Playing Hot Potato (Pass the Parcel) with Mother Nature

Turn Down the Heat: Climate extremes, regional impacts and the case for resilience,’ a World Bank report released in June 2013, states that South Asia, with India at its centre, will experience a temperature rise of two degree Celsius. This will happen in next two to three decades; much before the expected date of 2050. This will lead to major climate crisis causing widespread food shortages, prolonged droughts, unprecedented heat-waves, more intense rainfall and flooding, threat to energy production, and most importantly water scarcity.



Do we need more evidence to argue that the Earth’s environment is getting polluted and degraded?

Probably not.

Do we need more education for people on the causes of this pollution and degradation?

Probably not.


We all seem to be aware and knowledgeable that our contemporary lifestyles, rising global population, use and disposal of various (modern) everyday things, excessive consumption, unregulated industries, and means of travel have led to a faster rate of environmental pollution and degradation than ever before. In fact, almost everyone is aware that our everyday living in endangering the environment.


We are also using up Earth’s resources at breakneck speed in order to supply people with plastic lamps, pens, mobiles and artificial ducks for our backyards. Countries like India and China, exemplified as successful case studies of the neo-liberal economy, have actually become environmental basket-cases.


The data are there. Information is available through the internet, newspapers, television, films, and school text-books. However, most of these informed people seem to be engaging in those very behaviours that are damaging to the Earth. We do not see any visible evidence of behaviour change – in a pro-environmental direction. Information is not enough because we do not want to think about that information. Who wants to think about dangers? Who wants to reflect? And none of our friends want to talk about it. Who wants a dialogue on difficult things that may require coming out of one’s comfort zone? Or the pain of changing habits?


So, can we expect anyone to do something (or anything) about it?


We sought to find out whether people are moved – persuaded – to act for the environment – in pro-environmental ways by engaging in pro-environmental behaviours. By pro-environmental behaviours we mean any and every behaviour – small or major – that is positive for reducing pollution or for protection and conservation of the environment and the planet.

We visited small towns and big cities on the banks of a major river in northern India, and listened to different groups of people: college students and corporate employees, husbands and wives, priests and pastors, farmers and fishermen, boatmen and biologists. We asked them to tell us their views on pro-environmental behaviours. We wanted to find what moved them or would move people towards positive actions – what would resonate with them, connect with them and compel them to change their existing unhealthy environmental behaviours?


What did we find? What are people doing?


Almost all the people (adults) we talked to knew that the environment was in danger; they invariably mentioned the consequences of a deteriorating environment on their own health and safety, and the future of this planet. Everyone said actions were necessary to conserve, protect, save the environment. And NONE of the adults said, “I do not want to do it. I do not want to do anything to save the environment.”


Great! We thought.

We probed further: So you must be doing things to save the environment? Tell us more.


The answer was: Hot Potato (Pass the Parcel).

When it came to action – actual change of personal behaviours in their everyday lives –to save the environment, most adults regressed to being a child. They seemed to be playing the children’s game of Hot Potato (Pass the Parcel). Almost all of them said that it is not my responsibility – alone. It is the government’s responsibility or industries are spreading toxicity and they should be controlled, or retorted that everyone else is doing it – polluting, throwing trash, so ask them to change first. They conveniently passed the blame and responsibility for changing behaviours to another.


Hot Potato – or – Pass the Parcel – is a child’s party game where an object is passed around and whoever is left holding the potato is punished – that child has to do something that is inconvenient. And most adults did not want physical inconvenience in their everyday lives despite knowing the inconvenient truth about the environment.  So they simply passed the hot potato – psychically.


Asking an adult to take actions to save the planet is like asking a child to clean his/her room. 


The child knows the room is messy, but does not take the necessary steps until it is pointed out by the parent. Most people know that pro-environmental behaviour change is absolutely essential, but feel that the required changes to their behaviour are difficult and do not fit into their everyday circumstances. The adoption of pro-environmental behaviours in everyday life requires people to go against the grain of their contemporary everyday circumstances and current behaviours. People use the examples of being habituated to electricity and electrical gadgets, even operating electrical gadgets with gasoline (diesel) generators during power outages, continuous water supply and showers, traveling by cars, taxis or buses and of buying plastic and electronic gadgets that are freely available.


Using the analogy of a child’s reactions to cleaning his/her room, even the responses of adults to taking actions to save the environment or changing personal behaviours can be further classified into five main categories:


Response One: “I will do it later.”

Not today, Mom. Most children will first try to postpone the action of cleaning a room because it is an inconvenience; it will take up time that can be spent on more interesting pursuits such as texting a friend, watching TV, or playing a video-game. This was a common response among the adults to pro-environmental actions. Most people felt they could continue with their behaviour for one more day and nothing much would change. Thus, they could conveniently postpone action for tomorrow.


Response Two: “Others are also dirtying their surroundings. Why don’t you tell them to change first?”

This is almost like a child pointing to a sibling’s dirty room when asked to clean his own room. Pointing to another or shifting the blame is another way to deflect from the required behaviour change or pro-environmental action.


Response Three: “I can’t do it. It’s too big for me. I am too small to be able to do this.”

A child uses this response because the magnitude and size of the problem of a messy room just seems too big. Most adults see the big picture of deforestation, carbon emission and ozone layer depletion and they feel these problems are too big. This is a planetary problem and I am just a small creature. However, they do not visualize the small steps that they can take to solve the problem. They are presented the large picture; they stay with the large picture and are unable to break it into smaller pieces or steps. Therefore, they feel incapable of tackling the issue.


Response Four: “I don’t know what to do or how to do it.”

The child is essentially saying that I do not have the necessary know-how and skills to get the job done. So the mother or father assumes that if take the child into the dirty room and start the process, show the child the way forward, it will move to its logical conclusion of a room being cleaned by the child. This response follows from not knowing exactly how to go about pro-environmental actions. We assume that such people, if given the correct knowledge, will automatically change their behaviours. However, it is possible that “I don’t know what to do” is another way of postponing the inconvenient.  And more importantly, can we wait for everyone to have the knowledge and skills about pro-environmental actions?




Now that we had these four responses, our next question was: Do you think it is even possible to save the environment? Who will save the environment?

Adults were openly pessimistic about the ability and motivation of other adults to change their behaviours. One interesting response from adults was that there is no point in educating and communicating change to adults. It will not work. Therefore, most adults felt that all resources and energies should be directed towards educating children about pro-environmental behaviours. Children were the only hope of saving the environment.


Now this is a convenient solution put forth by many speakers in many such meetings: Children will save the future. But isn’t this another convenient way of not taking responsibility and passing the “hot potato” (or parcel) to children?


To expect children to suddenly become responsible and take care of the planet is almost like saying the child will rear the parents. Adults had not thought through the question: how can children ever become change agents? Children learn by imitating their parents and other adults around them. Obviously, the children will see adults behaving in environmentally-irresponsible ways. Children are instructed by adult teachers who like other adults are incapable of being exemplars or role models of positive environmental behaviours. Most importantly, children learn a lot from watching television and what do television’s commercial breaks teach our children?


When we raised these barriers that may hinder children from becoming saviours of the planet’s future, the adults nodded their heads in agreement. This led to a discussion on the kind of society we live in.


Interestingly, many people are highly aware of the kind of society they live in. Just because they buy things blindly does not mean that they are not aware of the manipulation through advertising and the real meaning of discounts given by marketing. Some adults said that we live in a society and culture where instant gratification is glorified and sold 24/7 on television, radio, hoardings, and newspapers. Every item is branded. Every sign and symbol around us exhorts us to give in to our impulse – to go out and purchase a slice of heaven and experience it here and now. We are constantly asked to go out and just do it – now; which simply means – buy it.


On the other hand, pro-environmental actions or behaviours tell us not to do those things – they require us to withhold our impulses for instant gratification. Saving the environment inconveniences us. And environmental behaviours are dissonant with our everyday practices. We are used to buying things wrapped in plastic, we use various electronic gadgets in a day; we consume gasoline for travel, and various chemicals in our houses and on our bodies. We do not walk, ride cycles, use cloth bags or go out of our way to that one shop in our city that stocks ecology-friendly soaps and shampoos.


They were almost unanimous in agreement that communication alone is not sufficient. Communicating to people about the threat to the environment and about the required pro-environmental behaviours is necessary but not enough, not sufficient.


So our next question was: What can we really do to change people’s behaviours?


This brought us to the 5th category of responses mentioned above.


Response Five: “If you do not discipline me, then I am less likely to do it.”

Going back to the analogy of the cleaning of the room, adults once again regressed to being children. The fifth response clearly showed that they wanted some enforcement or punitive mechanisms. If you want me to clean my room there cannot be just communication or even a carrot; there has to be a stick as well. Most importantly, if I am the child asked to clean the room, I should also perceive the parent as being strong enough to wield the stick if I do not comply, otherwise the stick is meaningless.


Society-level actions are required, better policy and strong, strict enforcement of that policy. One person gave us a graphic demonstration of how the plastic sachet he threw on the road would end up in the open gutters and then in the rivers or oceans and kill the fish or other organisms. And he said he would probably keep doing it until he was fined heavily (at least once) or even sent to jail. Strict enforcement of a policy makes people perceive that government is serious about the issue and that the issue itself is a serious one.


For the success stories of strict enforcement people cited the examples of seat-belts, speeding laws, pollution control enforcement for cars, and payment of income taxes. Many of them said that a car is pulled up for not paying registration fees, or if the driver does not have a license or if seatbelts are not worn. The driver or owner of the car pays heavy fines and then complies with the required behaviour (at least for a few months afterwards).  They also cited the case of income taxes – and how it is the fear of being punished that often makes people pay taxes.


