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Environmentalism of the Poor vs. Environmentalism of the Rich

Climate change is making the world populations, particularly the poor, more vulnerable. Globally, we are failing to reduce emissions at the scale and pace needed. In this video, environmentalist and writer Sunita Narain talks about the environmentalism of the poor and shares ideas on how to reinvent growth that is affordable, sustainable, and inclusive.

Related Events: Environmentalism of the Poor vs. Environmentalism of the Rich


This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability and a generous investment by Julie Ann Wrigley, Wrigley lecture series. World renowned thinkers and problem solvers engage the community in dialogues to address sustainability challenges.


Sunita Narain: So thank you. Thank you, Rimjhim. Thank you for your hospitality, and thank you for persuading me to come all this distance. And thank you Lauren for all the warmth, and all the dinner, and showing me a little bit of Arizona. And thank you Gary for having me here. I am delighted to be with you today. And I thought what I would try and do is to share with you some of the ideas as we are developing them in India. The issues that concern us, some of the answers that we are looking for, and see how you respond to them. See how they make sense to you, or they just completely don't make sense to you. So I'm looking forward to some interaction as well on these ideas.

Firstly, as Rimjhim said, it's very strange. I'm an old environmentalist. I've been at this for many, many years. But what makes me feel very strange today that we are confronted with a situation where for once we know that we need to make drastic changes in the way we do business. We know that we need to live our lives differently. We need to grow our food differently. We need to build our homes and our cities very differently. And we know we need to make a transition to a world where we can have progress without pollution. We know all this. We know that we cannot keep living in a world that is based on mindless consumption, but actually believes in well-being of people.

But the question that we have today-- and that's what makes the so strange-- is we know all this. And yet, we are finding it so difficult to be able to move ahead. It's no longer about denial. It's really about our inability to take action and to make the transition at the scale and pace that is needed. And that's what's very important. We cannot anymore tinker around with small solutions and think that we've found the answers. We know that we need answers which are big, which will make us-- which will require us to push the envelope.

And really, this is really what we need to discuss-- how do we get there? Because the one thing that is absolutely certain is that the science is more and more certain, but the action is more and more uncertain. In the '90s, when we began negotiations on climate change, we really didn't know whether these predictions, the models that these fuddy duddy scientists were coming up with were actually going to come true. We didn't know that these models had any real sense in it. It was too far out in the future. And we were being asked to believe something which just seemed more probabilistic. Perhaps it will happen. Perhaps.

But today we know that those models are more or less coming true. We cannot say this anymore, that we don't know that science is now more certain. We cannot say that our world is not more vulnerable today than it was yesterday. We are beginning to see events around us. We are beginning to see the intensity of cyclones, more variable weather events, more extreme weather patterns. We can see that. We can see our weather changing. And remember, in our part of the world, this has huge impacts.

I say this constantly in India, that the finance minister of India is not this very respected gentleman who sits in his chair, Mr. Chidambaram. The finance minister of India is actually the monsoon. And I found it very interesting when I came here that you also have a monsoon. I didn't think monsoon existed anywhere else but India. But I don't know if it's your finance minister as well. I can tell you that the monsoon in India is our finance minister. Large numbers of people depend on the rain for growing crops. Increasing variability of rainfall makes life more uncertain. Increasing intensity of rainfall events, extreme rainfall events, devastates live.

And we know that with climate change, we will get more extreme rainfall events. We know we will get more rain, which is good news, partly. But we know that rain will come in shorter number of days, and smaller number of days, which means that you will see more intense rainfall, more extreme rainfall. And there is already beginning to happen. We can see the stress on water. We can see the stress on people's lives. Every year we get more and more variable events from heat, extreme heat to extreme cold to more floods because of more intense rainfall events. And now, increasing frequency of droughts.

And I think that really is what we have to understand is what climate change is about. We have to put the human face on climate change to understand that it's beginning to impact, it's beginning to make, it's being felt. And yet, we are not able to move ahead. And so what do we do? And this where I want to take you a little bit to India. I want to take you to explain how we are beginning to see that there are possibilities of new directions. We need to believe in them. We need to work them. We need to push them. But there are ways in which we could, perhaps, see that there is a different future possible.

