Friday, December 18, 2009

How Much Impact?

The Gambia is a long way from Copenhagen, and the distance between the perspectives of the average Danish and Gambian citizen is possibly even greater. Thanks to the BBC World Service, however, the happenings at the environmental summit in Copenhagen are known and discussed by the Gambians who have had at least some schooling. Environmental awareness is not a totally alien concept to West Africa, so many have opinions about what world leaders, especially Barack Obama, should do in the way of legislation, green development projects, and the like. Unfortunately, most conversations I hear are not about what the western powers can do right in the future, but about what they have and are currently doing wrong. It should be taken as a given that Americans, Chinese, and Western Europeans are responsible for the great bulk of the damage that has been done to the environment. There is such a wealth of statistical information on the internet and in print that supports this that I will not attempt to do so here. What my perspective as an American living in West Africa gives me is anecdotal evidence of the attitudes that Gambians have about this discrepancy. The most common one, in my experience, is not anger at the wastefulness of wealthier nations, but envy of it.

Very few Gambian households outside of the wealthy Kombo districts on the coast have the means to consume much carbon, despite the great desire to do so. My district is without a power grid, as is the entire region except for a couple of administrative and commercial centers, which only have electricity about ten hours a day. My village has at most 10 generators, only one or two of which are run any given night due to the price of gasoline. There are perhaps 20 motorcycles and 3 trucks or cars among the approximately 1500 people in the village, meaning that public transport, bicycles, or walking are the only options for most people. There is no indoor plumbing in any of the rural villages and towns, and even in administrative centers such as Basse, toilets are only to be found in NGO and government offices.

As such, the carbon footprint of the average Gambian is very small as compared to the world at large, due almost entirely to poverty. In villages, the idea of depriving yourself of anything just for the sake of the environment would be laughed at, and loudly. Driving a car is always better than walking or biking. Drinking water out of a bottle is always better than out of a well. Something easy in a package shipped from far away is always better than harvesting, pounding, and cooking for hours. It is somewhat ironic that people who are itching to do some polluting are completely unable to do so, while people like the famous "No Impact Man", Bill Nye, and Leonardo DiCaprio are polluting exponentially more while ostensibly doing everything they can to avoid it.

The government in the Gambia is doing its part, in theory, to change the collective mind of the people. The last Saturday of every month, the epic "Set Settal environmental cleansing exercise" is performed across the country with much aplomb. This event consists of women sweeping and men raking all of the litter that people throw indiscriminately for the rest of the month into great piles and burning them, filling the air with dust and fumes from burning plastic and rubber. I have no figures to back it up, but my suspicion is that the respiratory problems caused and carbon released as a result of the bonfires far outweigh any of the benefits of having less clutter in the streets for a week or so.

"So what are you doing?", you may ask. Well, by necessity, I am living the Gambian green lifestyle- pooping in a hole, bathing in a bucket, walking, biking, and being jostled in crowded bush taxis. That's all well and good, but a month after I get back to the states I will probably have made up for these lean two years. Something more useful I have been attempting has been to encourage the idea that planting trees after chopping them down is not only a considerate thing to do, it is absolutely essential if Gambians don't want to live in a desert. The Sahara moves further south each year as a result of deforestation, and as population gets denser and denser, trees get thinner and thinner. In theory this should be easy--every Gambian knows that trees are extremely useful as a source of food, lumber, firewood, and numerous local medicines. They just aren't so receptive to the idea of doing more work than they have to. I did manage, with the help of my counterparts Karamo and Mamadi, to get a large group together to plant a cashew plantation a few months ago. Have they fenced it yet? No. Have goats eaten some of them? Yes. What am I hoping for? I am hoping that, even if every single tree is eaten and fire scorches the plot, that maybe one of the kids that helped plant trees will like this idea, and that when he is a few years older, he will start his own plantation or tree lot. Then his daughter will do the same thing, and on and on, ad infinitum. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won't, and I most likely will never know either way. All I have is my good will and the hope that I've made the right kind of impact.


  1. i had exactly this conversation with my host father. i was trying to explain why solar is better, and why even in the US, where electricity is plentiful, solar power is encouraged. he thought it was absurd.

  2. You made some great points, Brendan. I found especially interesting the idea that people who pollute the least really just can't afford the lifestyle that pollutes, and would love to do more!!

  3. BRENDAN! When was the last time I wrote to you? Well, what is best: e-mail or facebook? We've really missed you and I hope all is well!

    I, also, wanted to let you know that I nominated you for an award on my blog :) (I just started it recently) Not sure when you will be on here next so I will link to that entry for you: