The God of All Things Green
I looked at the effulgent figure with a golden orb behind his head and I asked, “Are you the One and Only, the Prime Cause and Mover, the End-all and Be-all, the Boss of Bosses?” – “So we are. What’s it to you?”
My accent was so markedly Texan, I realized I must have been born again as a Christian evangelist. “I want to be a compassionate conservative. I’ve always wanted to be your apostle, a messiah.” – “Huh. What else?” – “I want to be God to do good.” – “Is that all?”
And, I said a little shame-facedly, “And I want to make money, big money.” And he laughed. “I was wondering when you were coming to that. The good news is there’s no difference between the two. Go ahead, do both.”
The Green Human SacrificeNext thing I knew I was in India. It was the month of July and the year was 2008. I couldn’t believe how many people came to listen to me. I mean, I knew this was a country of nearly two billion, but imagine seven hundred million turning up to hear the word of God from me. Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, hey, even Jesus never had it so good.
The only problem was they looked so lean and hungry and starved. Oh, the stench, they hadn’t washed for God knows how long. And they were indecently dressed. They were in tatters, imagine having more gaping holes covering you than cloth. And the land seemed dry, cracked and barren even though they were growing GM crops.
“Oh God,” I knocked on the golden gate again, “what’s going on? You‘ve sent me to the wrong sector, to the wrong India.” And God said, “Shut up. Are you God, or am I the Omniscient One? If you had an iota of business sense you would know the rich are fat, tight-arsed and tight-fisted. The poor are more gullible and giving.”
So, I went back and they looked at me expectantly, their faces full of faith and hope. “I bring you nothing less than God. The new God. He’s the Green God. He’s going to save the earth and save mankind. All you need to do is tighten your belts. Eat a little less, breathe a little less, drink a little less. Don’t use so many cars. And don’t use so much energy.”
The Vanguard of Progress“We haven’t had rain for seven years,” they said, “and the government has been promising us electricity since independence. Perhaps you can talk to them and once we get it we can use less of it. And instead of food we can go to McDonald’s and start having burgers and other junk.”
“That’s precisely the point. If you have less of everything, the earth will survive. Give it a few years and the whole planet will be green and your dead land will become fertile again, and you will have cars and alternate energy sources and loads to eat and Hollywood movies and the latest I-pods, and J- and K-pods too, and a fountain of Coke in every house.”
“Is that true? Really true?” they asked. “We’ll have nuclear bombs and Exxon and sub-prime mortgages and bank failures and terrorist attacks? Wow, that really will put us at the vanguard of progress.”
And I said, “Do you doubt me? Do you doubt the word of the Green God?” They looked sheepishly at me and protested. “No. No. We believe implicitly in you and your Green God.”
“It’s not enough to say you believe, you have to show it. Put five dollars in that box and God will know you truly love Him.” A few people, they must have been bloody leftists, shouted, “But that’s more than we earn in three months.” – “The Son of God gave his life for you!” I thundered, “and all you can think of is your five dollars? Shame on you!” There were no more protests.
And while all of them stood in a queue and dropped five dollar bills in the box, I was trying to multiply seven hundred million times five, but I just couldn’t get the figure right. And I exhorted them again. “For the sake of our earth consume less, eat less, drink less.” And they said, “Amen.”
They tightened their belts and ate less. Not that there was much to eat or drink in that God-forsaken place, and oddly enough, within thirty days, they were dead. All seven hundred million of them. Oh, what a miracle they had wrought. The earth had seven hundred million less people to feed. The earth was green again and God was green again.
Millions of Middle Class ConsumersBut my work had just begun. Washington and the Green God were planning to send me on a much greater mission. To spread the gospel of an even greener earth to the dark continent of Africa.
Before 1990, India had always been dismissed as a hopeless basket case. The trinity that was indelibly fixed in the western imagination when they thought of India was poverty, famines, and corruption. Oh, and they also made dreadful movies that lasted three days, plus they had those dreadful song and dance numbers.
Then suddenly Indians were making a name for themselves in America in the field of information technology, the restrictive economic policies of the previous decades were being dumped, and the Indian market place was rapidly opening up. Corruption was still ubiquitous, but hey, where else in a democracy could you get a middle class band-width that was 200 million strong?
India soon became the new Mecca of foreign business interests. Mercedes, Samsonite, Armani, everybody was queuing up to get in on the Indian boom. Suddenly, Bollywood movies were in. Indian companies were buying foreign companies, Lakshmi Mittal bought Arcelor, despite tremendous resistance, the Tatas bought Jaguar and built the world’s cheapest car, the Nano.
For decades, all that Indians wanted to do was study and settle down in the U.S. of America. Now they were coming back and taking up jobs with multinationals at stupendous salaries. And then, wonder of wonders, Indian companies began to offer jobs to Europeans and Americans.
