When I first arrived at New York’s JFK airport in 1996, I was immediately struck by the hundreds of cars plying the airport’s many encircling highways. I was born in the small town of Pali in Rajasthan and had lived most of my life in India. I had prepared myself for a cultural shock, and the first one was environmental. I asked my friend Ajay who had come to pick me up, how so many cars could be sustained through the world’s current fuel crisis. Having arrived in the US just months before me, Ajay proudly declared, “Oh, this is America! They can run their cars on water if they have to, don’t worry!”
Such was the faith of many in America, whose daily lives rely on modern science and technological aids such as cars or cell phones. With impending environmental issues looming large over humankind, I wonder if this faith is weakening now, just 18 years after my first American encounter. Last month, after my latest visit to New York, I posted this on my Facebook: “First thought whenever I reach New York City: ‘How will all this sustain itself?’ First thought whenever I reach India: ‘How has all this sustained itself?’ ”
Immediately, my comment was challenged, and what ensued was my defense of India and its long-standing sustainability, versus the United States’, which towers at the other extreme. I started by comparing India’s meat consumption to the US, UK, China, Brazil and others. India remains the foremost vegetarian country in the world. Even after the globalization of modern Western ways, Indians have successfully preserved the vegetarian habits that were laid down by their dharmic traditions several millennia ago. The typical Indian diet still consists mainly of rice, wheat, beans and vegetables. Even most non-vegetarians depend on vegetarian food as the chief components of their diet, consuming egg, meat and fish only occasionally.
In a ground-breaking 2006 report, the United Nations said that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization official Henning Steinfeld reported that the meat industry is “one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.” But even after Western media reported this connection of meat eating with global warming, many of the issue’s leading politicians failed to take any action to change the habits of meat consumption in Western society.
Such clear evidence has seemingly been ignored by Western society in general. For example, in April, 2007, a leading New York Times columnist rejected any changes needed in the Western lifestyle, while demanding “greener” initiatives from the US government.
This Western dichotomy—expecting environmental initiatives from government and businesses while failing to acknowledge a need for change in our personal lifestyles—was the concluding subject of Ramachandra Guha’s book, How Much Should a Person Consume? Guha observes that Western society comprises only 20 percent of the world’s population but consumes about 80 percent of global production. The other 80 percent of humanity gets the remaining 20 percent.
Guha agrees with conservationist Ashish Kothari and criticizes the hypocrisy of the developed world. He explains that it is the allegedly civilized who have decimated forests and the wildlife which had previously sustained both tiger and tribal. With rifles and a quest for trophies, they have hunted wild species to extinction; now they disguise themselves as conservationists and complain that tribal groups are getting in the way. The real population problem is in America, where the birth of one child has the same impact on the global environment as the birth of about 70 Indonesian children.
Due to the dharmic traditions inspired by history’s gurus and sages, Indian society successfully moved away from the animal sacrifices and killings prevalent in its ancient past, adopting lifestyles based largely on vegetarianism. But most scholars ignore vegetarianism, though it is one of the most important dharmic lessons inspired by Indic tradition and one that could positively impact an array of threatening global issues.
In the 1990s India began to embrace the Western capitalist economic model, and today India is fast transcending its once slow rate of economic growth. Until this Western market invasion, the so-called “Hindu rate of growth” might have been both the result and the reason for limited Indian spending for consumer goods. A 2001 article by Professor Ann Gold of Syracuse University, NY, shows that consumption is severely constrained and morally limited by the traditional Hindu ideals of self-restraint such as fasting, detachment from material goods, eating only what is appropriate, etc.
Four consecutive Greendex Sustainability Surveys, conducted by National Geographic magazine in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2012, show India continuing to rank first in sustainability, with the US hovering near the bottom. The survey compares major parameters of a country’s housing, transportation and food. In all these areas, Indian habits were the most sustainable. Many Indian houses continue to avoid or lack air-conditioning, heating and 24/7 hot water, and the dwelling sizes are much smaller. India’s average use of personal cars continues to be less than in other major countries, and Indians still prefer public transport for their daily commutes to work or school. Indian consumption of locally produced food remains high, while consumption of bottled water, meat and seafood continues to be less than in other countries.
Westerners who are sincerely interested in sustainable living would do well to follow India’s ageless example.
~ Pankaj Jain, PH.D, is Assistant Professor of Hinduism, Jainism and Ecology at the University of North Texas.