Friday, May 31, 2013

Humans vs. the Environment?

            I’m back at site after being gone for nearly three weeks, visiting my parents and my brother Paul in Italy, and then being stuck in Kigali for a few days when my baggage containing all my cheese (well, and other things, too) didn’t arrive. I’m happy to report that the cheese miraculously arrived, six days later, at the tiny airstrip an hour from my house, and Paul and I have been enjoying all that Rwanda has to offer.

From Rome to Rwanda! 
            I’ll admit I experienced a bit of culture shock while I was in Italy. I was constantly amazed at almost everything. Things that I would have taken for granted before Peace Corps were suddenly exciting again. Supermarkets! Clothing stores with different sizes of the same outfit! Food that arrives within 20 minutes of ordering it! Hot showers! Double-ply toilet paper and flushing toilets everywhere! Gelato! Cheese! Trains! Not being stared at or called muzungu! No one publicly picking their noses! Anonymity! Being able to dress however I choose! In the Eternal City, everything seemed new. It was as if I was experiencing all of it for the very first time. My head was spinning, in the best way possible.

            I was also a bit anxious coming back to Rwanda. Part of that was leaving my parents for another year. People are irreplaceable. Skype conversations aren’t the same as a hug from your Mom or drinking wine with your Dad while watching the sunset.

         But part of that anxiety was also returning to a life without all of those comforts. As my Baba says, “It’s a lot easier to go up than to go down.” I know that I can live a life without ice cream and hot showers; it just takes a little getting used to.  So I took a deep breath and boarded that plane back to Kigali, Rwanda.

           It’s about 7 hours to get from Kigali to my site in southwest Rwanda, through mountains and forests. Usually I dread the trip, but this time it was amazing to see all of the changes that had occurred since I’d been gone. In just three weeks, a fancy new movie theater opened in Kigali, Rwanda’s very first one. I saw my first movie in a theater in a year and a half (“Iron Man 3” in 3D!!!) while waiting for my luggage to arrive. At the bus station in Kigali, a new clock tower had been put up. Some roads had been fixed. A new restaurant had opened in a town nearby me. A new fence is going up around the chapel in my village. A student I tutor in English bought a bike with the money he has earned teaching English to other Rwandans on the side. One of the women in the soymilk cooperative was hired to work part-time cooking meals at the Health Center. Development is very, very real, and it’s an exciting time to be in Rwanda.

            Yet despite my awe at Rwanda’s development upon returning from Italy, I couldn’t help but notice how many trees had been cut down around my community. I asked the nuns why, and they just shrugged and said that people need houses and firewood.

          I’ve thought a lot about the tension between human/economic development and the environment during my Peace Corps service, but this experience crystallized it in a very real way. How can we provide every human with his or her basic material needs, without completely trashing the planet? And it’s not just some vague hippie “save the trees!” notion that has me worried, although I certainly appreciate the beautiful views, colorful leaves, piney smells, and cleaner air that trees provide. It comes from a genuine concern that this generation is robbing future generations (and even ourselves) of the ability to have clean air to breathe, unpolluted water to drink, and the ability to eat food without getting cancer.

          The developed world depends on consumerism, on material solutions to all problems, on forever buying and discarding, to maintain its economic power. This situation has provided high living standards, material comfort, and high rates of employment for a majority of the population living in the industrialized world. These are generally regarded as good things. I like my cheese and hot showers as much as the next person. But it’s clear an economy based on materialism and growth-at-any-cost can’t continue forever: the earth’s fossil fuels are quickly being used up, there’s a floating island of discarded plastic the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of species of plants and animals are endangered or near extinction, and you can now buy canned air to breathe for when you visit China (flavors include "pristine Tibet" and "post-industrial Taiwan" joke).

         This is the sentiment captured in Robert Kennedy's quote about the limits of the Gross National Product (GNP), which I find just as meaningful today as it was in 1968, "Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product--if we should judge America by that--counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It couts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children."

         "Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does nto inclue the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

         The catch, it seems to me, is that if everyone tried to simplify their lives, to realize that money and possessions will never make us happy, and “keeping up with the Joneses” is a game that can never be won, the entire economy would collapse. For example, let’s say that everyone realized their kids don’t need Barbie dolls to play with to have fun. All of the people who manufacture, distribute, and sell Barbie dolls would be unemployed. Even though this example is a little ridiculous, the result is not. If we all just stopped buying all the crap we fill our houses with, mass unemployment and economic depression would result, at least temporarily.

        It’s clear that we need sustainable development more than ever (which is why doing things like trying to outlaw sustainable development, like in Kansas, looks more idiotic than ever). People in the developed world need to learn a lesson from people in my village about what and how we consume things. We need to rediscover the "3 Rs": reduce, reuse, recycle. It's not easy. It takes sacrifice. We have to find other ways of providing people’s material needs, jobs so that people can provide for their families, and above all, we have to realize that people are far more valuable than possessions. Who’s with me?

 “Only when the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, will we realize we can’t eat money.” -Native American saying

1 comment:

  1. Claire, this is outstanding. You are so right about consumerism and how it has placed us in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" economic situation. For any kind of change to happen, everyone needs to step up. I hope more people will understand this huge problem and work towards a simpler way of life.