The Tiniest Trash Bin

As I approach the tiny, blue bucket of wizened, cracked plastic propped near the sink, various molded plastic and rubber items in hand, the servants washing up start to snicker. I falter, standing there in a crumbling tenement apartment in Mumbai, India. My children and I have been visiting relatives, awkwardly attempting for weeks now to make our engorged, coddled Western selves fit in.

The decrepitude, the rubble of cement, dog shit, and paan spit, the newly sprouted hovels of rags and cardboard scraps, these are all around continually surprising us. A slab of concrete from the balcony above us has just crashed to the ground, sending the neighborhood into a flurry of gossip, jokes, and half-meant recriminations. My children are shocked, but this is all par for the course. What is strange in this environment is me, clutching my little scraps of refuse, full of uncertainty. In my hands are partially broken toys, a punctured rubber ball, a spinning top fallen out of favor.

My children, whom up to now I’ve considered relatively unspoiled—I mean, at home we recycle, we compost, we don’t even watch TV!—have turned out to be a never-ending font of garbage and waste. The servants are laughing at me because, unlike the other dozen people who live in this 4-room apartment, it seems that I am on some merciless mission to overload the long-suffering little waste bin with perfectly decent things.

These aren’t large things, indeed they are routine entrants into our garbage bin at home, across the ocean—a bin that is, by the way, several orders of magnitude larger than the mini-bin that I approach in this story. But I have been living in this flat for long enough now. The servants are used to my unseemly wiles. They point to the counter. ‘Put the stuff there.’ They’ll pick through it, use it, fix it, do something that a thoughtless, spoiled American such as myself would never think of.

This is not the only example of my American profligacy, exposed so relentlessly on this recent trip to India. There are many. I also left a small plastic container at a restaurant, for which I was sternly chided; I borrowed a steel cup from my cousin’s flat for my hotel room, for which the household apparently went into a frenzy of accounting, before graciously questioning me about its whereabouts, my casual reply provoking great sighs of relief.

In contrast to my heedless waste and thoughtlessness is my relatives’ resourcefulness and care towards their own meager goods. Every kilowatt is precious, every drop of warmed water counted. Seeing it humbles and shames me, for this, of course, is how we must all start to live, should we like to start truly paying for the resources we consume rather than making battered Nigerians and Colombians, poisoned Alaskan seals and Iraqi orphans pick up the lion’s share of the tab for our cheap oil and plentiful steel.

And yet, while I pause, disgraced by the larger meaning of this transfer of garbage from American suitcase to Indian trash bin, a much larger, more vigorous transfer proceeds virtually unchecked. While commentators cluck about Indians ransacking American jobs checking tax returns, giant oil companies and carmakers who helped create the greasy edifice of wanton overconsumption of the earth’s resources that we call the “American way of life” steamroll it into developing countries.

First came the images, via satellites, of machine-made things to buy. Next come the cars and roads to drive on to buy the things, then the sprawl as the cars carry the people away from the cities and towns. The distant people require yet more things, preferably of a disposable, drive-in nature, as more drivers means more congestion means drivers have less time for anything other than driving. It is a self-reinforcing cycle of consumption made possible by the powerful, carbon-belching, oil-burning miracle of steel, the car. And the car must colonize new regions.

SUVs or not, automakers and oil companies know that the next hot market for them is unlikely to be in the West. The American automobile market had been technically saturated by 1990, when the average American household owned one car for each of its licensed drivers. By 2000, automakers were spending almost $10 billion advertising their cars outside the United States. Where GM and BMW lead, BP and ExxonMobil follow, busily building pipelines, bulldozing new deals to fuel their new “growth markets.”

Between 1992 and 2002, American export credit agencies handed out over $30 billion for fossil-fuel projects to developing countries; the World Bank almost $25 billion. It is 100 times more than the Bank doles out for renewable energy projects, according to one analysis. After all, ensuring that developing countries consume increasing quantities of oil is “crucial to the long-term growth of oil markets,” the U.S. Department of Energy opined.

The result? Today, congested, slum-ridden mega-cities from Calcutta to Jakarta are vanquishing their well-trod footpaths and bike alleys for asphalt-paved roads for cars driven by the elite. The city of Shanghai went so far as to ban bicycles altogether from its avenues late last year. Fire-breathing cars have entirely overwhelmed the ramshackle infrastructure of Indian cities. In Bangalore, it is not possible to travel from point A to point B, if the two straddle separate neighborhoods, in less than one hour, no matter the distance.

The roads are a continual molasses of sidewalk-to-sidewalk cars, motorcycles, and auto-rickshaws, idling, honking, and smoking. Locals take their lives into their hands every time they venture across such roads by foot, by any measure a fairly reckless endeavor. A few years ago, a bus plowed over my cousin, dragging her slaughtered body behind it for several hundred meters.

During my two-week stay in Bangalore I was personally involved in two car accidents. The taxi I rode in crashed into a bicyclist; a car bumped off a motorcyclist. I leaned out the window and watched as the drivers yelled half-heartedly at each other, my handkerchief clutched over my mouth and nose in a fruitless attempt to keep out the black airborne crud that bunged up the corners of my eyes and nostrils every morning.

By 2020, developing countries, led by China and India, are expected to consume almost 90 percent as much oil as the industrialized countries. The growth in their demand for oil could outstrip oil demand growth in the West by almost 2 to 1. It is only natural, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Growing populations and burgeoning industrial economies in China, India and the rest led to “rapidly rising consumer demand for transportation via cars and trucks powered with internal combustion engines.” At home, we talk smugly of energy efficiency, of new hydrogen cars dripping pure water, of reducing greenhouse gas “intensity,” of our new “clean” service and electronic economy. Meanwhile, developing countries still burdened by the infectious diseases that the West conquered decades ago—malaria not the least among them—plummet into the snakepit of industrialized diseases brought by our Western car-driving culture.

Alongside starvation and malnutrition are the demons of fast-food drive-through culture: obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, all reaching epidemic proportions in developing nations from India to China. Along with tuberculosis, they now have epidemic asthma, triggered in no small part by the volcano of fumes spewing from tailpipes.

People of all walks of life scurry about wearing face masks. Up above, the dust, ash, and smoke from Asia’s poorly regulated cars and factories have congealed into a giant dark cloud of smog, one that blocks out as much as 10 percent of India’s sunlight—the two-mile-thick “Asian brown cloud,” a permanent fixture now stretching thousands of miles over the skies of Asia.

And then, to add insult to injury, people like me visit, adding a bit more junk to the growing mountain of waste. The most pungent aspect to all of this is that no-one in my hopeful, middle-class family appears to look down on me for it—worse, it appears that some actually aspire to my grotesque carelessness about the precious goods we claw out of the earth. My suitcase is lighter; in my wake, the tiniest trash bin is fuller. I wish they would hate me for it, but they don’t, not enough.

Sonia Shah, soniashah@igc.org, is a freelance journalist. Her book Crude: The Story of Oil is forthcoming from Seven Stories Press in September 2004.

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