The lightness of being

The lightness of being

Sustainability is a much bandied-about term. From NGOs to globe-trotting climate change experts, to architects who design 'green buildings’, sustainability is what everyone's talking about. What’s more, India (along with Brazil) has emerged as the most green country and USA as the least green country in the National Geographic/GlobeScan Greendex Survey of 14,000 consumers in 14 countries.

So, what is sustainability? When one thinks about it, sustainability in the ecological context boils down to using the Earth's resources in a sensible manner, at a rate at which they can be replenished.

So, even as climate change experts across the globe discuss at what rate the polar ice cap is melting, or carbon emissions increasing, down to percentages, close your eyes and think about how our grandparents used to live. Or our kin in the villages did. True, they weren’t aware of climate change, or global warming, but their lives showed that they lived in harmony with their surroundings. They were dependent on their immediate ecosystems. So, they didn't have Washington apples, but they definitely gorged on local mangoes. They used plantain leaves for meals, and cloth bags to carry stuff. All eco-friendly products. Not branded, not advertised. It was just their kind of life.

Not negation of modernity

In more ways than one then, simple living is certainly linked to the environment. A back-to-nature kind of life. As noted theatre personality Prasanna (of Desi fame) explains in his work in Kannada on the ‘Desi way of life’, an indigenous lifestyle is not necessarily a negation of modernity or development, but it is development within the limits of one's environment, a lifestyle where there is no progress at an unnatural pace. He also draws attention to an aggressive consumerist culture we are in today.

Is it then possible to reject this culture, and live a life shorn of consumerist trappings? Ask Gaurav Mishra. This IIMB graduate, social media thought leader, and writer of a popular blog on marketing, took up an experiment. To go off or cut down on consumption. He thought of a book on a year-long experiment as it happened, and even titled it — ‘The Marketer Who Went off Consumption.’  He explains on his blog, “When I passed out of IIM Bangalore six years back, and had some money for the first time, buying and owning things were important to me, if only to prove to myself that I could afford to. So, I set up a full household, acquired costly tastes, ate out five nights a week, and played host the other two nights. Basically, I spent the next six years spending as much money as I could, to make up for not having enough in the previous 21 years.”  Then, he realised, “I had run that race (with myself) and it had left me tired. I had already bought all the things and experiences I wanted, and even some I didn't really want.” Which was how he started the project. Today, he explains to me, “The book itself is on the backburner as of now. I decided halfway into my year-long experiment that waiting a little more to find how this year changes me would make for a better book. I'm not following the very strict rules of my experiment anymore, but I am still trying to live as simply as possible. In Washington DC, I am living in a tiny room in a hostel with a shared bathroom. When I move back to India, I intend to have no furniture in my new house in Delhi. No bed, couch, tables. Just mattresses, cushions, rugs and curtains.” Gaurav goes on to add that “consuming less was less about the environment and more about cleansing myself, and re-evaluating my priorities.”

Overpowering demands

Could be. Often enough, it is attempts such as these, where you are re-evaluating your personal priorities, that eventually contribute to the environment. Remember our grandparents. They were not conscious about climate change, but their lifestyles, and personal choices were in harmony with nature. 

Today, of course, we have reached a stage where we need to make those conscious decisions. I ask Santosh Koulagi, son of the Navodaya leader Surendra Koulagi, who was Jayaprakash Narayan's secretary and a close associate of Vinoba Bhave, what all this talk of sustainability actually means. Surendra Koulagi's Janapada Seva Trust has, since 1960, been working in Melkote in the field of welfare, education, village industries and agriculture.

Santosh explains the challenges that ‘simple living’ poses. “The demands of modern society are indeed high. To give an example, should we deny our children modern lifestyles, because if we do, then, a lot of ethical issues and moral dilemmas come into play. On the other hand, should we completely bow to consumerist demands?”

Fukuoka example

There are those that have turned their backs on development in the modern sense. Take the Fukuoka example. The organic farmer completely turned his back on development in the Western sense. “But, then, some of us are caught in the middle. We have to make some compromises and make our individual contributions. We for one, encourage a lot of organic farming. It may seem irrelevant now, but then, we are showing the world that there is a perspective that is not mainstream, that there are options one could explore,” Santosh says.

