According to some experts, we are already consuming natural resources at levels that are 30 percent above renewable. Part of the solution to this is reducing wasteful, but for many people, that remains an ideal. The prevailing attitude seems to be “Let’s do it. You go first.” The problem here is how to get the majority of the world’s busy, working population to do its part. While I certainly support conservation efforts, I am pessimistic that changing mindsets or public campaigns are enough to change behavior. To succeed, we need to work from the other side of the equation. We need to rethink what is being produced as well as consumed.
As we search for new ideas, like withdrawing subsidies for fossil fuels and taxing air travel, we could pay more attention to old-fashioned, traditional practices that accomplish similar ends. This is particularly important in developing countries, where ecologically-appropriate products and livelihoods are rapidly being discarded, disposed, and replaced by consumer cultures. Women’s experiences, which are often intermingled with traditional technologies, are particularly relevant.
Take the simple example of women’s clothing. My Burmese sarong is two yards of cloth that can be wrapped and fitted at the waist whether I’ve overeaten or slimmed. My mother’s Korean skirt that she wore when she was 16 years old still fits more than 65 years later. We can add these items to a list of everlasting garments: the Indian saree, Senegalese robes, even a revived Roman toga for men. None of these are likely to be discarded because they are designed to fit for a lifetime.
Consider knitting. In a French village, I learned that women knit endlessly for an economic reason. The beauty of wool twine is that it becomes a sweater, skirt, or pants for any child. Then, in the magical hands of the maker, it can be unraveled and remade into an adult’s shawl. Similarly, quilt-making uses odd pieces of cloth and recycles the leftover contents of closets into essential bed linens. In rural Bangladesh, blankets are often made entirely out of worn-out sarees carefully hand-stitched in layers for warmth.
Rural communities in many countries provide other excellent examples of recycling systems that help reduce consumption. Service providers repair broken appliances, computers, and farm tools, partly because they are forced to use their own ingenuity and partly because have spare parts. Most markets have special days for trading goods needed to repair radios, used furniture, and almost anything sold elsewhere in the stalls.
What if governments supported micro-enterprise loans in the service sector so that women could own businesses recycling products? If service charges rise, government subsidies could be applied to support the service sector, and consumers would find it cheaper to repair goods than throw them away. Women already have many of the skills needed to use traditional technology and products. They need a chance to combine these skills with the new. the “You first” attitude could become “Me first”, and that could make all the difference.