Next in Line at the Latrine

For much of the nation’s existence, India has either been colonized by its European superiors or shackled with cuffs of poverty. Until recently, the average Indian endured squalor and neediness unimaginable to those of us who expend our excess calories at cardio-striptease classes. Even now, as viewers of the urban fairy tale “Slumdog Millionaire” note with alarm and disgust, millions of people there suffer the soul-crushing degradations of having far too little. Still, thanks to a go-go economy fixated on growth and modernization — helped in some part by American willingness to employ millions of cheap laborers as our trusty customer service representatives in “call center” plantations — India seems poised to be one of the Great Powers of the 21st Century. 

With its fresh affluence, enjoyed, as usual, by a relatively small percentage of privileged oligarchs enriched at the expense of countless others, who will, the theory goes, eventually enjoy the bounty as it “trickles down” to the slums — India is quickly transforming itself into an automobile-owning society. Per capita, private car ownership presently is low, as it is in most “developing” countries. But the leading manufacturer, Tata, is producing unprecedented amounts of new cars, including a no-frills sedan that retails for around $2,000. These cars are not hybrids or electric or capable of running on oxen dung. They’re similar to the 20th Century carbon belchers that the United States of America once celebrated and now recognize as one of the major contributors to the spoiling of our environment. Understandably, advocates of green living (indeed, anyone concerned about global warming) shudder at the prospect of millions of additional cars on the planet. Even if they’re stuck in Mumbai and Delhi traffic, the pollution they emit will eventually impact all of us, even the conscientious Vermonter tending to her organic vegetable garden with composted lemon rinds.

The same scenario is unfolding in our financial benefactor, China, whose thirst for fossil fuels will rapidly match our American rapaciousness. As in India, a dramatic rise in private Chinese auto ownership will hasten the depletion of planetary oil supplies and the disappearance of the polar ice caps. Millions and millions of people will enjoy the convenience and liberty having a car can afford; unfortunately, their descendants will have to figure out how to operate those vehicles underwater.

Amid the justified hand-wringing over What Can Be Done?, a small but powerful clan of pundits, citing compelling science and computer-generated projections, are calling for strict limits to be imposed upon the emerging car consumers. The reasoning goes like this: If we let the Indians and Chinese run amok, with the same blithe disregard for consequences the USA has shown for the past 100 years, our fair-skinned grandchildren will inherit a world rendered unlivable by ambitious Orientals whose dissatisfaction with peasantry and indentured servitude will probably prove terribly inconvenient.

This same sense of entitlement infects our official position of nuclear weaponry: It’s OK for us to maintain the capacity for extinguishing the human species (and most other species below us on the food chain) since we can be trusted, because, you know, we’re somehow morally superior and reliably benevolent compared to inscrutable Communists, Muslims, Hindus, and people who wear pajamas to business meetings. We’re masters of imploring the rest of the world to do what we say, not as we do. But how can the rest of the world take seriously our calls for temperance if everything about our way of life, particularly our obsession with hoarding and consumption, suggests that the American Way is the best and most fabulous way?

We’ve set a stirring example for millions of poor people. We’ve shown them what it takes to become the richest nation in the history of civilization. Our former servants have learned their lessons well. Now, unless we decide to make use of our dormant stockpile of atomic weaponry and cleanse the planet of unwanted Tata owners, it’s time to make way for the next in line at the latrine. We can only hope, however irrationally, that the new excreters won’t befoul the planet as toxically as their industrialized forebears.

Given that they’re digesting the same polluting commodities upon which we’ve grown fat and complacent, it’s difficult to envision a result any less noxious.

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