Sabbatical in India. The First 24 Hours.
Theme of the Day: Thrive Global.
Upon arrival in New Delhi at midnight, I’m happy to be driving away from the airport. The freeway on the other side (headed in the direction of the airport) is a parking lot. Even at midnight. We were fortunate to land somewhat on time, which I’m told is rare this time of year, when the smog (smoke/car exhaust/fog) is so thick that it becomes unsafe for planes, trains and automobiles. There is about a mile of visibility. Just enough.
First thing in the morning, I look out my window. The air is stagnant and pungent, with a smell that I can only describe as caked-on soot. Imagine an exhaust pipe blasting your face and clothes daily for decades.
I am blessed to be in a beautiful home, with lovely hosts, who are going way out of their way to make me feel at home. It says a lot about the famous hospitality of the Indians that they are doing this, as my hostess just lost her mother earlier in the day, quite unexpectedly, and has headed off for the funeral first thing in the morning. My heart is breaking for her loss, particularly as she, through her pain and tears, is still scurrying about to make sure that my eggs and toast are prepared to my liking.
I just lost a treasured, close family member unexpectedly in November, so pain and loss are quite palpable to me. This is, in fact, why I’m in India in the first place. My thinking was that healing from such loss, under the wisdom guidance and teachings of The Dalai Lama, is the right thing to do. I didn’t know when I registered for The Dalai Lama teachings that the place I’m going, Bodh Gaya, is one of the most sacred places in all of the world, where every Indian vows to go at least once in their lifetime to honor their ancestors.
The blankets on my bed were thick and heavy and strong to the scent, smelling of car exhaust and curry, too. I slept in my clothes.
As I gaze past the water tower, the vacant lot, the three-story homes in the distance, the dogs and street dwellers reaching for a handout, there is a scrim of grey so thick you could carve out a charcoal brique and barbecue burgers with it. My host calls it a “clear” day.
The cows don’t seem to notice, content when they’ve found a vacant lot to graze in. I’m off again by Uber to the train station. Happy to be escaping Delhi to Bodhgaya, the Bodhi Tree, where I hope I can breathe more easily.
The pollution in New Delhi prompts me to think of the saying that when a butterfly flaps its wings in Hawaii, the weather changes in China. We think that we can thrive on our own, but we actually Thrive in a more Global way. What happens to my sister in India happens to me. The same clouds traverse the globe.
The Dalai Lama delivered this message during his 80th birthday celebration on July 6, 2015, which was held in Irvine, California. According to His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet:
Nations take interest in their own nation first and then global interest. They should take global interest first, and then national interest. Serving humanity means that each nation gets the maximum benefit. We have to look at this holistically.
When you are in a city where everyone is just trying to get around, stuck in traffic, racing off to work just to make ends meet for their family, which is as true in Los Angeles and Denver as it is in New Delhi, nobody listens when you say, “Stop! Can’t you see that we can’t breathe here?”
I’ve lived long enough in the Los Angeles area – since the 1980s – to remember when smog was terrible there. Emissions standards have helped the air in LA, a lot, but not the traffic, which has become a parking lot, as problematic as the bottlenecks in New Delhi. New Delhi is so steeped in smog and economic challenges, that it’s hard to imagine emissions standards helping, even if they were adopted. The underlying problem remains. Having one or two people sitting in a car, blasting their horn and jerking in and out of lanes is a rather inefficient, unsustainable, unsafe and dirty way to move people around, no matter which city it is.
We can get addicted to the convenience of petrol to the point where the lung cancer statistics just don’t hit home. Or the asthma statistics. Or the stench in the air. Or the rising sea levels, depleted coral and plastic gyres. All of which are scientifically tied to carbon emissions and the burning of fossil fuels. From India to Melbourne and everything in between.
Can bike-centric cities become as en vogue as gas guzzlers were in the 1950s when this whole fossil fuel fiasco kicked into high gear? Can that happen fast enough to save humanity? (When you are choking on air in New Delhi, sustainability does take on a heightened urgency.) One thing is for sure. You can see miles in the horizon in cities like Amsterdam, where most of the citizens ride a bike to work. (You’ll routinely see mothers with their kids in a cart in front of the bike.) New Delhi and Los Angeles are a lot more spread out than Amsterdam. However, they also have neighborhoods, where it is possible to center your life, where bikes could, at minimum, peddle you to the store for milk, food and toilet paper.
Now let me sing a few praises of New Delhi that energy hog Westerners can learn from. My host family had quite a number of sustainable habits that were novel to me.
The water heater has an on/off switch.
Turning off lights is a religion.
The heating and cooling is managed with clothing more than a thermostat.
Water pressure is low, prompting short showers.
By contrast, in many homes that I’ve been fortunate to visit across the United States, most people heat their water 24/7, while they are sleeping and while they are at work, never realizing where the energy comes from and how costly energy really is, in the budget and to the environment. An on/off switch would cut the average water heating costs by 80%! Since U.S. electricity is powered 65% by fossil fuels and 20% by nuclear (with 15% renewables), every time a convenience clicks on, we are part of the problem, whether it is a water heater, heating, cooling, or even baking a few potatoes in a large oven.
Thriving is a global endeavor. We can’t force change on New Delhi or Los Angeles. Clearly, waiting for the politicians to solve the problem hasn’t gotten us very far. However, if we believe that bike-friendly cities, like Santa Monica, Portland and Amsterdam are just hipper (and many Millennials do believe this), then maybe the cool factor can inspire change citizen by citizen. Maybe, inspired by the Indian ethic of conserving energy and water in the home, person by person, Americans can lead sustainability by example, as well. There is no discomfort in putting an on/off switch on your water heater. You get the same amount of hot water instantly, on demand, with an 80% reduction in the cost. And that is the lesson for so many of our conveniences, if we just stop and think of a better, less polluting way.
So, my first day in India reminded me of how small the world really is. Though separated by the daily awareness of what happens in cities outside of where we live, we are intimately connected … from the air we breathe, to the oceans and seas. Chances are that each one of us can make a bold and brave change to help ourselves and the planet upon which we all depend. The big things count now. Recycling just isn’t enough (though it is certainly a good start). I pray, today, that we begin to think of each other as intimately connected and that we Thrive Global and make goals that get each one of us closer to personal net zero. The Paris Climate Talks are an important part of that.
You can get informed about ways you can make a HUGE difference by downloading the two free, picturesque, Earth Gratitude ebooks, located at EarthGratitude.org. These ebooks feature the wisdom of sustainability experts such as Elon Musk, HH The Dalai Lama, HRH The Prince of Wales, The Earth Day Network, Global Green, Deepak Chopra, Arianna Huffington and more.