When George Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, he claimed that the treaty was flawed, that it required developed countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, letting developing countries like China and India off the hook. The argument was that the U.S. creates more wealth, and should be allowed to pollute more. Bush vowed that he would not let the American lifestyle be compromised.
Twenty years ago, when I immigrated to these shores, I adopted this lifestyle enthusiastically. What was there to not like about it? I had no complaints about the central heating, air-conditioning, or hot showers. I switched to toilet paper without a second thought. My refrigerator stocked with attractively packaged processed foods, I felt superior about my ability to cook dinner in 30 minutes flat. Efficiency reigned supreme, and time was the most valuable commodity.
Before long, I had become another one of the 290 million Americans who, on average, consume 25 times as much of the world’s resources as the rest of the world.
The world is more connected now, and dreams and aspirations, packaged in movies and television shows, travel instantaneously across continents. The burgeoning middle class in India has aspirations for similar amenities and luxuries. I see growing evidence on every trip to India. Families shopping for their second or third car; air-conditioned homes, shopping centers, and cars; department stores displaying housewares, clothing, and electronic goods from around the world; paper napkins, paper plates, plastic cups, and the ubiquitous plastic bag.
This spurt of consumerism in India is putting tremendous strain on the nation’s natural resources and the environment. Where’s the energy to come from? The food? The water?
The massive Narmada Valley Project, pitting the demands of urban consumers against the homes and livelihood of tribals and small farmers who subsist in the Narmada river valley, is an example of the desperate competition for resources. At a recent talk in Stanford University, social activist Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, when asked how Americans can help, urged us to “change your lifestyle.”
We can’t continue our wasteful and excessive habits, and expect the rest of the world to not aspire to the luxuries we take for granted. For many years now, like many concerned Americans, my partner Arvind and I have been evaluating and simplifying our choices. Adopting the American lifestyle was easy; it’s the undoing that is a slow, thoughtful, and rewarding process.