Sustainability lessons from developing countries: what the Western world can learn
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Developed nations are often seen as the leaders of sustainability, paving the way for others and inventing the green technologies of tomorrow. Developing nations on the other hand are seen in a different light, one that includes pollution issues, overcrowded slums or corrupt leaders. But in reality who is actually leaving the biggest mark on the environment? Who should we really be looking to for sustainable inspiration?
Despite any technological advances or policy changes, “First World” countries still consume and emit at levels far from sustainable. Less than a quarter of the world’s population consume 80% of the world's energy. If low-income developing nations consumed at the same rates as high-income developed nations, that would be the equivalent of supporting 80 billion people. The disparity in ecological footprints is clear, and it isn’t something that can endure in the long run. There are valuable lessons to be learned from the countries required to get by on less.
“Third World” countries have lower emissions and use less energy simply because they are less industrialized. They have smaller economies and consumption across all categories is vastly lower than developed nations. But in order to bring the quality of life in these areas up to a reasonable level (i.e. access to clean water, adequate food, power and sanitation) there will be an unavoidable increase in environmental impact. The planet is stretched to its limits already, so the only reasonable way we can achieve this is by having the high consumption developed countries lower their own impact. This is where the lessons from the developing world may be more relevant, as people there have traditionally adapted to a low footprint life and have very different mindsets when it comes to necessity.
Curitiba, a city in Brazil, is considered part of the Third World and has made huge strides in public transportation. They have a successful ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ system that is used by 80% of the city’s population. This frees up traffic congestion, makes the city more livable, and reduces the overall impact of transportation. Why was this system so successful? People there don’t usually own individual vehicles, something that many First World countries heavily rely on. The normality of shared transportation should replace the need for personal luxury and convenience.
Agriculture in developing nations tends to be operated on a much smaller scale than developed nations, and often incorporates indigenous farming practices. Crop rotation is one example, a practice that has been around for thousands of years. By ensuring no plot sees the same crop multiple growing seasons in a row, it successfully preserves the productive capacity of the soil, reduces the need for pest control and chemicals, and improves nutrient contents. Malawi has begun to bring this practice back via the Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology project, which is led by local farmers. They aim to teach about sustainable agriculture techniques, like crop rotation, in order to improve food security throughout Malawi. Developed nations on the other hand often rely on a globalized network of monoculture that is susceptible to the changing climate and requires high volumes of pesticides and fertilizers. Incorporating traditional methods of agriculture that actually preserves the land and increases crop yield could be extremely valuable for the Western world.
The difference in cultures between First World and Third World nations is a huge part of their differences in environmental impacts. People in developing nations often have cultures that are built around sharing, strong community, and less materialism. Though this is mainly out of necessity rather than choice, the lifestyles of people in developing nations produce a vastly smaller ecological footprint. Even small differences in the way we live, like developing nations' tendencies to reuse and repair rather than dispose and repurchase, make huge impacts. One of the best examples of this is cell phones. Less than 1% of retired cell phones in the US get recycled, whereas in countries like India and China there is a huge market for used phones. You can get a diploma in India from a “Mobile Repairing Institute”, and make a business out of repairing and recycling old cell phones into functional ‘new’ ones. Western nations lack this practice of valuing ways to reuse and repurpose things that otherwise would become waste.
Western nations tend to see forward progress as a means to sustainability, when alternatively they could take inspiration from areas of the world that are less technologically and industrially advanced. There are always ways to learn from each other. Whether that may be between people or between countries, there is infinite value in finding what others can teach you. Just because the developing world has a lower standard of living and cannot afford the same luxuries as other countries, does not mean they have nothing to contribute to the path to sustainability. It might be that because they are not reliant upon these high consumption lifestyles, that they are better suited to adapt to whatever the future may hold.