The difficulty of thinking long term
For the hungry, oppressed, ambitious, and ignorant, climate change is a remote quandary that will affect only future generations and not urgent enough to be able to think and act collectively for our shared future
At the time of the uprising in 2011 against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, I was living in Cairo. It had already been two years since I had arrived in the city and had discovered the good humour and general garrulous nature of local Egyptians around. The taxi drivers on the street, neighbourhood sellers of aish baladi — the delicious flat Egyptian bread — fruit vendors, friends, acquaintances, usually had an opinion or two about the goings-on in Egypt. If not from the newspapers and loud televisions at home and on the streets, they would pick information from each other.
There was a genuine interest amongst the Egyptians in their country’s history and current affairs. On the latter, there was always enough to talk about — joblessness in the country, relations with the neighbours, the cultural agenda at the local cinema or the Opera House, and later the dictatorship and the uprising of Egyptian people.
Yet of all the things we talked about, climate change was never one that was spoken of. Even if the dry desert heat would be interspersed with freak rainfalls, a thick smog would once in a while engulf the pyramids of Giza, and the desert city would be hit by a hailstorm — as was recently the case — there was rarely much thought extended to the state of the planet earth.
Indifference to climate change, I soon discovered, was common across most parts of the Middle East. In the region, temperatures were beating the records each year, heat waves were getting hotter, droughts were becoming longer, and crops were dying, but there was no conversation that made it seem as if apocalypse was hitting now, as was the case earlier when I was living in Europe.
The most recent issue of the Economist laments that this is still the case. The magazine reports that summer temperatures in the Middle East and North Africa will rise over twice as fast as the global average. Last year, Iran came close to breaking the highest recorded temperature of 54°C, which Kuwait had reached the year before. By 2100, humidity and heat could rise so high in the Gulf such that the region will be uninhabitable.
It suggests that agricultural production be shifted to heat-resilient crops, drip irrigation could be used more widely, and the layout of cities could be modified. “Few of these efforts have been tried by Arab governments, which are often preoccupied with other problems”, the Economist reports. Incidentally, three years ago, the same magazine had reported that “the UAE’s air is a bit worse than China’s and more than twice as bad as India’s”.
Living under dictatorships and weak governments, fighting wars, and fending for their life in sectarian violence, climate change is understandably the last thing on the minds of many of the region’s inhabitants. For the rest of the region’s people, they are often more preoccupied with economic growth, even though climate change has now indeed become an economic opportunity. These sun-drenched countries are now setting up massive solar plants. Morocco and UAE are building enormous solar power plants in their deserts, and Saudi Arabia plans to build a solar plant that will be 200 times the size of the current biggest one. For these countries, solar power increases the electricity supply and helps them curb emissions. However, such examples are rare while the majority of the region’s population would consider climate change a distant “first world problem”.
There are similar situations elsewhere. In Colombia, for the past few decades, forests have been occupied by armed groups, as a consequence of which there has been rampant de-forestation and ecological scientists have stayed away.
In Goa, a few days ago, my husband Chirag made a sudden stop on the road and swung the car towards a pharmacy close by. He made a quick purchase of a packet of diapers and baby food, and ran up to hand these over to a woman begging on the road with her infant — not more than eight months old — trailing on his fours behind her, butt naked, covered with stool. Watching him, I wondered yet again if there was any agenda more important in this country than giving the thousands of street children a life free of hunger, and one of safety and dignity? Would the mother of this infant care about the change in the earth’s climatic conditions? Would this infant grow up to struggle to feed himself first or fight against climate change? Can we expect the 21.2 per cent of our population living under poverty line to first fill their empty stomachs or care for the environment? Would I strive to alleviate my people out of poverty first or save the planet from the change in climate? While empty stomachs can not save the planet, it is another matter that the government does not do enough of either.
It is a moral dilemma for many — to solve the immediate problem or chip away a brewing crisis. For the angry, hungry, oppressed, ambitious, and ignorant, climate change is a remote quandary that will affect only the future generations, and not urgent enough to be able to think and act collectively for our shared future.
Miniya is the author of Indian Instincts: Essays on Freedom and Equality in India, Penguin Random House (2018), and the CEO of Sustain Labs Paris, the world’s first sustainability incubator.
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