There are several such experiments. Farmers in Karnataka are taking to organic farming like never before. Then, there are several rainwater harvesting examples, campaigns about saying no to plastic. There are carpooling initiatives across cities. There is a turnyoffyourtv movement. ( 

Life on a farm

There are individual examples, such as that of Priti and Srikanth. Srikanth, an electronics engineer and Priti, a doctorate (PhD) in the field of Neurophysiology, were inspired by Navadarshanam, an economically sustainable, simple, community centered and community involved living, and the Janapada Seva Trust in Melkote, among others, to start a farm-based lifestyle. Much like Navadarshanam, the couple started Vanashree. Explain the couple, “eco-sustainable living is the prime focus at the farm. We have been planting trees (2,500+ covering 100+ species till date) to increase bio-diversity.  We are also trying to grow most of the essential vegetables, cereals and fruits. Solar based lighting and gobar gas based cooking fuel means our dependency on non-renewable energy is minimal.” 

But then, simple living is a relative term. Not all can afford to start a farm on the outskirts, or give up their full-time jobs. Like Santosh explains, “There are compromises that need to be made.”

The power of less

For years, I have been logging to and reading posts on living simply by Leo Babauta, who lives in Guam with his family, and is the author of ‘The Power of Less’ that made it to the Amazon bestseller list. For Leo, “Living simply means we reduce the complexities in our lives, including the burden of overconsuming, having too much clutter, and too much waste. By living simply, we buy less, use less, and pollute less, all of which help our environment. I take Gandhi as one of my inspirations: he emphasised inner peace and self-sufficiency over a dependence on buying and commercialism.”
So, how does one live simply?

Explains the author, “Living simply does not have to be difficult or complex. Take it one step at a time, and gradually simplify things in your life. Buy less by reducing your needs. Realise that happiness is possible in what you already have, rather than what you want for the future.”

Simple living also means living within your means. That contributes to the environment as well. Take the case of Diana M Jue, who is a student of MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Department of Economics. She travelled to Bangalore as part of her course, and recounts her experiences here. In her email to me, she explains, “Living in Bangalore was a fantastic experience, and I could not help but compare my lifestyle there to my lifestyle in the United States. In America, we live with way too much stuff — we easily overeat, overbuy, and overconsume. We've gotten so used to having so much that we've forgotten that we can live without much of what we have. But in Bangalore, I learned that I can easily live while consuming much less. Additionally, my host family, the Raos, demonstrated that a comfortable lifestyle does not mean having more.”

Here are a few examples of things she learned, which could well be the reason why India is on top of that green index:

* “I barely produced any trash in Bangalore. There are a few reasons for this: I purchased fewer items and the items I did purchase did not come in packaging. I also ate most of my meals at home or in the restaurants, so I did not purchase packaged foods. I guess having more time to sit down to eat may also lead to sustainable living.”

* “In India, I experienced bucket showers, and I was amazed that one or two buckets of water were enough to completely wash oneself with. Drying clothes outside saves so much energy.”

* "Some forms of entertainment were free and highlighted nature. One early Sunday morning my host father woke me up to take me to Lalbagh Park. So many people were there to enjoy nature, and the park was beautiful and well-kept."

So, turn off your TV. Switch off that computer. Take a walk instead. Save the environment.

What you can do

It is the little things that we do that can make a big difference. Here are some you can surely do. The first tenet of conservation is doing what you can, no matter how small a gesture that may be. Ultimately,  it does make a difference.

* Use paper with care. Make sure you use both sides of the paper.
* Try as far as possible to avoid huge invitations and greeting cards. You could send an email instead. Also, recycle old invites.
* Make attractive and colourful paper bags from used magazines.
* Avoid using tissues. Instead use a handkerchief, which can be washed and reused. The power of recycling is amazing.
* Turn off equipment like televisions and stereos when you are not using them. The same goes with the computer. Even the standby mode consumes power.
* Choose energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs. There is a lot of awareness about CFLs these days. You could opt for them.
* Turn off the lights and other electricals when you leave a room, even if for a few minutes.
* Save water. Turn off the tap when you are brushing your teeth or washing up. First, collect water and then use it.
* Use the organic waste generated in the kitchen like vegetable peels to serve as compost for your garden or potted plants.
* Use public transport. Or better still, cycle to work. If you can’t do both, at least opt for carpooling.
* Cut out the junk food from your diet. That will not only keep you healthy, but also cut out a huge amount of plastic and aluminium foils. You can say good riddance to say all that coke in plastic bottles for instance.
* Use renewable energy whenever possible. Opt for solar heaters. They save your power bills.

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