I recently attended a brilliant Hindustani music concert at a club. After the concert, we were served refreshments outside the hall — tea in disposable plastic cups. Surely, for a club that was elite enough to continue some of its ‘Days of the Raj’ practices, the lack of cutlery could not be an issue? But no one talked about it. Neither the club nor the patrons had any qualms in using the plastic cups and adding to our collective trash. It seems as though we have no idea how to avoid plastic or dispose of trash in the right manner.
This reminded me of an email I wrote to a reputed conservation organisation months ago. They had organised an online competition on ‘low carbon footprint’ and — oh, the irony — offered an iPhone as a prize to the winners. The email was to ask them if they truly believed that consuming less was indeed the best possible solution given our current knowledge levels, and, of course, if they saw the irony in the prize.
The research, conservation and photography communities, which cannot be mixed and may or may not have overlaps, possibly need to have a second look at their actions from this lens.
A friend asked me on Facebook if we consider the impact of travel, especially air travel, on our ecological footprint. Surprisingly, many justified it as a ‘positive’ action. How can anyone justify flying in and out repeatedly for conferences? Doesn’t going for a study tour, for example, leave its own ecological footprint? We cannot do without travel and its resulting ecological footprint, but can we at least be conscious of the issue, discuss it and look at our own actions critically? Are we overestimating the ‘good’ that we are supposedly doing? Will it help if we have a common currency to measure the impact either way? For example, taking up a camera-trapping project or attending a conference will leave an ecological footprint, but it will also have possible benefits. The point is, the benefits may or may not occur; the footprint will surely be left.
Have you ever come across the term ‘globe-trotting conservationist’ as a compliment on a ‘conservation’ website? Is it not an oxymoron in itself? I wonder if some of us fail to see the connections, or pretend that the connections do not exist, or actually believe that there are no connections. A staunch believer in the need to preach beyond the choir, I have come across people within the proverbial choir who refuse to attend conservation conferences in buses but demand cars instead or people in conservation not-for-profits who refuse to travel in ‘small’ cars. There are also climate change conferences that talk of waste disposal inside the meeting room as a major issue, but do not think twice before using disposable cups and bottles just outside the room.
But not all is gloomy; there have been positives too. In an annual conservation conference, some of us discussed the use of plastic cups, the need to provide bags or writing pads, and the addition of meat in meals. The organisers listened to us, deliberated on, and addressed the issues. There can be small beginnings. For instance, people can cycle to their offices instead of using cars, or offices can frame a policy to buy and eat only what is grown locally. For larger decisions, we must take additional efforts. Nothing comes for free, surely not a better future for earth.
On the other hand, people outside the choir have complimented me on carrying my own bag to the market. “You work on environmental issues, you should do this,” they say piously, as though we live on different planets. For those looking for numbers, Delhi alone generates a staggering 690 tonnes of plastic waste every day and land-starved Mumbai currently discards 11,000 metric tonnes of garbage everyday in three dump yards that together occupy more than 740 acres.
Coming back to the day of the lovely concert, I wonder why no patron raised the topic. Have they wondered how much trash they generate each day? About their ecological footprint?
Maybe we can make ecological footprints fashionable, the ‘in thing’, so that people feel happier to get their act together. Making environment a fashion statement might be the solution that finally works.
First published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine