Is Sustainability Bad For Women? Let's Look At India.

Bruce Nussbaum

There's a great summary of the Design With India Strategy Conference that I attended on the Core77 site. I found it extremely interesting because the conference raised a very important point in the overall sustainability conversation--does the concept itself imply a stasis in the social and political order that harms the less powerful, especially women. Just what are you sustaining and how does it effect different groups of people?

At the Design With India conference, Bunker Roy, founder of the Barefoot University, argued that we need to preserve the rural life of the people in the 650,000 villages of India. We need to preserve and rebuild the arts and crafts culture of those villages so they can be sustained in the modern world. People wouldn't have to leave for the cities and generate the kinds of problems we have in terms of overcrowding, energy usage, and degradation of the environment. That's what his university is doing.

Now the audience of about 200 didn't really challenge Roy on this notion, although one IIT grad did stand up and say he thought it was a mistake to preserve the old and not focus on building a modern India.

The real discussion on sustainability came later, after the official conference was over and food was being served, when a number of women confronted Roy and challenged his idea. They argued that women in India are the creators of culture, including pottery, weaving and most of the arts and crafts, that Roy wants to save. Yet, they said, it is the women who are held down and not given opportunities. It is only when women leave the village to go to towns and cities and get education that they are freed. So sustainability in this context is sustaining an inequitable society.

So the lesson here is that we need to think of sustainability in terms of economic growth and upward mobility. Whatever kind of sustainable economy we develop in the years ahead, it will have to be a dynamic one that allows for social change. If we cap growth and freeze everyone in place, it isn't going to work. In India today, it is the women in the rural villages who will suffer the most if village culture is simply preserved.

We had a similar discussion a couple of decades ago about The Limits To Growth. Sustainability has to be a lot more than rich people and countries with big carbon footprints giving money to poor people and countries to plant trees. It has to be well-thought out as a concept and we're not anywhere near there yet.

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