Becoming an Ant in A Waste Land

One of the major factors in moving towards more environmentally sustainable lifestyles and consumer societies is that of cost and, consequently, incentive. A lot also depends on whether the society we live in, with its laws, regulations, customs and practices, pushes us towards more sustainable choices. It’s not just people’s values or government decisions that can make a change. It’s a bit of both.

Since moving to Doha a week ago, I have been forced to reflect on my own behaviour as a consumer. It is easy here to become just another dweller in the ant hill: do what everyone else does and forget about better practices devised and implemented elsewhere.

Having travelled and conducted fieldwork in the Gulf, the Americanised way of living here was no novelty for me. Previously, however, I was able to sniff at the wastage taking place around me; after all, I was just visiting and not permanently participating in the consumption festival.

This time, however, by deciding to move here, I have become part of the problem.

Starting from my flat... Qatari expatriates live large. My flat size grew overnight from 36 square meters to 100 plus. With exceptionally high August temperatures, air conditioning feels like a vital necessity. As I’m writing this, it’s +43 Celsius outside. Air conditioning is needed not only in homes, but everywhere else, too, from offices to shopping centres, as well as in cars. Also,I’m guessing a very large part of the heat is wasted due to bad insulation and over-cooling. On top of it all, many of Qatar’s more fortunate residents never see a utility bill. Natural gas in Qatar, used for both electricity and water desalination, is plentiful—the country having been endowed with the world’s third largest natural gas reserves (13.5% of the global total). Electricity, water and waste fees of expatriates are often paid by their employers. For Qataris, electricity and water are free of charge. Unlike in most other countries, here the economic and environmental costs of modern living are effectively hidden away.

Moving on to cars: On Doha’s streets, the bigger your car is, the better. Against my will, I shifted from being a cyclist and wintertime tram-rider to being the proprietor of a large family car. I can barely see over the hood and still I’m already thinking of switching to a small SUV. Here the choice is not between private and public transport, but rather getting around or staying home. Roads have not been made with the pedestrian or biker in mind (neither are the summer temperatures), and the public transport system is still in its very early phases. Another real concern is staying safe. One easily feels small and intimidated by the massive SUVs, Hummers and other large-ego vehicles speeding on the streets and highways. An amazingly large share of vehicles circulating on Doha’s wide and long roads consists of SUVs. This creates a vicious cycle: people moving here buy big cars too. And big cars obviously consume more petrol. Since we are in a country that, despite its tiny size (smaller than Montenegro or Vanuatu), owns 1.9% of the world’s proven oil reserves, petrol here flows cheap. Exactly EUR0.19 euros or £0.17 a litre. Now who would even think about saving or buying a greener car with these prices?

Finally, waste and recycling: many green expats’ favourite topic to pick at. The lack of recycling facilities and the excessive use of packing material, plastic bags and plastic bottles is what most European expatriates tend to notice when they move here. The camel and the plastic bag have become an emblem of this "new" awareness. My first contact with tiny, soda can-sized plastic bottles in which water is offered instead of water coolers or tap water in my workplace coincided with a news article in Abu Dhabi’s The National reporting that each UAE resident uses as many as 450 plastic bottles per year. Lifestyles and consumption patterns here in Qatar are practically the same, so, with a population of around 1.7 million, this country can be estimated to throw away a whopping 765 million plastic bottles each year.

The amount of waste is a problem, but even worse is that it’s not reused. In addition to the obviously serious lack of awareness of environmental issues, and the lack of effort put into separating, collecting and reprocessing infrastructure for waste, suspicion is a big problem. I have seen green boxes for paper recycling here at my office, but scepticism regarding the fate of their contents seems to nibble away the credibility of even this laudable small-scale project. Water usage patterns are also affected: apart from taste, an important motivator for drinking bottled water is that people believe that tap water, made by desalinating water, is not safe (despite the authorities assuring otherwise).

There are a few common denominators to all this wasting: the climate, the resource glut and the fast societal transformation. It’s a hot, arid country, with a small population and seemingly limitless fossil fuel riches. Oil will be enough for at least another five-six decades and natural gas reserves are expected to last for up to 300 years at current production rates. The country has experienced massive urbanisation, population growth and internationalisation of its demographics in only a few decades.

There’s not much that can be done about the first two things. As for the third , while Qatar’s fast development, increasing globalisation and its wish to be seen as a modern state is already bringing in environmental sustainability thinking on the government agenda, people’s habits and values tend to stick. Qatar has very recently moved from dirt poor to the richest country in the world in per capita terms. Getting used to the new wealth and seeing beyond the bling will take its time. Here, however, the government can play a crucial role. After all, with that incentive system built around us, all we expatriate ants can do is write encouraging blogs and keep placing our paper in those little green boxes.