Climate and sanitation: partners in shame

The connection between Winchester and the village of Dabena in the state of Chhattisgarh is not exactly self-evident. Central India is out of range of those feel-good twinning schemes so popular in Europe. We are instead united in shame, the shame of anti-social behaviour.

I was reminded of the story of Dabena in updating our Water and Sanitation Guide this week. The village sarpanch (equivalent to the chair of a parish council in the UK) cleverly exploited a visit of district dignitaries to fulfil his aims of social reform. As well as showing off the shiny sights of the village, he dragged the group around the defecation field, leaving nothing to the imagination.

The fawning villagers who tag along on such occasions were so humiliated that almost overnight their insanitary habit of open defecation was abandoned.

In development circles this event has become known as the Walk of Shame, symbolic of new ideas for community-led change in poor hygiene practices in India and beyond.

Thankfully there are no defecation fields in Winchester, although some dog owners do their best. Our history of shame started in October 2007 when a WWF report pronounced the city’s residents to have Britain’s largest ecological footprint.

The Stockholm Environment Institute, which contributed figures for WWF, continues to publish reports castigating Winchester’s households for their average annual carbon dioxide emissions of more than 25 tonnes.

Our parallels with Dabena go much deeper than the language of headlines. We have both been frustrated that long-established ways of life are resistant to appeals for the common good.

Those villagers were behaving irrationally in using the fields. Their backyards had been equipped with state-of-the-art pit latrines at government expense.

This has been a problem in India for years; day-to-day hygiene behaviour won’t respond to the crude weapon of financial subsidy. The sarpanch managed to tap deeper forces of shame and peer pressure.

We’re much the same in Winchester. There are all sorts of government subsidies to encourage low carbon living, from loft insulation to tax breaks for low emission vehicles. We accept these gratefully but our lifestyles remain the paler shade of green.

Nonetheless, as in Dabena, something of a transformation may be under way. From the low point of that WWF report, Winchester may be on the brink of applying for Transition Town status, the ultimate badge of approval for eco-friendly intent.

This is largely thanks to the efforts of an unusually incisive pressure group, Winchester Action on Climate Change, founded in the same month as the WWF report was published.

A condition of membership is registration of your carbon footprint and an action plan to reduce it. Progress is then published on the website (with permission). I imagine the approach has something in common with the shaming philosophy of Weightwatchers, the periodic disclosure being in tonnes rather than kilos. Certainly, I’d like to see the lady who admits to over 11 tonnes trying a little harder.

I hope it works because environmentalists are greatly in need of good news stories. With the Copenhagen conference relegated to a staging post, we must look even more to individuals to take control of our futures.

The problem with carbon dioxide is that it doesn’t smell and you can’t tread in it. Its harmful impact is found not in the back field but on the other side of the world. No wonder we’re struggling to get the message across.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK