I cross Rashtrapati Bhavan every day on my way to work. Every day, I am struck by the sight of a large fountain in my path; it is only one of many in the vicinity. In a city that thirsts for potable water, where groundwater levels have dropped dangerously in the past few years, this sight strikes me as a colossal waste, a white elephant from our colonial past.
But then, I remind myself, the ‘wherewithal to waste’ has been a prerequisite of luxury ever since humankind stumbled upon the concept. The more you have, the more you can afford to squander. And so, a luxury residence necessarily calls for large rooms, high ceilings and greater heights that require extensive materials to build, air-condition and maintain. Luxury hospitality necessarily implies the offering of largely frivolous products and services – the very feel-good factor depends on the amount of materials you have frittered away. Luxury experiences – even a ‘simple’ leisurely swim – necessarily involve the use of large quantities of fuel, time, effort, water, electricity or other raw materials. In many parts of India, throwing money (literally, at weddings) is considered a sign of prosperity. The more the waste, the more impressed the owner, customer or guest is likely to be.
This summer, in a ‘first-world’ country, I was offered a meal four times the size of a regular person’s appetite. When I protested about the portion, the genial waitress said, “Oh, have as much as you like, and just throw the rest.” Similar experiences were repeated over wine tastings, coffee stops, even street food. Everywhere, there was a sense of bottomless abundance. No doubt, it is precisely this feeling of having more than you need that sets the developed world apart from the developing; it is this extravagance that divides luxury and lack. But it is also this attitude of waste that has led to some of the worst environmental crimes of the past century.
Nothing is wasted in nature. Even excreta has a use, as manure. All beings, forms of life and even seasonal cycles are designed with expert precision: not one organ goes without a function, not one activity is meaningless, not one event happens by chance. Everything has its place, its purpose. Even a dead whale can sustain millions of marine organisms for up to fifty years! Plants, animals and primitive humans use up only as much resource as they need – carnivores will not kill unless hungry.
It is only ‘modern’, wealthy humans who buy more than they require, who eat (or drink or smoke) more than they can digest, who build more than they can ever use, who waste more than they create. But natural resources don’t follow consumer cultures. We cannot buy fertility, we cannot bribe the earth to generate more fossil fuels, we cannot pass a resolution that orders groundwater to replenish itself. We can only redefine what luxury means to us.
In coming years, when natural resources themselves become a luxury, it will serve us well to re-look at some of our patterns of lifestyle and social behaviours. Let us set new lifestyle parameters that are sustainable, that do not require needless waste to be considered luxurious. If there is one cause we stand up for, let it be conservation. Waste is so last century.