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By Dr. Hari Haran Chandra

MAKING AN INVENTORY OF LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT…

“If it is not affecting the neighbor, I have little to worry about for now.” Beating this behavior barrier is a greater challenge than innovation.

“Any breakthrough innovation takes at least 10-15 years. Advances in genomic sciences or in solar energy took as long. Research is working overtime across the world as they see opportunity. They can crunch that time down a little, but you can’t beat it,” says RathindraNath Roy [See Part 1].

What can we do today? “Maybe we could start by setting up an inventory, not by subject area, but by the type of person,” he explains. “We are talking about those little shops down the road, people living in apartments, regular householders, people living in slums who fight for the next meal and have no time to fret over ‘sustainability’ concerns. When we go to work, can we think up, and of, little things we can do?

Says Suresh Prakash, an active WOW Action Forum member in Bangalore, “We use 1 gas cylinder for every 3 months. We have no induction heater. When we pressure-steam rice and vegetables, we set the dosa’s to heat on top of the cooker. The cover acts as a non-stick pan too.” You could speak to him if you haven’t understood the sequence. “We then use the steaming hot water from the cooker to get our idli’s done without even re-igniting the stove. It takes a bit of extra time to cook, that’s all. Well, any breakfast food like Oats, or Dahlia is done the same way. It’s almost a decade now since we took to these ways,” he shrugs modestly.

For ten successive months, Neel Mathews who is also Bangalore-based has managed his home’s water needs of up to 20000 liters a month without a liter taken from the outside. To see a water bill that shows zero liters billed is an amazing sight. The meticulous record he keeps of use of water and its impact on energy is inspiring. But then Neel is an extreme, aberrant exception. We don’t expect all to live by such a hard-to-reach benchmark.

Climate Change And Water: How Do We Understand It Inside Our Heads?

Ramkumar, a retired Executive Director of Indian Oil Corporation, says, “To make a home or a corporate building flood-free and water-positive takes so little money with the rewards so astounding, that I am amazed that people don’t see what is so obvious a gain! He has been urging the city administration in Chennai to see how the stormwater drains across the city’s 1200 km of roads and acquires a few thousand graded gravel pits that are cost-effective and will strengthen the city’s groundwater aquifers for the long term.

Continues Rathin Roy, “Let us admit it. The rate of growth of the problem is faster than the rate of growth of solutions because of the behavior lags. So far we have been dependent on the first movers for pioneering changes. The regular guy is not moving in to act. There’s inertia, not just the kind which a complex organization suffers when it evolves. This inertia is of their worldview that says, ‘If it is not affecting the neighbor, I have little to worry about for now.’ This is baffling. And so we go back to the simple inventory of things… here are 10 things we can do today. But are you convinced of the change they bring? Such conviction will come with the repeated telling of these inspiring stories, even if they are isolated. The narrative form appeals to the regular mind. An endorsement by someone you admire gets your attention. As Einstein said pithily in some context nearly a century ago, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” It’s not a city, it’s a whole lot of us acting, reacting, making for a sum larger than the parts.

Reflects Rathin, “None of us are climate experts. Those of us who have the misfortune of too much as education, lack imagination. It’s tough as it is for us to grapple with things that we don’t know about. When we talk about what could happen if we made an alternate choice, it becomes daunting for you, and for others around you, to see it. Writers and storytellers have the uncanny knack of taking the thought that next step beyond. Will such narratives bring the little changes in behavior?”

He pauses, to let a static on the network pass. “Can we bring in people who really, truly believe they are ignorant? Can we then allow them to understand what we are seeking to build as stories? If they can own the stories the connect they would bring with children, with people of all kinds will be exponential.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote The Ministry for the Future, says, ‘There is enough for all… Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall; also a ceiling above which no one can rise. Enough is as good as a feast—or better.”

