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Deconstructing unconscious bias in the environmental crisis

ByDhruti Chakravarthi

Oct 17, 2019

Let’s paint a picture. A person exits a zero-waste store holding a jute bag that reads the slogan ‘System Change not Climate Change’, in vibrant emerald green. Sporting a rather dishevelled look, they are happily examining their newly purchased bar of chocolate made from fair-trade and farm-owned cocoa in Ghana, with no palm oil and soya, certified vegan and made from recyclable packaging. What do you think the gender of this person is? What are their religious beliefs? How do you think they are politically inclined? What was the colour of their skin when you pictured them?

As humans, we have innate and conditioned tendencies to compartmentalise and organise social worlds. In the process, we form social stereotypes about groups of individuals outside of our own conscious awareness. This unconscious bias and the way we perceive risks, as cultural groups, strongly affect the relationship we hold with our environment, the lifestyles we lead, particularly in light of the climate emergency.  

Evident is the cultural, economic, gender-based  unconscious incongruence structuring our participation in the global climate movement. Our strategies and approaches for change is systemic and prefabricated by global capitalistic structures, with a lot of trends being perpetrated from a eurocentric standpoint. This influences our perception of what a sustainable world should be, the relationship we build with our environment and the lifestyles we should adapt.

When you envision a ‘sustainable community’ do you picture the world landscaped with futuristic carbon-neutral cities, embedded with skyscrapers, zero-emission, fast-paced vehicles, fuelled by a sustainable techno-centric lifestyle? Or do you visualise the life of the Lambani tribes in Southern India? A nomadic community living within their means, only consuming food grown locally, migrating through dessert areas with a minimum amount of water, no basic commodities like soap or shampoo, spending their time embroidering old textiles with mirror, decorative beads and coins. 

Or are you able to picture a juxtaposition of both worlds? 

Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in its breadth and scope can be by adapting local practices  as circumstances warrant.  Respecting local initiatives and endemic ways of integrating sustainable practices into our lives, will ensure that our unconscious bias does not act as a prejudice in the global movement. We all metamorphose in very different social circumstances and our perception of living sustainably drastically differs.

The Department of Social Responsibility and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh released a poll on Instagram in collaboration with The Student to identify whether pricing is a barrier to living sustainably in Edinburgh. 72 people voted yes and 9 for not really. This made me reflect on some of the experiences and exposure I have had towards sustainability. 

I grew up in Bangalore, India. Within the 5 kilometre circumference that I lived in, I regularly observed children of my age who could not go to school, drowning in poverty and restricted by countless structural inequalities. I saw the necessity for the Sustainable Development goals in real-time while growing up. In the last two years, through my time at the University of Edinburgh, I have observed that my perception of sustainability is very different, consistently reflecting the environment and culture that I grew up in. Never have I felt more passionate about the intersectional approaches of living in a sustainable environment.

When I was six, my parents were carrying out a renovation project at our home. This involved hiring a few labourers to get the task done. There was a young boy of my age who was assisting his parents in completing the task. As his parents were too poor and  unable to send their son to school, they brought him along with them to work. Curious to see how the construction of the wall was materialising, I observed  the boy carrying heavy basins of cement and sand mixture on his head and assembling piles of bricks. He would occasionally sit beside me and ask me what I did at school, only to be scolded by his parents for being distracted from helping them work. Right there, even before the Sustainable Development Goals had been conceptualised, I could see in front of me, this young boy and his family ensnared and entangled in the web of poverty, constantly struggling with inequalities, little education, constant hunger, inadequate nutritious food and unsustainable employment — the broad themes of the goals. My parents politely insisted that the family stop making the child work on this project. Reluctantly they agreed.

To beguile the warm summer days, the boy would go to the garbage dump nearby and collect old chocolate wrappers and plastic bags. He would then weave them into bracelets, necklaces and mats. Fast forward fifteen years, and I see similarly crafted “up-cycled projects” at the zero-waste store down my road in Edinburgh priced at GBP 20. If only I could hop into a time machine and tell this boy that his little “creatively up-cycled, zero-waste product” could fetch him GBP 20, a price that would feed his entire family for a month. Realisation dawned on me that in reality, a sustainable lifestyle that is attainable in one world is seen as an exorbitant yet financially limiting lifestyle in another. While the principles of sustainability and social responsibility may resonate on a global scale, it is extremely crucial for us to develop and implement strategies that are tailored to local circumstances, making them accessible to all. 

And finally, to satiate your curiosity of the individual described at the beginning of this piece: the person exiting the store was of Ghanian descent identifies as male and the store is a small wooden shack located in the cocoa producing Ashanti belt of Ghana. The “zero-waste” store sells goods produced in the immediate proximity. The man works on a farm nearby and had purchased a bar of chocolate for his daughter’s birthday. He found the jute bag on the side of a road that an American tourist, who purchased it at $25 discarded on a road trip. He has never been to school, lives in absolute poverty and doesn’t speak English. While he can’t read the slogan on the bag, he is amongst the most vulnerable communities to climate change.


Image: Ellen Blair


An excerpt of this piece were first shared on a Facebook Post by the Department of Social Responsibility and Sustainability as a Feature of Dhruti Chakravarthi as part of the SRS Changemaker series. 

By Dhruti Chakravarthi

Dhruti is the Editor in Chief, the Outreach Officer and former Features Editor of The Student newspaper. Dhruti is a student of Sustainable Development with Social Anthropology and is a recipient of the Edinburgh Award for Media, been shortlisted for the ‘Creating Change’, ‘Commitment to Sustainability’ and ‘Outstanding Global Citizenship’ awards at the Student Awards

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