No wonder our powerful businessmen act as if they had found the holy grail, the manna of modern times, the temple of the free market, the great god of unfettered, uninhibited and unregulated capitalism. Hallelujah.
Through 2007, the Indian economy had been growing for years at a rate that was the envy of the developed world, 9%. In that year, the number of millionaires in India rose by 22%, the middle class was growing, and the benefits of the boom trickled down to at least some segments of the poor.
The one thing that went from dangerous to worse to beyond worse, was the state of the environment. And that was primarily because of the irresponsible business practices driving the economy. Industrial waste poisoned our water, our land, our air. TV channels began to give daily reports about carbon monoxide in the cities and other highly lethal molecules in the air. Every year saw the figures shoot higher and higher, often to lethal levels.
Sometimes the rain cleaned the air. But unfortunately it started raining less and became erratic. In most parts of India the groundwater had been sucked dry, and if there was any left, it often was filled with the most hideous life forms, typhus, bacteria, amoebas. Even a modern city like Bombay can’t supply its citizens with a bare minimum of water.
But who wants to think about climate change and pollution, or the huge ozone hole when the going is good and is getting better? How would your 25-year old daughter like to be told to put off buying her first car?
The Dream is OverBut then came the spring of 2008. Was it nature, fate, or God who decided enough was enough? How about all of them? The subprime bonanza was over and the domino theory came into effect, of all places in the heartland of capitalism. Oil began a staggering vertical ascent and inflation was no longer a spectre but a stark reality.
Like many an innocent nation, India, too, had had no role in the appalling and myopic greed of the subprime market, but it nevertheless is paying the price. The stock market is tanking disastrously. Jobs are being axed in the thousands. And the rate of inflation stands close to 12 %. The dream run is over. The last thing on the government’s mind is climate-change and the plight of the environment.
Like the rest of the underprivileged world, the Indian government is furious that just when it is starting to make it as a consumer culture, the West, and especially the USA, which since the beginning of the industrial revolution has exploited the earth’s resources, and which continues to do it with a fanatic, if not prodigious wastefulness, preaches self restraint.
Urban DesertIt would be difficult to deny that there is considerable justification for India’s stand. Given the current acute fiscal crunch and soaring inflation, India isn’t likely to practise environmental discipline.
Forget saving the planet, India’s record for the degradation of the atmosphere, water resources, and the quality of the land since independence has been so self-destructive and abysmal that the majority of our metropolises and towns are facing near-total collapse.
Let’s take just one example, New Delhi, the showcase of the nation. The capital gets more money from the government than any other city. The only thing that is outpacing the urbanization of Delhi is the desertification of the area.
Ten years ago you struck water if you went down three hundred feet. The law does not permit going any further, but since the water table has sunk to six hundred feet and lower, the affluent in Delhi have no option but to go deeper and deeper.
And what about the poor? Well, what about them? Isn’t that why we call them the deprived and the desperate? Those who stay within walking distance of the river Jamuna are the lucky ones, depending on what you mean by lucky. And the walk might take ten minutes or one and a half hours.
Ailing GodheadBut even when you access the water, you do so at your own risk for the river is filled to the brim with some of the deadliest waterborne diseases in the country.
Rivers in India have traditionally had the status of goddesses. The holiest river in India is the Ganges. Just one dip in its waters, Hindus believe, will cleanse them of all their sins.
The Jamuna is its sister and almost as sacred. Both the Ganges and Jamuna are among the most polluted rivers in the world today. The Jamuna is a mere trickle in many places near Delhi.
The survival of the capital largely depends on the Jamuna. The President, Prime Minister and the Parliament of the subcontinent are located barely a few miles from the river, but that hasn’t helped, its despoliation continues unabated. And every day the desert only comes closer. Sooner rather than later, the capital is going to wake up in the middle of the desert without water and without electricity.
Tiger and Prime MinisterThe curious thing is that on the rare occasion when New Delhi makes up its mind to do something, it manages pretty well. Some years ago, when pollution levels became alarmingly high, against loud protests and against all odds, the capital decided that all public transportation, including buses, taxis, three-wheeler rickshaws, and cargo-carrying trucks had to switch from diesel to gas.
After Delhi pulled it off, Bombay followed suit. Pollution in Delhi is still a very serious problem, but imagine what it would have been like if the old vehicles with their super-inefficient engines were still burning diesel.
The environmental news is mostly bad in India. When the public discovered the tiger population of India would soon disappear because of large-scale human encroachment on their space and poaching, the Prime Minister himself intervened and agreed to head the Save the Tiger campaign four years ago.
There was rejoicing among the people, and for once the environmentalists had enlisted the most powerful ally in the country on their behalf. As luck would have it, either the PM did not have the time, or he was ineffectual. And the tiger is an even more endangered species today than when the PM decided to get into the picture. But if the Prime Minister of India can’t save you, who can?
Editing and translation: Zaia Alexander
Copyright: Süddeutsche Zeitung 2008