Each one of us should live sustainably in order to conserve the resources of this world. The consumptive life style of western societies is putting tremendous pressures on the world resources besides increasing earth warming and pollution. For example an average American consumes 350 GJ/yr of energy 108. If every citizen of this planet wants to have the wasteful and consumptive life style of an average American then we will need the resources of 4 earths to sustain us.
Also those of us who work in the areas of sustainable development should try to live sustainably. I would therefore like to share with you my experiences in living a sustainable but decent and emotionally satisfying life. This lifestyle has evolved slowly over time and required some effort. I had lived in US for many years in 1970s and had imbibed the consumptive lifestyle of US. Coming and living in rural India taught me many things among which was spirituality and frugality. Both these things go hand in hand and have helped me live in the way I describe below.
I live in a small rural town called Phaltan in district Satara, Maharashtra, India where I run a small NGO called Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI). We work in the areas of agriculture, renewable energy, animal husbandry and sustainable development.
My experiments in sustainable living for the last 25 years are as follows:
- I live in a house designed by me and constructed in 1984. It is built of stone with 18” thick walls which allow tremendous thermal lag-time so heating and cooling due to ambient atmospheric temperature is delayed. It is passively cooled in the summer by laying old jute gunny sacs on the roof and sprinkling water on them two times a day. These sacs are very cheap and cost Rs. 10/m2 (1US$ = Rs. 47). The evaporating water from the sacs cools the roof from where 80% of thermal load comes into the house. Thus when the outside temperatures are about 40-450C the house is cool in the afternoon with average temperatures of rooms ranging from 25-300C. This is mostly because of thick walls and cool roof. Besides we also close all the windows and draw the drapes over them so that hot air and radiation from outside does not come inside the house. The trees surrounding the house also help. In a couple of years or so the gunny sacs are worn out because of the salts left behind by the evaporating water. These old gunny sacs are either used as mulch in the garden or burned in our hot water boiler, which supplies water for our daily bath. The water boiler is a grate-type multifuel boiler with about a 10 m long chimney attached to it. This chimney height gives an excellent draught and hence burns the wood and other material quite cleanly. In fact the water boiler is used for burning lots of different things as explained below. The ash from this boiler is used as a fertilizer in our garden either by putting it directly or composting it.
- Phaltan is around 800 m above sea level and is 100 km south-east of Pune or 300 km south-east of Mumbai. Its climate is very mild 109. Still in some years during winters the minimum temperatures can reach 7-8 0C. Our house is not heated. We close the windows at night if needed and wear warm clothes and socks. It keeps us warm and comfortable.
- All our kitchen waste is fed to rabbits (about 25-30 of them) who are in a cage in our garden. We do not eat them since we are mostly vegetarian. But use these rabbits to produce fertilizer (their droppings) which makes excellent manure in the garden.
- All other items inedible for rabbits like egg shells, tea waste etc. are put in compost pit (with dimensions of about 1 m X 1 m X 1 m). After 2-3 months the output from this pit is used as a fertilizer in our garden.
- We never waste any food. Whatever we take on the plate is eaten. The leftovers are either used next day or fed to our two dogs and three to four cats. There is no special food for the pets. They eat whatever we eat.
- We have a 2-acre plot on which our house is located. It mostly contains trees. Their leaf litter rots in the soil during rainy season and provide nice mulch. The dead branches and trees provide us the wood for heating our bath water in the boiler. In fact we always have surplus of wood so that we sell it and make a nice tidy sum.
- When we purchased this land in 1981 it was completely barren and the quality of land was so poor that there would be huge cracks – big enough for whole sheep to disappear in them. Today the leaf litter from the trees and the compost fertilizer has really improved the soil quality. The soil has therefore become springy and quite fertile.
- Most of our groceries and vegetables are grown within 10-15 km of our home. The eggs are from free ranging chickens, milk from cows across the road and vegetables and groceries from the local market. Most of these things are grown in Phaltan area. We use safflower seed produced on our Institute farm for crushing in local mill for oil. Thus the oil is fresh and without any chemicals.