So if you think of India, you will realize that at this moment, we are in a frenzied state of growth. There is no question about that. We are on the same path that all of you have been. And the fact is that there are no real role models for us to follow which are different. And so we know that this may not be right for us. But there is no other alternative. And so we continue to grow by intensifying the use of our resources and believing that someday, perhaps, we will also talk about sustainability in the way that you do.

But on the other hand, we are also realizing that there are key differences. And that is what gives me some sense of where the answers could possibly lie. Firstly, if you think today in India we are finding that there are a million pollution mutinies across the country. There are huge protests against pollution, against deforestation, the takeover of grazing lands, of fishing areas, of beaches. But these differently from where environmentalism has come from the rest of the world. These are not protests by middle-class environmentalists who are wanting to save the Earth. These are protests by the very poor. These are protests by people who know that they are not rich. That they are poor. And yet, they are fighting development-- development as you and I know it-- because they believed that development will only make them poorer.

So they know that the factories that we build, the power stations that come up will take away livelihoods. Will destroy life because of pollution. And to my mind, this very fact should force us to rethink what we mean by growth. The fact is that these million pollution mutinies are forcing us to rethink, and to force us to share growth in ways that we have never considered till now.

The Indian forests are where the minerals of India are found. The Indian forests are where the water systems of India come from. So if you take a map of India, it's an amazing cartographic exercise. That you could map out where the most important natural resources of India are. The forests of India, the water of India, and then the mineral wealth of India. And it's a match. But then, when you put on to it also the fact where the poor of India live, they also live in which are today the richest lands that we know of. And we also know that the only way we know how to do development is to extract resources, and to take away the resources. But we cannot replace those resources with the livelihoods that people are dependent on. And that's really where the big tussle for growth is coming today.

And because of these huge protests over the takeover of forests or the destruction of forests, because of local communities who are arguing for their right to life, their right to livelihood, their right to water, their right to their way of life, the Indian state will have to learn to do much more with much less. We will have to learn that land is limited. Water is limited. And that we will have to share within those limits. Within our constraints, we will have to share with larger numbers of people.

If you take water, it's a similar story. Water is very stressed, it's very scarce. And in India, as in many parts of the Western world where you moved with water-- so when people moved from rural areas to urban areas, water moved with you. In most of India, we will remain rural for a very long time to come. We will remain dependent on agriculture for a very long time to come. So there are people for whom water is livelihood. And yet we need increasingly water for our cities and for our industries. And so you're beginning to see a huge conflict between the current uses of water and the new uses of water.

On Monday, the day before I left, there was a huge incident where farmers broke into an energy companies office and vandalized it because they were angry about the water that was being taken away for a power station, water that was committed for irrigation. And I think that kind of conflict will grow more in India as a resource constraints grow.

But this is really where the difference between governments who believe that these constraints are limits. And for many of us, that there are opportunities. I think this is where the million pollution mutinies, the people who live within a biomass based subsistence economy, who know that their livelihoods come from land, come from water. And they know that the modern economy that is replacing this buyer must be a subsistence economy cannot provide them jobs-- cannot provide jobs for the unskilled, cannot provide jobs period. This is the modern economy-- is not known for its ability to provide well-being to very large numbers of people. And remember, we are a billion people.

And this is really the opportunity that we have to think about what could be a different tomorrow. The environmentalism of the poor-- and that's the environmentalism of the people who are going out there, fighting against pollution, against projects, against dams, not because, as I said, that they believe in the environment for tomorrow-- for saving the environment for tomorrow-- but because of their livelihoods. This environmentalism tells us that resources are limited, that we need to tread lightly or not. It tells us that there is an alternative way. We can build economies that benefit large numbers of people, that sustainably use water, share the water, and can sustainably use the land.

Think about the same state of Maharashtra I just talked about. One of the biggest issues in that state is the fact that they grow a crop-- sugarcane crop, which is a water guzzler in a water stressed area. But you cannot talk about it because it has very high political interest in sugarcane. Every second minister has a sugarcane co-operative factory.

