Fossil fuels are killing the planet. If we want to survive as a species beyond 2050 we need to invest in sustainable infrastructure like hydroelectric power plants and wind turbines.
That was the narrative I was presented throughout my standard US education: a fact fundamentally undeniable in my mind from the age of six onward. But, as with most things in India (and in the world at large), the reality of the situation has proven far more complicated.
Our first morning with the Sambaavnaa Institute we toured a hydroelectric power plant. After a winding car ride up an unpaved road, we looked down a small canyon to the rushing river. Looking up, we saw a thin metal pipe that snaked it’s way down a vibrant swath of green. We shuffled our way down the hill, reaching the river. As we strolled down stream we encountered large concrete damns, numerous plastic tunnels, a few terrestrial leeches, two silt chambers, and an utterly deserted processing building. All the infrastructure along the river was essentially useless as the plant sat abandoned. The three large turbines, the barrels of petroleum lubricant, and even the small religious shrine in the main building remained unused. A shift schedule posted on the wall collected dust, no workers in sight.
We learned that the local power lines were being used to capacity, meaning that the power plant, even if operational, would be entirely useless.
We questioned why the plant had been built in the first place, given that it served no purpose: a relative lateral move that failed to benefit the planet. At this point, Mohammad—our sambaavnaa director—began to tell us about the environmental damage the plant had caused, not just its failure to generate something beneficial.
I had never before considered the multifaceted harm of so-called “sustainable development.” The explosives used to carve the road out of the mountain side, the siphoning of water that disrupted local wildlife, and the pollution from project construction that caused health issues within the local community—the costs of production that had been magically absent from my mental conception of “sustainable energy.”
Mohammad described how the disruption within the local community wasn’t equalized with plentiful new jobs or cheaper energy, and wouldn’t have been even if the plant functioned perfectly. Throughout the Himalayas, hydroelectric power plants outsource labor, and private power companies sell energy to the government grid, where it is then sold at a much higher price back to local communities. Development, even when theoretically sustainable, still causes extreme detriment to thousands of rural villages throughout India as private corporations maximize profit.
The metaphorical “seedy underbelly” of eco-sustainability shocked many members of our group and challenged our assumptions and previous knowledge. Our group spent time questioning the future of sustainable development, the exploitation of the global south, and the impact of our own actions on a heavily ingrained system.
Development is a phenomenally complex topic; our experience with a single hyrdroelectric power plant served as a mere introduction to a nine month (or life long) discussion regarding the planet, systematic inequality, and the notion of progress.
As we continue throughout the program, we will continue to learn about each other’s views as well as our own, as they are continually challenged by new information and diverse perspectives. After all, we are only three weeks in.