The 2019 Himalayan Consensus Summit in Kathmandu was an exhilarating event with many inspiring and some intriguing presentations on the brave new world of the future of work, regeneration of damaged environments, and imagined wonders of the circular economy.
Discussions covered worrying trends such as the melting of Himalayan glaciers, extreme weather patterns, and increase in sudden-onset hazards that threaten people’s livelihoods and lead to increased out-migration.
The younger generation should not be discouraged or disheartened with some of these gloomier forecasts. Erring on the side of optimism, it is possible to imagine a different, more hopeful future. If the people and leaders of the Himalayan region play their cards right, it can be the first fossil fuel free zone by 2050. The Himalayas have all the renewable resources — plentiful sunshine, roaring water resources and gusting winds — required to create an economy free of fossil fuel. To realise this potential, it is important to cultivate enlightened leadership and ambitious vision, and harness new technologies to create new kinds of jobs as well as find new ways of protecting the environment.
Just as the young environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, has awakened the world’s conscience, it will take an army of young environmental activists from across the world to persuade adults to follow their leadership, vision, and ambition for a brighter future.
With a billion people under its canopy, the Himalayas can show the world that regenerating and protecting the environment is not only imaginable but also doable.
This may sound utopian, especially when the great subcontinent metropolises — Kathmandu, New Delhi, Dhaka, Islamabad — are choking in smog, littered with garbage, and entrapped with gas guzzling vehicles. This is certainly the reality today, but the region need not be doomed to this as its destiny.
Growing consumerism has encouraged consumption in ever-increasing quantities and the disposal of barely used clothes, computers, cars, cell phones, and other consumer goods in favour of new replacements.
Vast quantities of such products fill landfills, spoil and destroy the environment, and lead to the extraction of even more raw materials. Such activities pose a grave threat to the environment. It is, however, possible to imagine a future economy not based on endless extraction of increasing quantities of raw materials, but on recycling of old or barely used commodities. This is one way to view the circular economy.
As an example, mountains of used clothes shipped from all over Europe and North America are recycled in Panipat, Haryana.
Every piece — buttons, zippers, and clothes of different colours and sizes — are meticulously separated by thousands of workers, mostly women, both in their homes and in community settings. These clothes were originally stitched in places like India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Indonesia and shipped to department stores and fancy boutiques in Europe and North America. After being recycled in Panipat, used clothes are turned into new yarns that are reused in carpet and garment factories and shipped back to Europe and North America as brand new carpets and fancy clothes.
The same could be done with barely used mobile phones, computers, cars and other consumer goods. Doing so will require labour-intensive work that will generate employment and environment friendly hightech solutions that can create new kinds of jobs and lifestyles.
The concern for protecting the Himalayan ecosystem can be channelled into innovative solutions for recharging the Himalayan water reserves and conserving Himalayan flora and fauna. This may sound rather far-fetched and utopian.
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the greatest transformations in human history have been shaped by utopian dreamers, not by conservative realists. The revolutionary idea of one generation often becomes the common sense of the next. Our dream must be for the future generation to live in harmony with the environment while having a decent and dignified life bestowed on them by a circular economy with the help of new technologies and human ingenuity. Young leaders and activists — the Himalayan Greta Thunbergs — are needed to help make this dream a reality.
******The author is the Advisory Board Member at Nepal Economic Forum. He serves on the boards of several national and international organisations and public-private partnerships. Previously, he was the Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.