Nitin - We need to recognize that there is a serious problem

Nitin makes it possible for more of us to consume consciously by sharing what he has learnt about the different aspects of sustainability. He's part of Green Initiatives, an organization focused on spreading awareness about environmental issues, providing education and creating local solutions.

Where are you from and what brought you to Shanghai?

I'm originally from India, I was born in a town in the centre of India (‘Raipur’), but I went to school in the south (‘Ooty’). Ending up in Shanghai initially was due to plain bad luck. I was to do an internship in Milan, but that didn't work out at the last minute, while my internship in Shanghai that I casually applied to worked-out.

On my second day here I thought to myself, this is an incredible city, it's crazy. It is so big and crowded, yet safe, and compared to India it is pretty well organized. I saw that there's a lot happing here, but that there's still a lot that needed to be done - with all the growth and development I would have a part to play. I started to run Green Drinks in April 2011, a monthly environment-focused networking group and I also had a full-time job in a marketing & branding agency. Green Drinks had already been running for over a year but the guy who started it was getting tired of it, so I gradually took over from him. His initial support in the transition was quite valuable since I was still very new in Shanghai.

What does sustainability mean to you?

I don't really have a fixed answer. Sustainability means different things to different people. I am always reminded of Mahatma Gandhi's quote, 'The earth has enough for man's need, but not enough for man's greed.' I look at it as consuming only as much as rationally necessary, and within natural resource limits without damaging our environment. So for me, it's about being mindful of the resources we consume, In a way, it’s just the opposite of what we have been conventionally taught to do and the opposite of GDP growth, which is about consuming more. 

That I feel is also the challenge with ‘sustainability’ - it's too big a word. People think it's not their problem, that it's the government's problem or business's problem. People feel that they are too small to do anything about it or to make any tangible difference.  The word ‘sustainability’ has been used and abused. A lot of its meaning and the message behind it has been lost. Even many individuals who work in the ‘sustainability’ sector have no idea what it means when you look at their own personal consumption. I mean, how can you be advocating for ‘sustainability’ and yet, be ordering takeaway food (‘waimai’) every single day?

I believe sustainability needs to be broken down into simpler, smaller, more understandable bits. It may mean different things in different countries. In China, for example, sustainability is a lot about health. In an average Indian household, on the other hand, people are very mindful of waste (food, clothing, etc) without even knowing about the word ‘sustainability’.

We need to find better ways of establishing a connection between people and their cultural or historical backgrounds.

What are you passionate about?

My passion lies in education and the environment. I was very fortunate to grow up in an amazing environment and in a great school but I took the environment for granted.

But when I started living in Shanghai I really started to value things more. I do not claim to know a lot, but I’ve learnt some things from my family and upbringing, while a major part has come from the last seven years of being involved in Green Drinks and Green Initiatives. After running over 300 environment-focused events I feel like I know a little more than the average person on this topic, that we are really missing the big picture, how big a problem it is and so I believe it's my duty to share it with those around me.

Education is a big part of the problem. If you don't know something people can't blame you. But if you know something and you don't do anything about it there's something wrong. It's not that people aren't willing to do something, it's just that people don't know enough, or what's really right or wrong, or how to make the right choices. Our schools have not taught us about things that are truly valuable, like staying healthy, or eating well or keeping our environment healthy or how do all these things related to each other and to us. Despite growing up in a good school in India, I’ve never learnt this either. That’s also why I feel education is very important.

When we talk to someone here, everyone wants to do something ‘sustainable’ but very few people know where to begin and fewer connects the dots. That's what we are trying to do: connect the dots between environment, education and the individual. We don't have to change the entire world, in fact, we do not need to change anybody. But even if we can inspire a small percentage of people on the problem and solutions they have the capability to inspire or change the remaining 90%. We need leaders that move people in a positive direction. 

How do you consume consciously?

I wish I could have a zero-waste lifestyle, but I am still not there yet, in fact, I’m quite far from it. I do a few things though: I cook very often, I don't eat out much. I never buy plastic bottles (water or beverages), I save dry plastic bags and use them for grocery shopping, I never buy takeaway coffee, I cycle a lot and have greatly reduced driving my scooter. I rarely watch TV. I try to at least do the basics right. I'm also vegetarian, except perhaps to ‘try’ select local things when I am travelling.

What else could you do to consume more consciously?

I am trying hard to move toward a vegan diet. It is so challenging to change old, childhood habits, but I'm trying to reduce my dairy consumption. Been trying to explain the same to my parents and friends. I’ve reduced drinking milk and eventually would like to cut down on dairy products. I wish I knew these things when I was younger, like the animal cruelty behind the industrial production of dairy products, or the health/environmental benefits of plant-based stuff. What I was taught, though, was that milk is healthy, it’s got calcium, and animal protein is good. I was never taught about environmental issues and how we contribute to it. Here again, education would have played a big part in my life, if introduced early.

