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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2011

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Editorial - Back to Mumbai

Last month I was lucky enough to go back to some old haunts in Mumbai, where I spent some fun-filled years a few decades back. That was when Mumbai was Bombay and India was far from the emerging giant it is today. That was before the Internet, before “globalization” had been coined a 21st-century phenomenon, and before the country's economy opened wide enough to bring Western-style fast food and an urban middle class nearly the size of the entire U.S. population.

I went to familiar spots. The Gateway of India, built in 1911 to commemorate King George V's visit, was just the same, except the intense security since the tragic terrorist attack at the Taj Hotel across the street. The expanse of the Indian Ocean from Marine Drive was still as majestic, except the new green space created for strolling and recreation. The colonial architecture left from the British Raj was still there, except it was towered by new high rises and office buildings. The traffic creeping from downtown across the long, narrow strip of land on which the city rests was still impossible, but the streets were jammed with myriad models of high-priced cars instead of the socialist-era, gas-guzzling Ambassador.

The new dynamism of the city was palpable. Shopping malls and fancy stores abound. After decades of selling shoddy products that most could not afford anyway, stores attract consumers with imports and luxury items. Many have come to the city for lucrative careers, many are buying things their parents would never have dreamed of affording, and many are happy to be part of the world's second-most populous country's grand experiment with Western-style materialism.

The old-style environmentalist that I was years ago would frown and disapprove. After all, the city still harbors Asia's largest slum and life is far from rosy for the millions who have streamed into the city hoping to partake in the economic boom. And I would mumble that the newly found materialism is shattering the culture, gobbling resources, and polluting the water and atmosphere. But the realist that I have become sees that millions have more choice, more freedom to pursue their creativity, more education, better health, and more options. The prosperity and bustle in Mumbai felt wonderful.

The looming question mark, of course, is whether billions in the world's emerging economies can enjoy the same lifestyle that we enjoy in the West without bringing the planet's life support system to the brink. By most accounts, the answer is “no” without a different model for more efficient energy, food production, and resource consumption.

Three articles in this issue of Environment address the dilemma—millions in the emerging world are enjoying happier, more productive lives but setting off a new wave of soaring greenhouse gas emissions and destruction of other species' habitats. Ko et al., in their article “A Conflict of Greens: Green Development versus Habitat Preservation – The Case of Incheon, South Korea” point to inherent trade-offs and conflicts in even well-intentioned “green growth” policies that try to resolve the dilemma. In South Korea, the green master plan pitted renewable energy from tidal power against preservation of wetland habitat for migratory birds. Which should take precedent? Part of solving the dilemma is better information for efficient planning. Wågsæther and Ziervogel focus on the Western Cape of South Africa to highlight the gaps between water resource managers and climate scientists in their article “Bridging the Communication Gap: An Exploration of the Climate Science–Water Management Interface.” Without accessible and accurate climate information, how can managers plan their expanding infrastructure for sewage treatment plants and dams in the face of a climate different from that in their historical records? The authors conclude that climate adaptation and mitigation need to be mainstreamed in development plans. The dilemma cannot be addressed without financial support from the wealthier world, as noted by van Kerkhoff et al. in “Designing the Green Climate Fund: How to Spend $100 Billion Sensibly.” They suggest strategies for implementing the climate fund, a major financial initiative proposed in 2009 for developed countries to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. These three articles collectively point to the roles of political will, practical information, and financial support to pursue an alternative development path that meets aspirations but maintains the planet's functions.

The sounds and sights of development are everywhere in Mumbai. Roads are being paved, bridges and buildings are being built, and those shrines to consumerism, shopping malls, are proliferating. These sounds and sights are not only in Mumbai, but also in the rest of the country and emerging economies throughout the world. The window of opportunity is wide open to follow a more thoughtful, resource-efficient development path than the existing model.

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