Saturday, 22 July 2017

Hypocrisy of the green life

Hypocrisy of the green life

The search for a green life propels most educated middle class Indians into a similarly hypocritical and phony existence.

I am an architect. Much of my professional time is spent in promoting green buildings, cajoling clients to adopt ways of natural cooling, insulate walls, solar cook, use planting and shading devices to offset the heat, generally make changes to their over-consumptive lifestyle and begin to take a small step in a more natural direction.

This is usually done in a room full of six other architects, chilled to arctic temperatures by a four ton A.C. with liberal juice and water stock from a 2000 BTU fridge in the drafting room corner.

In the mornings after a talk on electric cars and the importance of public transport at the architecture school, I drive off in a 300HP SUV doing a measly six kilometre per litre to a building site. Meanwhile my wife and son have separate cars clogging up and polluting the city. While pushing a different life onto others, I ensure that my own does not change. And I am reminded of Gandhiji not saying, "Change others before you try to change yourself", or something to that effect.

At a screening of Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, the hall was filled with people like myself, staunch believers in climate change, armchair radicals and new-age optimists all filled with an unshakable social conscience about a world that must mend its ways or face doom. People raised pertinent arguments against living a developed world lifestyle in a developing country; then we got into our SUVs and left.

The search for a green life propels most educated middle class Indians into a similarly hypocritical and phony existence. Perhaps no other middle class has felt a greater sense of entitlement to a culture of waste, despite continual reminders of the frugal lives all around. Maybe because of such surroundings, an odd sort of material masochism takes over - one that comes from living amongst the deprived. Almost a fearful need to buttress yourself against the blight by deliberately adopting to the other extreme. So people spend whole lifetimes enlarging the distance between the 'us' and the 'them', replenishing where there is no need; hoarding when no crisis exists, only to ensure that the future is safe for many generations. I have friends who buy apartments, as future investments for their children; or get an American Green card for their kids, so they would have an option to hop to a secure First World country, if India plunges into chaos. Many hoard gold, create foreign accounts, or shell out high premiums for all sorts of insurance merely to assuage the fear that they live in a country of perpetual calamity. And there are backup systems in place.

Promoted by architects, planners and designers, lifestyle is part of an erroneous system of personal values. Look at the middle class use of motor cars. 1500 kilograms of steel is charged with fuel, electrical battery pack and electronic systems to merely transport one person across a few kilometres of city space. Not to mention the padded sofa seats, air conditioning systems and a driver to keep the person comfortable and in good humour. Is this the most efficient way to move around a city of 10-15 million people all aspiring to get their own 1500 kilos of air conditioned steel? Maybe two or three of them.


Compare the middle class Indian home to say a European one and you'll get a clearer picture of waste: 1600 square feet for a family of four in Delhi to 700 square feet for the same family in Paris. Space in India is a premium, like insurance against flood, and gold bars in a locker. An unused drawing room still forms the centre piece of a home plan - a British legacy, long since past. A bathroom with every bedroom; now additionally a family room, an entertainment den, steam and Jacuzzi. Is this the new conservation in Indian domestic design? Why is middle class life always directed towards excess: fanciful space, new materials, glass and titanium walls, and an attraction for the loud and supercilious?


For the last few years, soon after the economic slowdown, the air-conditioned lifestyle was being slowly and grudgingly downgraded to a more natural level. People began to value cheaper ways of cooling, doing away with too many electrical appliances, even selecting more thrifty car models. Builders had their dream projects crash; the wish to insert snow making machines and water theme slides in apartment blocks were happily deflated. Making people aware that what they had and what they needed to share was a humbling lesson. The economic downturn was a great and much needed corrective, a reminder that the instantly inspirational was less critical than long term value-based goals. But sadly, the thoughtful period was short-lived. Luxury apartments with private pools are on the rise; Jaguar and Audi are again posting profits.

In other cultures, more often than not, the will to reorder conventions, takes design down a different untested path. The Japanese, for instance, have perfected a forty square foot hotel room that is essentially a sleeping drawer for the guest. Recent legislation in New York now allows apartments of barely 250 square feet - a magical miniaturised cube of a home, where bed, sofa, and kitchen cabinet, all emerge from the wall when required. The Imperial China Hotel in Beijing re-circulates its water completely, using only ground recharge for its use. These are but a few instances where waste is being curbed around the world.

The Indian middle class may take many years to follow the path of conservative idealism. Till then we will flounder between unrestrained excess and extreme frugality. I will continue to send the driver in the SUV 10 kilometres for a loaf of bread; on his day off he will continue to take his family of five to a movie on his scooter.

The writer is a well known architect.

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