One of the striking differences between the so-called developed and developing countries (or simply between the rich and the poor), is that the former seem to be overall much cleaner: no litter on the roadside, no shack-houses, and sanitary food and water is available everywhere. It is also the rich countries that usually top the rankings of the world’s cleanest or greenest places. And they have plenty of policies making sure that the levels of harmful emissions are under control and that damaging the natural environment is penalised. While any efforts to protect the planet are commendable, we should not be so quick as to applaud the developed world for their eco-jihad and put all the blame on the irresponsible poor. If you look deeper, it may turn out that the green claims of the rich are just a feel-good propaganda and a lullaby to the consciousness of the consumerist minds.
Some of the top countries on the list of the biggest polluters in terms of the carbon dioxide emissions are the US, China and India. The US government likes to point to the other two and use their lack of substantial effort to reduce the emissions as an excuse for their own inaction. But if we analyse where the emissions do come from it turns out that in America it’s the car-dependant lifestyle and the consumption patterns that are mostly to blame, with most of the CO2 emissions coming from the oil and meat industries, while in China and India the pollution comes chiefly from industrial sites producing goods for export. It’s also worth remembering that China and India are the two most populated countries in the world, so they consume vast amounts of fuels just for food production and transportation.
Yet the lifestyle of an average Indian citizen compared with the lifestyle of a typical American is much greener. Simply because India is a poor country, people living there can afford less, they spend less and use less and are much more careful about wasting things. There may not be fancy recycling schemes in India and you might see rubbish dumped on the side of the road, but some of the poorest citizens actually make their living by scavenging the dumpsites and recycling whatever is recyclable. The staple food of the poor does not come in tins and plastic wrappers, as is the case in the rich countries, and people living below the poverty line simply cannot afford most of the things we consider normal or essential. This is not to say that in America there are no people living in poverty; yet their poverty is on different level, they would probably not experience hunger or be forced into slave labour to the degree the poor of India would. And the average American lives surrounded by luxury, even though it is no longer seen as luxury by today’s standards: they travel everywhere by cars, they live in comfortable homes with electricity available at all times and plenty of electric devices making their lives easier; they have abundance of food and much of it processed and semi-processed. But this comfortable lifestyle needs lots of fuel: petrol for cars, commuting and transport of goods; fuel used in the production of food, energy needed to run the contemporary household and so on.
Allah (SWT) has created the world in perfect balance and made the Earth a source of sustenance for all of humankind. Wise use of the resources that are available and living a lifestyle in harmony with nature could keep the delicate balance and insure that everyone is provided for. After all, scientists agree that there is enough food being produced around the world to feed everyone. Poverty does not come from the lack of resources, but from its unequal distribution. The destruction of the natural environment is not a natural consequence of the boom in human population, but rather it is driven by excessive consumerist lifestyles, which are mostly prevalent in the rich West. It is the culture of materialism and consumerism that lead to the excessive exploitation of Earth’s natural resources and to the production of an over abundance of waste. The food waste produced annually by individual British households can be measured in hundreds of kilos and it has been found out that nearly half of the clothes purchased by the British population are never worn. If you venture into a European supermarket you will hardly find anything that comes without plastic wrappers; even fresh fruit and vegetables comes packed in the excessive amount of plastic foil, and often on a tray to make them look more attractive.
Few in the West are ready to take the plunge and just give up the packaging, going back to the good ol’ times when milk came in reusable glass bottle and bread in unwrapped loaves. The producers and the policy-makers, eager to keep the sales at stable levels and at the same time trying to convince their consumers that they can buy and still keep their eco-consciousness clean, come up with various solutions to the problem of waste, most famously – recycling. Yet is recycling really the answer to the problem? There is no doubt that recycling glass, tin, paper and plastic is better than throwing it into landfill, yet not all packaging can be recycled and not everything that is recyclable actually ends up in the recycling centre. The solution to the problem of litter and waste is to simply cut the waste, avoid any packaging and buy wisely, without excess.
The rich countries have more or less sorted their problem of waste, certainly their streets are clean and mostly litter-free and the landfills are pretty much out of sight, too. Yet the West’s solution to the problem of rubbish is a cause of the problem for many developing countries. How? Tons of toxic e-waste such as used and broken computers, TV sets, mobiles, fridges, etc. is exported to West Africa and Far East Asia, supposedly to be fixed and reused. Yet much of it is too damaged to be of any use and ends up either being dumped or dismantled in the homes of the poorest individuals on the Earth at the cost of their health for the sake of recyclable parts and metals. Few countries understand the scale of the problem, because no track is kept of all e-waste. However the European Environment Agency estimates between 250,000 tonnes and 1.3m tonnes of used electrical products are shipped out of the EU every year. “These goods may subsequently be processed in dangerous and inefficient conditions, harming the health of local people and damaging the environment,” says the European Environment Agency’s spokesman.
And what about the unwanted clothes that we put in the charity bags, trusting that by doing so we are helping the poor and getting rid of our guilt over excessive shopping? What actually happens is that the majority of donated clothing is sold to second-hand clothing merchants, who sort and bundle it in bales for resale, usually outside the country in which the clothing was originally donated. So once again, unwanted stuff/rubbish is exported to poorer countries. As Shannon Whitehead writes on her blog at medium.com, in Sub-Saharan Africa, where one-third of all globally donated clothes are sold, the used clothing business is undermining Africa’s own textiles and manufacturing industry. And for us “dumping” the unwanted clothing into countries on the other side of the world brings an unrealistic sense of security that we can continue to consume and throw away at unsustainable rates.
Most of the rich so-called developed countries would be able to produce a list of policies and social campaigns showing how much they are engaged in protecting the planet. But really, is it the planet they are caring for, or is it just their own little world? The rich world is exporting their pollution, by outsourcing the production of nearly everything to poor countries; they export their rubbish, even though they’d rather it was kept a secret; and they also export their destructive philosophy of materialism and consumerism, often renamed and packaged as ‘modernity’ to countries, in which people live in harsh conditions and yearn for change. Those people are made to believe that consuming goods, preferably Western produced (or rather Western labelled, Eastern produced), would bring them progress and betterment and so we see countries like India being industrialised at fast pace to keep up with the world standards, all at the cost of local environment. We are all responsible for the condition of the planet and for the wise management of the natural resources. And the more wealth we are blessed with, the bigger the responsibility.
Klaudia Khan is a Muslim writer who takes her responsibility as Earth’s steward seriously and hopes she can inspire others to do more green living. She lives with her husband and three daughters in the UK.