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Monday, 20 February 2012

Is Sustainability A Luxury?

I'm not thinking about the state of the economy when I throw this question out there. Rather it comes from two conversations I've recently had with people from developing countries.

One was
with an Indian PhD now living in Belgium. We had a discussion on the current challenges in India. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a developing economy, the main challenges were access to water, affordable healthcare and electricity. When asked about the sustainability agenda in India, our visitor said there isn't really one. People are more concerned about health, education and corruption. Again, this is unsurprising.

Today, I was chatting with a Venezuelan Masters student in nanotechnology who was studying in Europe. Although personally motivated by the environmental agenda, she said people in Venezuela are more concerned about democracy and her ugly sister, corruption. She also warned against the brand of 'radical' environmentalism that judges people. You can only lead by example, was the conclusion.

I am tempted to conclude too that the concept of sustainability is a luxury only developed nations can afford. But in a way this is just a question of labels.
As well as being development issues, access to water and electricity are also big sustainability issues. Human rights and democracy are also major factors in sustainability.

In the West, we have the luxury of a more or less stable political system, access to healthcare, education and utilities. So it really does fall on us to lead the sustainability agenda and to make sure that innovation and technology, e.g. for water purification or rural electrification, is made available and affordable to developing countries.

It's not a question of giving developing countries a permit to pollute just because, as we are so often told, we have polluted their environment. We need to make sure that the best available technology is out there and help developing countries leapfrog so they don't have to go through the same learning (and polluting) process we did.

Chetan Kumar Maini, the vice chairman and chief technology officer of Reva Electric Car Company, looks over his company's cars in Bangalore, India. (Photo by Kuni Takahashi / Associated Press)

Blog by Kathryn

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