In Shillong, I would leave the guest house each morning and walk out into a scene from a sustainable economy. In the driveway and walkways, four or five women were employed sweeping up debris that had fallen from the trees during the previous night’s rain. Each woman worked with a biodegradable sweeper made of broom grass, a locally grown agricultural product.
This tableau of a sustainable economy was striking to my Western senses. The system provided employment, used biodegradable, locally sourced products, and produced an excellent result — cleared walkways and driveways — without noise or air pollution disturbing the academic community.
At home in the United States, the problem of removing debris from driveways and walkways would be managed with an entirely different solution. A single worker equipped with a gasoline-powered tool would be hired to blow the debris off the pavement.
This solution would disturb the community with noise and air pollution, burn fossil fuel, emit carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — and provide employment for a single individual. With sustainability as the standard, it is easy to see which is the more “advanced” solution.
When asked what she meant by sustainability she replied:
In his new book, Sustainability by Design, John Ehrenfeld suggests a definition for sustainability as “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.” Sustainability is, by this definition, a vision and a mindset. In my trip to India, sustainability became a standard against which I measured practices that were new to me.
Rather than seeing the West as the standard of environmentally sustainable practices and India as an emerging economy that is trying to catch up, I saw opportunities for both East and West to learn from each other.
This conversation points to an entirely different path from the dominant “western” approach of eco-efficient, technological “solutions” in one form or another. The still unconventional idea in the United States of local economies is the norm in many parts of the rest of the world.