But now with the drought, sugarcane is on the table. It is being discussed. The state will have to talk about how it can share water more equitably. It may not happen today but it will have to happen tomorrow. And you are beginning to see power companies that come up in Maharashtra today actually being asked that they will not get fresh water in the future, that they will have to take the sewage that comes out of urban areas, and then recycle it and reuse it for power because water is stressed.

So that constraint can become an opportunity. It can become an opportunity to reinvent. And that I think is where we need to look for some solutions.

I'll give you an example that I have been very deeply involved with in my own city of Delhi. In Delhi, about 15, 20 years ago, we suddenly woke up one day to find that we couldn't breathe anymore, that we couldn't see the stars anymore. We were choking on the pollution. It was just-- it was frightening to think about it.

And so for many years, we fought to clean up the air of Delhi. And in the-- and we suggested that instead of taking incremental steps to clean up pollution, we should look for a leapfrog answer. And the leapfrog answer that we found was moving the entire city transportation to compressed natural gas, to CNG. And the reason was that CNG essentially was much cleaner in its emissions.

And so instead of taking small steps and being able to catch up with the US, we could move to a different fuel and actually jump way ahead, and leapfrog to near emission standards of the US, when we were 20 years behind you. And that became a huge change that we could make in the city of Delhi. We moved the entire vehicle fleet, the bus fleet, the auto rickshaw fleet to CNG. And we got a huge difference in the quality of air.

And that really told us that this is perhaps the kind of solutions we need to look for, unlike the solutions that we have practiced for so long, and we continue to practice, which takes small and incremental steps but keep us always behind the problem. If you take the story of air pollution, something you would know much better than even us, in the '80s, none of us had heard the word RSPM, PM10, or any of these fancy things. We all grew up with the only pollutant that we knew of-- SBM, suspended particulate matter. It was all we cared about. It was all that pollution scientists worried about. It was all that health scientists told us was of source of worry.

And so we knew that there was suspended particulate matter in the air. We needed to clean it up. Governments came in. We invested in fuel quality. We invested in vehicle technology. We cleaned up our SBM.

But by the mid '90s, we discovered that as we had cleaned up the fuel and cleaned up our vehicle technology, the size of the particle actually reduced. So from going from a suspended particulate matter, which wouldn't enter through our noses, we suddenly discovered that we really needed to worry about this new danger, new toxin in the air, which was small enough for us to be able to inhale.

As I say in India, often, god never knew diesel when he made the human body. And he never thought about having a trap in our noses, which would be so small that even a diesel particulate, a small toxic diesel particulate, would not enter it.

And so we discovered this. Scientists discovered it. Health practitioners said the impact on our bodies was bad. And so again, policy kicked in. We cleaned up fuel. We cleaned up vehicle technology, and we thought we had licked the problem.

But no. Because as we raised the temperatures to burn the particulates to smaller sizes, we discovered that there was a new problem that we had-- one of NOx. And so now the vehicle technology invested in de-NOx catalysts and everything that you needed to do to get rid of NOx-- and all this while, as you were just about introducing de-NOx catalysts and thinking that you have clean air, you now know that the size of particulates is so small that it can go through your skin.

And all this while, we also know that transportation is one of the key causes of climate change. And yet we have created an incredible art of doing environmental management by doing good business. So we keep investing. We keep cleaning up. And we keep staying behind the problem.

But that way is expensive. That way is unaffordable. And that's really what we're learning. We cannot afford your way. Today in my city of Delhi-- to return to the good news story of CNG-- it's bad news again. The fact is that we saw stars. We thought we had clean air. And now our air quality is declining once again.

And it's declining because of the sheer numbers of vehicles that are on the road. We're imploding at the numbers of vehicles. And so we improved the vehicle technology. We improved the fuel quality. Let's say we improve it five times. But then we add five times more vehicles on the road. The result is zero.

And we don't have the governance systems, the money to invest, in cleaning up the backside of every car, of checking it, of doing all the rest of the paraphernalia that costs you in terms of regulations. We don't have that. So what we get is increasingly toxic air.

