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Third world countries: What can they teach us about sustainability?

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Ani Talwar explores what we could learn about sustainability from ‘third world’ countries and how the developing world could be seen as leading the way in living a more sustainable lifestyle.

Third world countries; typically associated by the West as being less developed and not as technologically advanced, and perhaps the underdog in the sustainability game. With high income countries (HIC’s) like the US averaging at incomes 100 times higher than the poorest countries, are we becoming frivolous whilst they are becoming better at reusing things?

As of 2018, HIC consumption rates were up to 30 times higher than Lower income Countries (LIC’s). In fact, if LIC’s consumed the same amount HIC’s consume, then the Earth would be supporting the equivalent of 80 Billion people.

Curitiba for example, in a defined third world country, was the first city in Brazil to develop bus lanes along with ‘Bus Rapid Transport’ systems used by 80% of the population that carry 2 million people a day. Compare this to the US of whom barely over a tenth take public transport daily or weekly.

What lessons could we learn about resources?

Frugal uses of materials are showcased throughout other LIC’s. Assam in India for example have promoted novel and sustainable uses for bamboo. From baskets to furniture to even sieves and cups, these sustainable creations can be reused up to 100 times before they need to be disposed of, given they’re cleaned and stored well, proof that as more developed countries who make 500 million plastic straws a year (US in 2020), we can learn something from the frugal nature of those with less resources and perhaps more creativity.

Take even tourism, for example; as one of the biggest UK hotspots, London experiences lots of tourism, and has high pollution ratings for air and moderate for cleanliness, noise, light and water pollution – whilst the quality of green spaces in London was rated high at 79.17.

Chandigarh in India gives the eco friendly city system a run for its money.Compare the air pollution rating in Chandigarh for example. It is fairly unclean atmospherically at a rating of 46.14, but London’s rates 66.16. For reference, Chandigarh is amongst the most popular tourist destinations in India, attracting thousands of visitors a day, so not too dissimilar to London, but the main attraction of Chandigarh is the rock garden.

The rock garden is made entirely out of reused household items and waste. This means Chandigarh, with its reuse waste ethos, has a very high cleanliness rating of 64.33. London’s cleanliness rating is 50.81. Even York city has a lower cleanliness rating than this city in a third world country – York rates at 60.71 – still high, but we could still learn something from these places we hardly ever focus on.

However, there is more to sustainability than just reusing some waste or growing some bamboo, and indeed it has to be taken into account that different population sizes and geographical locations that make each country different.

There is so much to learn on resource management

Whilst the facts are shocking, the message of this report is that as more developed countries, we consider it our duty to improve ourselves and there is often talk of how we will help lesser developed third world countries improve themselves too.

In this mindset, we don’t often look at these countries and appreciate what they do with the fewer resources and lower incomes in order to live sustainably. We don’t even realise what we could learn from other societies.

Evidently there is plenty to learn, these countries can therefore also teach us a lot about how to improve the way we use our resources.

About the Author: Ani Talwar can be found at @Mischief.weavers, she wrote the book ‘ATRO- CITY THE FLOOD’ and cares passionately about sustainability.

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