Ignorance of urban existence

It is now official. In 2007, for the first time in history, half the world’s population lives in urban areas. Urban Asian population is not far behind and is expected to become at par with rural numbers by 2020.

Perhaps, one aspect which has not been much discussed about urban existence is the all-pervading ignorance about the mechanisms and processes that connect suppliers and consumers. An interesting film I saw on the net at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUlkOLLa31s revealed that most urban dwellers are completely ignorant about where they get their tap water from and what happens to the stuff they flush down their toilets.

The responses of the people who were randomly asked about what happens to their toilet waste were an eye-opener about the varying levels of ignorance found in urban India. While most persons were blank or too embarrassed to talk about it, one said “it goes into the air” while another said, “it all happens automatically,” and yet another said, “it gets converted into gas and that’s how we get electricity”. Now, if only the last bit was true!

In pre-industrial times, people were intimately familiar with the processes that produced their food and household goods. Whether it was soap, hair cleanser, dish-washing cleanser or oil, they usually made the things themselves with simple, easily available materials.

But with the urbanisation that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, most of the complex details of production were pushed far away, sometimes even beyond seas. Today, it needs special training to understand the technical sophistication of the devices used in daily life. Even the technically trained are limited to their areas of expertise.

Such is the state of affairs that most urbanites (at least in Asia) are least bothered about the life cycle of the products they consume. I recently sent out a mass email to all my friends and relatives about the need to minimise chemical use in daily life. Small changes in our routine – such as substituting toilet cleaners with vinegar or bleach with lemon juice or bicarbonate of soda instead of drain cleaners, could make a vast difference to the pollutants entering water bodies in the world today. Besides, these environment-friendly practices were in vogue just a few generations ago.

Not surprisingly, my email was largely met with stony silence. After all, the advertisements on TV that urge people to use Harpic for their toilets and Dranex for their drains are far more powerful than the lone voices that recommend vinegar and bicarb for cleaning.

Ignorance is said to be bliss. Unfortunately, if this ignorance which has caused the proliferation of unsustainable practices is allowed to continue, it will prove very costly for the coming generations. The urbanising world must co-exist in harmony with the natural world, if both are to survive.

Unless public opinion puts pressure on governments and corporations, the latter will follow the path of least resistance. A vibrant civil society empowered by knowledge could well be the starting point for good governance that Asian countries lack.

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