Right now I still buy some things like bread and lentils in plastics that I’d like to reduce. I would like to reduce the amount of travelling. Although I try to do a bit of carbon offset here and there, I haven't come up with a way to reduce the impact of that. 

When did you become more conscious of your consumption?

It was a very gradual process for me. Most of it was through our events, 80+ film screenings and 100+ seminars and all the research that went into it over the last 7 years. The Plastic Four challenge we ran in July is another example. Traveling to different parts of Asia and seeing all the waste being dumped in beautiful, pristine environments has been deeply shocking. But just being conscious of my consumption makes me become more aware of how the world works. The concept of zero waste has had a big impact on me as well, working with a no-impact plan is very powerful. 

How would more people becoming conscious of their consumption change the world?

Once you're conscious of your consumption, you realize that there are things you could do without, that you could live with a lot less than you imaged, and that some things, hard as they may seem, could be easily avoided. For example, when I wasn't aware of the impact of industrial livestock farming I was just eating whatever I wanted, but then when I saw all these films I started to think, wow this is insane, do I really need to eat that? When you suddenly start asking yourself questions, you get your own answers. It's about knowledge, changing your attitude and taking personal action. The more you know, the more you realize there are things you can do without. When people make a change it has an impact on their own lives and secondly, on those around them. It creates a ripple effect. It takes time, it’s not easy, but it's much better than doing nothing at all. One person's energy has the power to positively affect the community around him. People realise that they too have that power. 

What's the easiest part of consuming consciously?

The easiest part is that you are healthier and happier. If I take my personal example of eating out: what are the advantages of me cooking often? I cook healthier food since I know what’s going into it, I buy ingredients from the local fresh markets with reduced packaging, I support the local economy, I see happiness on the face of people I buy stuff from, I carry my own lunch to work and socialize with my colleagues. Since I don't order takeaways I'm not creating waste. Cooking is also a really important part of my day - I spend 15-16 hours a day on the computer so cooking really relaxes me, gives me time to think and introspect. It also takes me away from the digital world. So a single action has so many advantages, and I believe for different actions we can create multiple benefits. 

What's the hardest part of consuming consciously?  

Knowing that despite doing all the above your are still creating waste. Sometimes you need to buy things, especially food items, and it all comes in packaging. I would like to do more but feel we need more accessibility or systems to purchase things loose, or we need more options so we can make better choices. People might say, ‘don't buy those things’, but living in an urban context it's much harder to find alternatives. So yes, urban environments themselves are cut off from local production systems. You end up having the knowledge that something's not right, but you feel helpless sometimes, it's painful. People are so pre-programmed to act in a certain way that they don't realize the impact of their actions. 

What are your top 3 practical changes?

  • Eat less meat
  • Cook more often
  • Buy/support more locally (business and/or organizations

What are the biggest challenges we face today?

To me, the entire waste situation is a big challenge. The amount of waste we produce for what we use or underuse and what we think we need is crazy. I wish we could take everyone to visit a waste site, to see how much waste is created. Another problem is the lack of empathy, the lack of desire to do anything about it. We are so absorbed in ourselves, in our lives, in what's good for us or important to us or what keeps us temporarily happy. I wish people would go outside that bubble and see things around us. We don't want to see the dark reality of it. To most of us, as long as we don't see it, it's not there. There's just so much to be done. We have really talented people who have so many skills. If only we could use these skills in the right direction we'd have a lot more change happening. 

For example, a close friend of mine from India, an incredibly smart guy (much smarter than me!) took a job with Pepsi. I was already few years in my environmental journey, and for some reason, I felt terrible about it. He was from a pretty well-off family and kept asking myself, ‘why does he need to sell unhealthy sweetened water with all this talent and intelligence?’ Perhaps it was my ego, or just I didn’t understand him or his needs better. Or maybe he did not know better.

If the whole world was listening, what would you say?

We're all in it together, we need to recognize and understand that there is a serious problem in the way the world is moving. There is a problem with the way the environment is being treated, there's a problem with the waste we produce, with the way social issues, poverty and suicide rates are getting higher and that we are getting more disconnected from each other. We don’t have too many options, we cannot wait for things to change. We need to change the world ourselves. We have the resources and the talent. We just need the awareness, the awakening and the willpower and selflessness to act on it.

What do you do? 

I have two jobs. In my full-time job, I work for a company that focuses on healthy buildings through technology. We believe that we spend so much money on creating workspaces where people spend 90% of their time and they should keep us healthy, not make us sick or less productive. I'm also a part of Green Initiatives which is focused on increasing awareness on environmental issues, with sharing information and creating local solutions to problems that we see around us. Currently, our major focus has been on community education and action.

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Cornelia BlignautComment