Why “rich” and sustainable?

An Australian friend looked closely at the front page of Appropedia and saw:

Sharing knowledge to build rich, sustainable lives.

He said “Oh, rich – you got that American thing happening.” When I stopped laughing, I told him why we use the word rich.

In developing countries, we’ve sometimes found a perception that sustainability is being foist upon them, to block them from having wealth like that of wealthy nations. Something like, The rich folk are already rich, and we want to be like them, but now they’re telling us we have to be “sustainable” instead. You can imagine the resentment. This isn’t entirely imagined, either – think of the worry about the impact of many Indians driving efficient micro-cars, when we the wealthy world’s job is to worry about the multiple enormous cars belonging to families in our own communities (and to think about the kind of leadership, the kind of “wealth” we’re modeling).

That’s not the sustainability we want. Appropedia stands for a fair and just sustainability. Moreover, we know that with the appropriate choices in technology and design, with access to medical care, with water, sanitation and transport, richer lives are possible. A small, well-designed passive solar house is a pleasure to live in – superior to a poorly designed mansion. Healthy soils yield fresh, abundant, delicious food. This is the prosperity we’re talking about.

These are the riches we envision for the world.

Wealth, poverty and community

Tonight Indonesia is celebrating – fireworks, rhythms beaten out on oildrums in the back of pickup trucks, and prayers continually ringing out from mosques. It’s the end of the fasting month, when people from across Indonesia “pulang kampung” – literally, “return to one’s village.” (People have been asking me if I’m going to pulang kampung, and I answer that my kampung is very far, so I won’t be going just now.)

Over the last few days, roads, trains and buses have swollen with people for the yearly return home. Jakarta, the megacity, is quieter than I’ve ever seen it – this really is a huge exodus. Many years ago I saw a photo of a man being helped onto a bus heading home – it wasn’t possible to fit in through the door, so his friends lifted him up as though they were pallbearers, and passed him through an open window. Train stations are a sea of people.

Tomorrow people will visit friends and family, asking forgiveness for past wrongs, eating and drinking, but above all reconnecting.  This is a Muslim tradition, but people of other religions are often involved, being visited and sometimes visiting as well.

But like Christmas in my own home culture, this is a hard time for some. Many can’t afford to go home, especially if home is a thousand or two thousand kilometers away on a different island. Walking the relatively quiet streets, you see the people who have stayed behind – busy working and hoping to go home next year, or mentally ill or down and out.

It strikes me again that Indonesia is a rich country with many poor people. I think about the things that could help them. I don’t have the answers – but I maybe have a few ideas, and I know others have better ideas. Imagine if we all shared our ideas, in food production, health, children’s education, financial literacy programs and business, found the best of them and promoted these. Think what changes could come about.


Wonderful fruit in a humble package (another mango, in Malaysia)

Visiting a friend last year in the peak of the Australian summer, I was lucky to be staying a 15 minute walk from a fantastic indoor market for fruit and vegetables. Tropical fruits were mixed in with Vietnamese and other Asian groceries, and near closing time the fruit sellers would discount their fruit and tout it loudly.

It was mango season, and I’m a mango fan, so when I saw a shop had 5 different kinds of mangoes on sale, with samples, they had my attention. That included some small, soft, wrinkled mangoes – I assumed they’d have that sour, unpleasant, overripe taste – but out of curiosity, I tried the sample.

In an instant, like the food critic in the animated film Ratatouille, I was transported back to my childhood. This was the same fantastic, indescribable flavor, better and more real than any mango I’d had in years. As a child I loved my mangoes squishy ripe, and now I realized why: that’s how this variety is meant to be eaten. I piled several kilos into the bags I’d brought with me, and enjoyed them over the next few days.

I was lucky that summer. You don’t often get surprised by fruit in your average supermarket, or overwhelmed by choice, and you don’t generally get ugly, wrinkled fruit, even if they taste better. But if you have an excellent market near you, or you have your own tree, vegetable patch & fruit-producing shrubs, and especially if you trade produce with someone else who does, you can be lucky, and get a taste of abundance.

What inspires me about Appropedia is not just that it supports renewable energy, permaculture, healthy soils, clean water for all – though those things do inspire me. But it’s more – Appropedians share a vision of abundance with people around the world, with hard-nosed science and engineering types working on sustainability, along with Transitioners, permaculture devotees, and people of all different cultures and philosophies. We know that a low-carbon economy could be a better and richer economy in the ways that matter, and we’re finding ways to help create it.

Sharing our knowledge and wisdom about how we’re creating abundance is one of the ways that we bring it about.

To explore this idea of knowledge sharing and a better world, over the next few months we’ll be having guest posts from leaders of online communities. Tomorrow: the OECD project, WikiProgress.

Image by me (CC-by license). This is a very different mango, which I bought from the roadside in Northern Malaysia in 2007. Green with pale flesh, it was another wonderful surprise – absolutely delicious.