Case for simpler living

By Anwar Syed


WE have all heard of environmental degradation. The ozone layer of the earth’s upper atmosphere is becoming thinner and there is the danger that one day it may develop a hole, which will admit radiation and other influences from the outer space hazardous to life on this planet.

Living styles in industrialised societies, fast spreading to the developing world, release forces that are bringing about climate change.

Global temperature, water level and temperature in the seas around us are increasing. If these trends continue, several countries will one day go under water and some others will become a desert. During the last few years we have already seen a tsunami and several other horrible storms that have killed hundreds of thousands of people and devastated their lands.

The main culprits here are carbon dioxide and other gases emitted by engines that use fossil fuels, particularly oil and coal. With the spread of modern technology and industry to the Third World, more countries than ever before are throwing pollutants into the environment.

The more sobering news is that human and animal waste (fecal matter), which emits methane gas, is also a pollutant. A few weeks ago I heard a famous demographer argue that the earth cannot sustain its present population (6.5bn or so) in reasonable comfort, and that it should be brought down to, and stabilised at, the optimum level of less than three billion. I have also heard the argument that we should all turn vegetarian and stop raising cattle for slaughter (to have meat) if animal population is to be controlled.

As noted above, our living styles produce the forces that cause environmental degradation. They need not be changed if alternative sources of energy—such as sun, wind, hydro—are developed and made operational to the point where they can replace the fossil fuels. There is much talk of these avenues but not much is being done anywhere to open them. The day we are no longer dependent on fossil fuels to run our factories does not belong to the foreseeable future. Until then something else will have to be done. What might that be?

The automobile is both a wonderful gift of modern technology to man and a curse in that it is just about the worst corruptor of the environment. It gives its owner the advantage of speed and a sense of power and command. But it has also brought about some unwholesome developments.

It has, for instance, dramatically changed social organisation by enabling people to live long distances away from their places of work. The wealthy have moved away from neighbourhoods where they had lived for generations, where they lived side by side , and in contact, with the less prosperous people. They now live in suburbs next to their own kind. The automobile has deepened class divisions.

Far too many people own automobiles. City streets in many countries, including Pakistan, swarm with them, making the traffic exasperatingly slow. They are all emitting gases which make the air that people breathe hazardous for health. Yet, I see no signs of the owners’ willingness to give up their cars.

A few months ago, when the price of petrol nearly doubled in America, the number of cars on the highways declined substantially, and folks turned to buses and trains. Bicycles were sold out and buyers had to wait in line. But this may have been a passing phase. At this point, about 10 per cent of the American commuters are said to have opted for public transportation on an ongoing basis.

If and when the realisation dawns upon the generality of the people that the privately owned automobile poses unacceptable dangers to human wellbeing, and they are persuaded to let go of it, what can they have instead?

I remember that in my younger days folks walked from their own neighbourhood to another to meet friends and relatives. Walking a couple of miles each way was no big deal. For more distant places they walked to a tonga or bus stand and got a seat on one of them.

Those who owned bicycles rode them. Countless students, teachers, and professionals rode bicycles to their colleges and places of work. A five-mile bicycle ride each way was nothing unusual. There may have been two or three persons in my native town (until about the early 1940s) who owned cars. Life was nevertheless pleasant and comfortable for most of us.

It may be said that now is now and the old days are gone beyond recall. Let me mention a more recent observation. About 10 years ago I stayed with a friend in a residential district of Cambridge (England) for a few days. Going out to town, we walked 50 paces to a street corner where a bus came every 15 minutes or so and we took it. I saw many buses but very few cars on the streets of Cambridge. I also saw many bicycles.

The individually owned car should then be the first to go, but that can happen only if state and society will provide inclusive and reasonably comfortable public transport systems. What else can we give up? One might go with Mahatma Gandhi who visualised India as a country of self-sufficient, neat little villages where residents grew their food, wove fabrics and stitched their own clothes. He wanted to take India back to the pre-industrial age. This vision, though charming, has not had many takers in India or anywhere else.

Modern industry pollutes the environment, but we cannot turn away from it entirely. We may, however, be able to reduce our dependence on it. Let us, for instance, eat fruits and vegetables that are in season and give up canned food and items that come from the cold storage regardless of the time of year.

Beyond that I don’t know what to suggest. If I were the one making choices, I would take only products needed for keeping one’s body in good health and moderate comfort and those needed for the improvement of one’s mind. But I have no quarrel with those who, instead of spending their money on books, want to spend it for running hot water in the hard winter months and air conditioning during the hot weather (for spaces in actual use). The guide in all of this must be that we make living simpler as much as possible to minimise discharges that will spoil the good earth.

The writer is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts

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