The myth of disappearance

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PEOPLE in the Kingdom are no strangers to environmentalists heralding a global warming doomsday; in fact, most of them are likely to respond with a casual rolling of the eyes, to say the least. The primary reaction to environmental issues in our society seems to be indifference, if not disdain. After all, we tend to live along the lines of “out of sight, out of mind.” However, this does not change the fact that we live in one ecosystem, and what goes around will come around, at one point or another. And the ones who will suffer most are not even the ones who caused the problem in the first place.

To clarify, places that produce the lowest fossil fuel emissions are the most prone to environmental catastrophes and the least able to cope with them. A report from 2013 identifies Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, as the most likely to suffer from climate change even though statistics show that it has a rate of approximately 0.4 tons of CO2 emission per person per year compared to the USA’s approximate 16 tons per person per year. The people of Dhaka did not contribute to climate change; yet, they are the ones left to deal with its consequences - ranging from destructive floods to cyclones - by whichever meager means they can find.

In dealing with rising temperatures, those who contribute the most to heating up the planet enjoy the benefits of air-conditioning while those who did not contribute cannot afford to get air-conditioning. In truth, who could blame them if worsening circumstances resulted in a climate refugee crisis?

The point here is not about shaming people for their consumption or asking them to sacrifice luxuries; rather, it is about raising awareness regarding the harm caused by their overconsumption. Each of us has the power - even the responsibility - to minimize the harmful impact we have on our planet and on each other. After all, our trash does not simply “disappear” once we throw it away but remains with us in the ground and also in the air we breathe.

Thus, making simple lifestyle changes that are more eco-friendly is important; changes that may seem insignificant on their own, but that become significant once they accumulate over time and once more people implement them. Managing our waste more sustainably is one such change, and the introduction of the waste management hierarchy in our education and laws provides a concrete first step.

In a nutshell, the hierarchy consists of: reduce, reuse, recycle, recover or dispose. An example of each is as follows: substituting plastic water bottles for refill-able thermal bottles (reduce), using reusable canvas bags for groceries (reuse), and sending plastic bottles and cardboards to recycling (recycle). As to recovery, it consists of making energy out of waste; however, unfortunately, most items unnecessarily find their way to landfills instead when that disposal method should be the last resort. That is because burial in landfills does not signal the end of the story; on the contrary, waste stays in the ground and releases plenty of harmful toxins. And again, the minorities are the ones who live near these locations and the ones who suffer because of it.

But that need not be the case, regarding waste, forever. It just seems prudent to maximize the benefits of the products we use while minimizing the harm, and that could be done by following the waste management hierarchy. Such an outcome also comes from cultivating a culture that is aware of its consumption pattern. It is no secret that as a society, we tend to have high consumerism rates since people care too much about the exterior, how they look, and what they own. But consumerism does not only affect our physical environment; it also affects us psychologically. After all, we take pleasure in consumption, and indeed, buying new things in itself is only human and isn’t “bad”. But, taking anything to the extreme tends to bring about the opposite result. Attaching our happiness to things and hoarding them makes our happiness conditional on objects rather than having it emerge from within us. At the end of the day, we should not lose the perspective that things are only “things” and that we shouldn’t give them more than they are due.

But perhaps it is hard to stay conscious of how our behavior affects the earth because we do not see these effects on a daily basis. Moreover, an arid desert is not like a lush garden; it may be easier to love the latter and have a desire to protect it than the former. It is also easier to observe the impact we have on the latter (e.g., desertification). But, just because we cannot always detect the harmful changes does not mean that they are not happening. The same applies to eco-friendly practices: they will most likely not produce immediate observable results; indeed, meaningful change rarely happens overnight. Nevertheless, we should do them and encourage the younger generation to do the same, especially as most 10-year-old children can already recite the hierarchy yet have nobody to emulate in practice. And, rather than act as agents of doom when conveying environmental issues to our kids, it might be better to teach them to love the land instead, to interact with it and have activities outdoors. Indeed, taking care of the environment helps fashion us into more responsible inhabitants of this planet and into more compassionate human beings, more compassionate with each other, the earth and all living creatures.

Khadija Hisham Alem,

Jeddah

The author can be reached at: Khadija.alem@gmail.com


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