And yet this is where the possible solutions come. And yet unlike many other parts of the world, even today, when my city is congested it is polluted. Even today, only 13% to 15% of the people of my very rich city-- and Delhi is the richest city in India, second richest city in India-- only 13% to 15% actually drive a car.

40% of the people still take a bus. 15% of the people still walk because they are too poor to even take a bus. And this then gives you the possibility of reinvention. The fact is that with 15% of the people driving-- 13% to 15%-- taking up 90% of the road space, we don't have any space to be able to build more.

So where will we build for the remaining 80% of the people when they will get a car? But the option also is that people drive, people bicycle today, because they are poor. People walk today because they are poor. People take a bus today because they are poor. And the transition, the mental transition that we need, is that new mobility-- the reinvention of mobility-- that you would actually bicycle because you are rich. You would actually take a bus because you are rich.

And that is, to my mind, that incredible possibility of reinventing mobility that exists. So a few years ago, we went to court. And we actually got a court order that tells government today to plan our road spaces based on equity of use, which means that the largest user gets the largest share of the road space. And in India, this means buses should get the largest share of the road space, and then pedestrians, and then bicyclists, and then cars.

It's a very tough one. It's a very tough one to implement. And I am not making light of this. I saw your bicycle lanes and I did find them very weird because they were not quite where they should be. But regardless of that, I think you have a problem. I As I keep saying, we pushed for a bus rapid transit corridor in Delhi. And I said that was socialism on the roads because you have to take from cars and give to buses.

But remember, there are many parts of my own country where there are no cars having taken over the roads yet. So perhaps that's the option we have to be able to reinvent mobility and to be able to change the way those cities think about their future. But clearly, that again, as I say, is that environmentalism of the poor-- something that pushes the envelope.

And that really tells me that that constraint perhaps is an option also when we come to climate change. We have the same limits when it comes to climate change. We are faced with planetary limits. We are already stretching these to our peril. We know that, and I don't think we need to make light of that at all.

But the challenge in climate change is not just what we do to reduce emissions, which we have to, but how we will show a growth between people. We know that CO2 emissions, carbon dioxide emissions, are linked to economic growth. And we know that no country in the world has learned to de-link economic growth with carbon dioxide emissions-- not a single country.

And yet we know that if we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we will have to take drastic steps. And that really brings us to how do we do so. We need to accept the fact that some countries have overused their share of global commons. And that natural debts-- this is a natural debt, that a country has when you overdraw on the natural system. And like a financial debt, it needs to be paid.

If you look at the cumulative emissions of your country-- the United States-- between 1950 to 2000, 28% of the emissions in the atmosphere are from one country-- the US. India, 2%. Current emissions on a per capita basis, the US is 19 tons. And yes, I keep being told this-- that this is old hat, and that we cannot keep talking about equity and sharing when you are growing as well. But just understand the sheer enormity of the numbers. 19 tons per capita per year, as against 1.3 tons per capita per year.

And you have to understand that there is going to be something very drastic that will have to be done so that we can actually come to an agreement in which we can share this common atmospheric space. Because no country in the world is going to accept freezing iniquity. But that also means that climate change is about cooperation, because if you emitted yesterday we will emit tomorrow. There is no question about it.

So if our emissions have to come down and your emissions have to come down, then the only way we can do that is through an agreement which is based on fairness. And that has to be based on the agreement that says that there are constraints, there are limits. But we need to find ways to be able to maximize the opportunity those limits provide. And to me, the constraint is the fact that we cannot emit more. We need to set hard targets for countries like the United States to reduce. You cannot keep hiding behind China or India. You have to be able to take your targets and walk the tall.

And we need to build an agreement which is based on equity, which is based on entitlement, which forces China and India as well to reduce-- to take the same commitment to say that we share a world and that we will take commitments based on what is right and what is fair. And that has to be the way for the future.

But to do all this, I believe there are two major prerequisites. One, the understanding of what I keep calling this environmentalism of the poor. We need to understand that a little more and see if we can make some sense of it.

