Lessons from not so long ago

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Even in the frugal India of the 1970s, where the idea of waste bordered on the criminal, I thought my grandfather was being excessively old-fashioned when he refused to use our indoor water-heater to take a hot bath in the cooler months.

Lessons from not so long ago
Photo © Cammeraydave | Dreamstime.com
Although we could quite easily afford our modest electricity bills, he would insist on staggering outside with a bucket of water and leaving it to grow warm in the afternoon sunshine for a few hours. Then he would struggle back indoors with it, and, presently, emerge from his bath to take his evening walk down to the railway station to watch the trains go by. My granddad was eighty years old at the time: a man of many interests, but very few needs.

Was it really just three decades ago that my granddad’s carbon footprint was barely visible? Today, as part of my job at the World Bank, I’ve been following climate issues closely, and am often struck by the difference between life in a big western city in the 21st century and in the small-town India in which I grew up. In my world today, many people are beginning to adopt “ carbon fasts” during the Christian period of Lent, agreeing to a daily low-carbon action, say, unscrewing a light bulb and doing without it for 40 days. But in the small-town India of my childhood, my grandfather wouldn’t have installed—much less used—an electric light, unless he really needed it to begin with. 

In those days, intense consumption was seen as clearly wrong because there were daily reminders everywhere of great poverty. We were taught to never waste anything, because just a street away, people were living by the light of a dried-dung fire, and eating barely one meal a day. Many of those people lived through the entire 20th century without having bought a single light bulb. But as Indian cities grew richer, something changed. In the exuberance of being able to earn high wages seemingly overnight, my generation started to behave differently. Before we knew it, we were buying bigger cars, pushing overloaded shopping carts, and, in our knee-jerk reaction to new-found wealth, losing the old ways that had been passed down for centuries. Having moved away from India, I lost these ways even faster, and, ironically, learned fashionable new words like “recycling” as if I hadn’t in fact been watching my family do just that throughout my childhood.

The swiftness with which we establish psychological distance from the memory of deprivation or frugality and take to luxurious lifestyles—just because we can—might be part of the problem when it comes the global issue of climate change. Entire societies have forgotten what it was like to “do without”. Still others are transitional, in the process of forgetting leaner times. But saddest of all, some have a long way to go before they can start to forget. These are the millions who yet have no choice but to walk miles for water, watch their crops fail in drought or flood, or inhale polluted fumes to cook a simple meal. And for this last group, things might get a lot worse before they get better.

While preparing to communicate findings from the upcoming World Development Report on climate change, I’ve learned that there’s a strong ethical aspect to the way the world must tackle global warming. Even as leaders negotiate to establish new global values that will hopefully help preserve or create a decent life for everybody, there are many shifts in attitude needed at the level of the individual citizen, regardless of where we live or how old or new the story of our success. One of these shifts is a wholesale re-evaluation of where we’re going with our lifestyles, and of the responsibilities that should accompany affluence. Nicholas Stern, in his new book, “The Global Deal: Climate Change and the Creation of a New Era of Progress and Prosperity” articulates this perfectly:

Just as many people do not buy carpets or clothes made from child labour, notions of basic personal responsibility mean that they also wish to cut their emissions to reduce the threats to future generations, including their own children and grandchildren, even though they know that what they do plays only a tiny role in the process.


It’s possible that I’m feeling strongly about making some corrections to my own carbon course because I’m exposed every day in my job to climate science and economics. But I think my motivation also comes fairly intensely from realizing my grandfather was not old-fashioned—he was right—and from not wanting my grandchildren to write, sixty years from now, about how Grandma killed the planet with her big bad ways.


Kavita Watsa

Senior Operations Officer

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