- Most of the time I still drive a 23-year-old Maruti 800cc car which transports me from point A to B comfortably. It gives me between 13-16 km/liter and is small enough to go in smallest of lanes and by- lanes of Phaltan town. For long distance driving to Pune or Mumbai (300 km from Phaltan) I use Maruti Esteem which gives me 18-20 km/liter.
- We have few clothes and they are worn till they get torn. They are then used in the house as dusters and wipers and after becoming tatters are used in the water boiler to heat the water.
- I wear mostly khadi or cotton spun in cottage industries. Thus I buy the cloth for my bush shirts and they are stitched by my tailor in Phaltan. This makes these shirts much cheaper than the ones purchased in the market. Khadi is a very comfortable material to wear and also makes excellent dusters and wipers after the shirts get torn.
- Similarly all the papers in the office are used for writing on both sides and the used ones are brought to our house to again heat our bath water. Thus everything is recycled.
- We use electricity sparingly – which is also facilitated by the Government of Maharashtra since we have 4 to 5 hours of power cut everyday! We have battery-powered inverters both in the offices and at home which supply enough juice for lights, fans and laptops only. So no TV or refrigerators run on them. During electricity cuts we walk, talk or read. This provides a good quality time to catch up on reading and discussions. Sometimes I think this is for the best since 24-hour electricity causes distractions with TV and other electronic media.
- We do not travel very much but communicate more by phones and internet and believe that this is much more energy-efficient way of keeping in touch. With availability of broad-band internet connection both at home and in the office, it is an excellent communication and information medium.
- We bring most of our groceries and vegetables in cotton carry bags and hence have little garbage of plastic. Nevertheless we cannot get away from plastic as most things come already packed in it and this is the biggest nuisance we have. We have no way to recycle it. Presently we take the plastic bags and bottles to the local garbage dump from where they ultimately go to the recycling center. Still I feel we use much less plastic than most people. Nevertheless technology for recycling of plastics or incinerating them efficiently and without environmental pollution in rural areas is very much needed.
- We are teetotalers and drink only water, which is boiled. Thus the plastic bottles and cans of soft drinks do not litter our garden. Drinking only water is not only healthier but also helps the environment by not producing plastic bottle litter.
- We buy only those things which are needed and since we live simply we do not need to buy too many things. We still use most of our old electronic gadgets which are repaired when they stop working rather than being thrown away. This reduces the garbage production and at the same time is easy on the pocket book. Still we cannot get away from the electronic garbage and with the computer and mobile phone revolution picking up in rural India, there is a great need to recycle them locally.
- The main external inputs we use are electricity, petrol and LPG for cooking. Our per capita energy consumption (from last 2-3 years data) is 15.1 GJ/yr for electricity (both in offices and home), 12.7 GJ/yr in transport (mostly for petrol for 2 cars) and 1.75 GJ/yr in cooking gas. Thus we personally consume ~ 30 GJ/person/year of energy. To this should be added the energy in India’s infrastructure which comes to about 10 GJ/person/year 110. Thus our total commercial energy consumption is 40 GJ/person/yr. Contrast this with about 350 GJ/person/year that an average U.S. citizen uses 108. Thus in 1/9th the energy that is used by an average America citizen we can live quite decently in a modern industrial society.
- Our low electricity consumption results since we use only fans and CFLs and almost no air conditioning. Even in our offices we use evaporative roof cooling. The low energy usage in transport is because on an average we travel only 15,000 km/yr.
- Similarly our average water consumption is 150 liters per person/day for household purposes. This is almost one-fourth that used by a U.S. citizen 111. Still we feel that this water usage can be further reduced.
- Thus a satisfying and decent life style can be maintained in much less energy and water usage as compared to that in western societies and this is a lesson for our leaders who are hell bent on following the Chinese and US patterns which are both very consumptive and unsustainable.
We can make the life style even more sustainable by using locally produced ethanol in our cars and scooters and its use as cooking fuel. Similarly production of electricity from locally available agricultural residues can further help in this process 112,113. However both these things will require a community effort together with certain policy changes by the Government of India. Nevertheless if all of us become internally secure through spirituality then it can help us in living sustainably and the pressures on resources of the country can be reduced. And with proper planning and enlightened policy of the Government, Indians can enjoy a very high quality of life without becoming over consumptive.