If I think about the choices you made two decades ago, they are the choices we are confronted with today. I am old at this, so I'm not sure how many of you will remember. But when we were just about getting into the environmental movement in India, and none of this really made sense for us because garbage and pollution wasn't quite our problems in those days. I remember this amazing song by-- I think it was Guthrie, which was garbage, garbage, garbage, garbage, it was Pete Seger-- one of them. But it was the sort of iconic song of that era, where you were drowning in garbage and your Hudson River was polluted. And you had huge challenges that growth was throwing up for you-- huge challenges of managing this extremely polluted environment that you were suddenly seeing in front of you.

Think about the London smog incident. Think about Hudson. Think about Minamata at that time. Think about just the kind of environmental problems that were confronting a generation two decades ago. You had choices to make. You made them.

And if you think about it, your problems-- your response to the problems of garbage, of toxic air, polluted air, polluted water, was that these were outcomes of wealth creation. And that what you really needed to do was to create more wealth, to be able to deal with those problems.

And so you constantly found solutions-- technology solutions-- to be able to deal with the problems that were emerging-- the environmental problems that were emerging. You had money to invest in cleaning. But because you didn't look for big solutions at that time, you remain behind the problem. And that really is what I illustrated in the case of air pollution. I can go on and on, talking about every environmental problem that the Western societies think that they have licked, but they haven't.

You just think that it has gone away. We all think it has gone away, but it hasn't until it re-emerges, because you find that there is a new toxin in the air. There is a new bug in the water. There is something in our food that shouldn't be there. And we are constantly learning to be able to invest more and more to be able to deal with the problem of pollution.

So your air may not be as black as ours, and your water may not be as polluted-- seemingly polluted as ours. But it is still-- we know that the toxins are still there. And the only way that you can keep ahead of the problem, or not even ahead, but you can think that the problem has gone away, is through money, technology, and finding a way to sort of sweep it under the carpet.

And that's really what I call the middle class environmentalism. I stopped calling it the Western environmentalist because I see that happening increasingly in my country as well. That is what I call middle class environmentalism.

So if you don't like plastic and we move to jute, we don't get rid of plastic totally. We just sort of somehow find a way to be able to manage the problem for the moment. And so in that sense, as I keep saying, my own community in India-- that we are garbage managers, nothing more than that.

But if you think about the environmental movement in India and how it began, it began from a very remote village far away in the Himalayas, where the women of a village culture called Rani actually stopped woodcutters from cutting the forests. And that was in some senses the beginning-- that was an environmental movement.

But because we didn't understand them, we interpreted that environmental movement as a movement of women stopping the woodcutters because they wanted the trees for conservation. But actually the women of Rani had nothing to do with conservation. What they were fighting for was the right over the tree. They were fighting-- it was a political movement, which was asking for the right for self-determination because they said the trees were most important for their livelihoods-- that that local economy was dependent on the forests. And they said they wanted the rights to manage the forest. They wanted the ability and the right to take the decision, even to cut the forest.

So it was a movement which was essentially asking and demanding that it is not about conservation alone. It is not about protecting trees alone. It is about changing the way we do development. But we didn't think about that. We, in India as well, lost track of those movements, until now they are re-emerging in the form of the million pollution mutinies that I spoke about.

So I think this is the model of environmentalism that we must seek. The middle class environmentalism does not go far enough in reinventing growth without pollution or progress with well-being. It will keep us behind the problem. And it will not work.

And I think combined with this-- and this is my last point-- is that we also need to understand that we can never deal with environmental challenges if we don't see the need for innovative ideas and technologies for the future.

Let me explain.

I come from a country where we are drowning in our own excreta because we just cannot get our pollution systems to work. But that's not because we don't want our pollution systems to work. It's also because those technologies for pollution control were developed for people when they were rich and they could afford it. But the technologies for sustainable development today are too unaffordable for vast numbers of people. And they will not work.

So what we need is a completely new generation thinking of those affordable and sustainable technologies. In our world, if you cannot make it affordable, it will not be sustainable. And that is very much part of what we need to do for the future.

