Different communities influence environmental problems and experiences its impacts differently.
This was the premise I proposed as I sat down to speak with a bright group of students of Daulat Ram College, Delhi University. These students, part of a club called Politics on Toast, take different socio-political issues of the day and discuss it among themselves and had invited me to discuss environmental issues with them.
Over two hours, we took apart this premise by discussing how a community’s location (urban/rural) and their economic status (low, middle and high income) determines their relationship with the environment. We specifically discussed two questions:
- How do their habits and aspirations contribute to environmental degradation?
- How are they impacted by the fallout?
- If these are so different, should we be devising different environment management strategies for each type of community?
In this series of three posts, I will share what came out of these discussions.
How do different communities contribute to environmental degradation?
It is widely held that the lifestyles of the richest 10% of the global population contribute almost 50% of the carbon emissions that drive climate change. Similarly, I’d wager that their impact on larger environmental issues like pollution, resource extraction, and land degradation are also far greater than the rest of the population.
Lifestyles vastly differ in different communities in India. On one end of the spectrum, we have the urban high-income groups that live lifestyles quite similar to the high-income groups of the West. On the other end of the spectrum, we have rural low-income groups that sometimes live with atrociously frugal lifestyles that try to make the best of their already difficult environmental and social conditions.
This is what the students felt about this relationship…
Urban low-income communities
Often living in slums, these communities get a poor deal in terms of access to safe environmental conditions. With poor water supply and little to no sanitation facilities, they are forced to use local sources of water that may be polluted already. The lack of these amenities leads them to very unhealthy practices that can create fertile grounds for several diseases.
However, these communities have a low-impact in terms of “size”. Fewer amenities and frugal lifestyles leave little of a footprint in their wake. In fact, these communities are extremely resource-efficient, making use of whatever they can find. From using an old, discarded tire as a toy to zapping discarded ropes along tree branches to dry clothes, these communities are extremely resource-efficient. They often recycle and reuse waste discarded by middle- and high-income groups, and provide a great service through an informal circular economy.
They also are the greatest users of public transport, contributing to lower carbon emissions and air pollution.
The aspirational ones: Urban middle-income communities
Lower-middle income and middle-income communities aspire to “better” lifestyles, which has a greater environmental impact. For example, the family that uses public transport wants to own a vehicle, the one that owns a two-wheeler wants a four-wheeler, and the one that owns a four-wheeler wants a bigger four-wheeler!
Several of their decisions to “escape” poor environmental conditions may also negatively impact the environment. For example, the need to escape the urban heat island effect may prompt these communities to buy ACs instead of insulating their homes better, as it is also a sign of social status and a better lifestyle.
On the whole, however, this is the community that epitomizes India’s jugaadu culture—they make the most of what they have in ingenious ways. As a result, they find ways to adopt circular lifestyle principles that positively impact the environment. For example, A4 papers printed only on one side may be converted into a booklet that kids use as a notebook.
Urban high-income communities
As mentioned, this community has a high-impact lifestyle. From owning several vehicles, to living in large houses, to buying new things rather than reusing old things, almost every activity is resource intensive. We understand this: they have worked to gain the lifestyle they are living, where they do not have to cut corners.
This is also the community that is most sensitive to environmental issues. With access to internet through several devices from a young age, members of this community are acutely aware of environmental problems even if they are physically removed from the locations where they occur. Encouragingly, several members of this community also take responsibility and use their position in society to push for change. High-income communities are likely to have rainwater harvesting systems, solar panels on rooftops, create large green spaces in their neighborhood, and demand for clean amenities. You also see members of this community extremely conscious about the food they eat and the water they drink. Some of them, more acutely aware of their ability to help others, take to donating their still-good items to people they know in not-so-good neighborhoods, promoting circular lifestyles.
Rural low-income communities
These communities live closest to nature and intricately depend on them for survival and or livelihoods. As a result, they may even view nature through a religious lens. This has several positive ripples: better conservation and less political/economic interference to extract resources.
Several communities that fall under this group in India often live in areas of abundant natural resources. Thus, they may take them for granted and are unlikely to be very “efficient” in their use. They are also likely to stick to “traditional” practices and resist changes.
The reverse is also true. These communities may be deprived of several necessities, like clean drinking water and nutritious food. In such situations, they face several hardships, but none of these have any “negative” impact on the environment. In fact, taking steps to give them access to water for drinking, irrigation, or increasing tree cover in their neighbourhoods are only going to create positive changes.
Rural middle-income communities
These groups also have a strong spiritual connection with nature. I have noticed this along the Narmada river, where everyone refers to the river as Maa Narmada or Narmada ji with reverence. Because of this, people take individual responsibility in how they interact with nature. You will rarely find people throwing plastic wrappers into the Narmada river.
These groups are also likely to be flippant about their natural resources use, if it is abundant. Again, I see this in villages along the Narmada river. People pump water to their fields with abandon, because the river has sufficient water for their uses.
Like their urban counterparts, this group is also aspirational. Therefore, they wouldn’t want to change their practices for the sake of efficiency or environmental friendliness. What motivates them is what the “rich” people are doing and are more likely to follow suit. This is can create positive environmental change if high-income communities can be influenced to change what they consider cool or good.
Rural high-income communities
These communities are more modernized, and as a result may not have as much of a strong spiritual connection with nature as the other rural communities. However, they have the financial bandwidth and the entrepreneurial streak to adopt more efficient practices, like using solar electricity, drip-irrigation in their fields, or living in low-carbon houses. As people in positions of power, they can also influence positive change (or propagate negative change) in their communities.
This is by no means an exhaustive review of how different communities impact the environment, just what we managed to discuss in 45 minutes. The perspectives were varied and fresh and definitely insightful. Do you have more to add to this discussion? I’m curious to hear your thoughts in the comments!
Stay tuned for the next post, where I will share what we discussed about the second discussion question: How are different communities impacted by environmental problems and climate impacts?