When you talk about climate change and climate degradation it helps first to visually imagine what it could mean to you, how it could touch your life. And then to imagine how some of the solutions could make life easier … for consumers, for the government, for the bureaucracy. As Kim Robinson suggests, it helps to reduce it to two things: what’s going to happen in the future and what is happening today. And, of course, it helps to extend the discussion beyond the fears of what can happen to us as humans.

Adds Rathin, dourly, “We are not a particularly dramatic species, in the vast theatre of over 8 million species on Earth. How do we give a voice to animals, to plants, to the entire complexity of biodiversity, to the rivers, glaciers, to the mysteries of the eternal winds of the monsoons that buffet the sub-continent every moment, every hour of the day? How do we imagine and awaken our senses to these priceless gifts? How do we relate to these things? How do we give a voice to the future? We talk of the cliché of not inheriting from our fathers but borrowing from our children. But do you and I really do what it takes to live within our means?”

If Chennai, or any city, has to give such a voice to the future, we have to create the administration and governance structure for it. If Governments could do it why would you have as many Non-Government Organizations thriving in this country? What we don’t need is more discussions with ‘experts’. The other major challenge is, how do you finance something that has no tangible economic return that can be mapped on a dreadful XL sheet?.

Over recent years, I am more than convinced that it is not about solutions or technology. There is no want of solutions right now, and at costs that are immensely attractive. The kind of communication we are talking about, and the lot of people we need to be ‘targeting’, needs serious re-engineering.

Even if sounds a trifle silly, what we need is the digitization of imagination, with outreach that is beyond the bounds of what we have understood or practiced so far. Niranjan Khatri, a warhorse on such green evangelism and a green hotelier for 4 decades, has often talked about ROI as return on imagination, and not return on investment.

All those banal programs for journalists on how to talk about science is not enough. Says Rathin, “I’m willing to go out and look for good writers and to ask, ‘We know nothing about this. You are blessed with the gift of imagination and picturing it with words or visuals. Do you have the heart to work on it?’ And if we begin to engage in such a process, we will learn from the searching, unwieldy questions they will ask of us ‘experts’. They are not part of the sustainability club. They’re not part of the larger ‘conspiracy’. When you talk to a fellow scientist on, say, Net Zero, he thinks you know. You think you know, too—though it is not quite the same thing. I am yet to meet an environmentalist who does not agree on the need for Net Zero. Everyone agrees.

If you listen to any conversation on climate action or climate change, you realize it is complex and that it is hard to reduce to simplicities. A bureaucrat needs things he can communicate, actions that can be understood by people down the line, what it would cost and who should pay for it, or who should do what. How do you get a bureaucrat’s buy-in, knowing the challenge of a decision going up and down the maze of corridors and tables? No wonder they choose to work on things that are easy to understand and to quantify. People love ratings because it is easy to simplify extremely complex things to a nice, pat number.

V Suresh, a live-wire professional who at 80 continues to track every nuance of policy and change, wonders, “How do you make these sustainability concerns relevant to the large mass of people who go about their lives and their aspirations? How do we get to the bottom of those real issues that can bring enduring change? Tokenism simply won’t help.” Suresh has steered many strategic inflections in his 50 years of work on housing and greening of the built environment, but the challenge of relating to how it impacts us all beats him as much as it does the rest of us.

Kim Robinson says elsewhere, “It’s a matter of training people and making small technological objects. It is the same with education.” To paraphrase him, We must not let the dead hand of the past clutch us by way of living people who are too frightened to accept change.

This blog is the second and last post in the two-part series on ‘Climate Change & Water’ authored by Hari Haran Chandra. Click here to read the first part.

About the Author

Dr. Hari Haran Chandra is a Trustee at INHAF, Prem Jain Memorial Trust, AltTech Foundation; and a Senior Fellow at the Indian Green Building Council.

WOW AF is a multi-city citizen-led initiative now in action in four Indian cities of Bengaluru, Chennai, Trichy, and Hyderabad; and moving soon to four more cities in the country, and is led by water experts and citizen leaders who seek to bring water efficiency with water-users adopting solutions to meet a Mission Target of Saving 3000 Crore Liters in these cities.

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