And in that, some ideas of how to move ahead. One, we need to look for answers in the ways of the past-- in the knowledge of the very poor, in the unproductive systems that we have discounted for so long in the arrogance of modern science. If I think of my own country, I see today's cities that are growing very fast. And we are doing what you have done here, which is to bring water long distances. I understand you bring it from the Colorado River-- long distance to your city. Well, we are doing the same-- bringing long pipelines, pumping water, piping water long distances. It's leading, as I said earlier, to huge conflicts between the present users of water and the future users of water. Farmers say they will not give up the water. It is their lives.

And so the only way for cities today is to really think about growing, but growing without water. We need to think about how we can do rainwater harvesting, capture every drop of water that falls in our cities, recharge the ground water that is below our cities, through our lakes and tanks. We need to return the water by recycling and reusing every drop of it.

And so what we really need to think about doing is to reinvent the flush toilet-- that we don't destroy the nitrogen cycle, which if you think about it, the flush toilet is sort of the most mindless technology that could ever have been developed. You take a little bit of human excreta, which is actually good in terms of manure-- nitrogen phosphorus. We take a lot of clean water to first flush it, then you need lot more clean water to convey it. And then you treat it and you dump it back into clean water.

Whereas what you would actually think of doing, was to take the nitrogen cycle, and like the carbon cycle we need to think very carefully that we don't destruct it-- that that nitrogen cycle is about taking the human excreta and putting it back onto land. And that's really where that reinvention could come-- from the technologies of the past, which valued every drop of rain, to the technologies of the future, where you would reinvent an affordable membrane which could actually recycle and reuse every drop of waste and turn it back into water.

And that to my mind, would be some of the solutions that could indeed be part of that affordable, sustainable future. But if you want to do that, and if all of us want to do that, then we need to look for answers in nature. We, in some senses, need to understand the sheer art, the science, and the strength of nature.

You have to understand, I come from India where the monsoons play a very important role in our lives. As I said, I just discovered that you have monsoons here. So maybe this will not quite seem the same to you. But for us, monsoons are a very, very important part of our lives.

But if you think about it, just think about the art of nature in the monsoons. It takes such a small temperature difference to carry as much as 40,000 billion tons of water from the oceans, across millions of miles, and dump it as rainfall in India as the monsoons. But what we do is that we don't take the soft power of nature. We don't look at the soft power of nature. We look for concentrated energy sources, such as coal and oil, that have created enormous problems of air pollution, of global climate change.

But if we understood nature and nature's ways, we would actually shift to weaker sources of energy, like solar, or move to using rainfall, and not wait until it is concentrated in rivers and aquifers. And for us in India, we've been looking increasingly at seeing how would you make that decentralized water revolution work for a decentralized energy revolution-- where you have very large numbers of people who do not have access to grid base power.

But today the very notion of renewable energy, solar energy, has been that we provide solar energy for the poor to keep them poor. So we provide it as a transit to the solution. We don't believe in it as being the ultimate solution. So in most cases, if you talk about solar energy and distributed solar energy, you will find it's about giving away a few panels and a few light bulbs and telling people, use it, but don't get a television set, because if you do this system won't work on it-- which really means that you are keeping people-- you're making them believe that solar energy is only when they are poor, not when they're rich.

And yet if you believed in the way nature worked, and as I said the weaker sources of energy, then you would think about creating mini grids and micro-grids across the country, in which you could actually have a scalable workable model, in which solar energy could be the source of energy for the poorest people getting the most expensive source of energy. And that really could be the transition, the leapfrog that we are all looking for. But that again would demand us accepting the fact that in the environmentalism of the poor, it is the poor who have provided us the space to breathe. It is they, because they do not consume, that they have given us even the opportunity to sit here today.

So if there are any solutions that need to work, they need to work first in their world. It is their right to energy, it is their right to development that has to be secured. The question is how that right to energy and that right to development can be secured differently. And that is really where, to my mind the answers we'll learn.

So I think the answers are there for us to take. But they're difficult. But more than ever before, I believe that the time is here for us to take the future and make it the present. Thank you very much.


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