in the future, photovoltaic cells used in solar panels will add to the growing toxic trash that lithium-ion batteries are contributing to. We need more investment in reusable and circular design and technology, with cleaner ways to disintegrate and decompose.