Most people said that if plastics are indeed bad for the environment then there should be a ban on their production in the first place. Companies that produce electronic gadgets should find a way to either reduce toxic metals or chemicals in the product or factor in the cost of disposal. People seem to know that the environment is suffering collateral damage for two reasons: one is the over-consumption of environment-unfriendly goods and products; and second is that the price of damage to the environment is not factored into the prices of these good or items. They alluded to the fact that these extra costs of saving the environment could be added to the price of simple goods such as soaps, shampoos, electronic gadgets, mobile phones and so on. Some even said there could be a gradient of environmental add-on costs starting from low add-on costs for those that cause less damage to high add-on costs for those goods that cause severe damage to the environment.


However, they also agreed that it would increase prices and most of them did not want to pay a higher price for any product or gadget. This brought out the collusion that exists in today’s society between the producer and the consumer. And the environment continues to suffer the collateral damage. And we are postponing the payment of that environmental cost into the future – in time – when our children become adults.


Then, aren’t we as adults only playing hot-potato with Mother Nature and passing the parcel of a damaged Earth to our children?




We finally asked:

How can we make these adult-children become adults again and take responsibility for the planet, for Mother Earth?


The answer that emerged from people’s response is what we would like to term as “Communi-Action.”

Not communication – but communi-action.

What do we mean by communi-action?

The responses to the question on the future of pro-environmental behaviours, especially cognizant that adults respond like children when it comes to saving the environment, was a combination of two things.


First, they said that to encourage people to act pro-environmentally more high quality interactions are required between the different players – the families, communities, local government, civil society agencies, industry and national government. People complained that there is no such democratic platform where people can air their views on environmental problems freely; and most importantly a platform that was directed towards positive actions and behaviours that could help create a better environment for that town or city.


All that people got were slanging matches on news channels and empty promises and full bottles of alcohol during elections. A platform for communication that is action-directed was needed at local levels. When asked who would do this, almost everyone responded that it was the governments’ job. If a non-governmental agency did it, they might even be successful, but because of the success it would soon be discredited by government and the paid media. People had a lot of hopes from their democratic governments despite their general cynicism about it. They also cited the fact that the government regularly takes taxes for waste disposal but the work is not done. They were openly asking for open, accountable government with a local platform to ensure that this system worked. People were willing to give up their own privileges if such a system was created. However, the condition was that it must work and work consistently, not just be a flash-in-the-pan movement. People were not asking for bigger government or a nanny-state, they were asking for effective governance and local participation. Isn’t that an ideal of democracy? However, it seemed ironic to us that India proudly calls itself the largest democracy in the world by displaying its elections. But, the people of the largest democracy, which means power of, by, for, and to the people, were strangely powerless. And like children were asking for someone, some superhero, to clean up their government and restore their people’s democracy.


Or was the child (adult) daring the father (government) to clean up the house before asking him to clean his room?  


Second, they said that any communication on pro-environmental behaviours had to be backed-up with actions by the government.  For instance if the communication material (Television advertisement) told people not to use plastics, then the communication had to be backed by actions such as a strict enforcement of the ban on plastic, strict ban on production of plastics or imposing heavy fines on such producers and polluters. Government actions had to be clear, had to be enforced strictly and consistently. Government could not be lax towards industries and sellers while telling people that using plastics was bad on their part. After all, an individual citizen did not sign the licence for a polluting factory; it was the government official under the protection and banner of the government that allowed these polluters to set up shop. Wasn’t it the responsibility of those that allowed polluters to start their business to also ensure that they stopped polluting?


A few adults clearly told us that they were asked to separate waste in their kitchens and put it in separate bins. They did it; diligently separating the organic waste and recyclable waste. However, they would see the garbage collector (assigned by the government) openly mixing those bags and dumping their contents in the back of the same truck. So, what was the point of the communication about separating household waste?


According to people, saving the environment requires both the ‘communication’ and the necessary demonstration of enforced ‘actions’ by the government. “Communi-Action” would, thus, serve two purposes: it would make the communication messaging more potent and the government or policy-maker more believable and credible. This combination was more likely to cause actual pro-environmental behaviour change.


Were these adult-children of Mother Earth telling us was that they wanted consistent parenting (with the government seen as a parent)?


Or were these adult-children once again passing the hot potato? 


One elderly man said: When we go to war against a perceived enemy country, we do not hold back, do we? If the government is serious about it, many citizens voluntarily give up privileges so that the country can fight the war; many industries are asked to give up privileges – airlines stop flying to certain parts, media does not cover certain issues, howsoever sensational, and so on. If our government takes up the environment issue on a war-footing then things will fall into place. Many adults will willingly start engaging in pro-environmental behaviours. The idea of a war makes us believe that the government is serious and so everyone takes it seriously and then changes are forced upon people and they comply. If the environment is truly as seriously damaged as we think then isn’t it time to go to war for Mother Earth?


However, the people in the house were divided; some were making money out of creating the mess in the room; a lot more were having fun with the mess, and therefore no child wanted to clean up the room. And the house suffered, but who cared as long as the (consumption) party went on…


As we walked away we thought the only problem here is that we have to go to war with ourselves? And does a child have the stomach to go to war with himself?





© Nilesh Chatterjee & Dharmendra Singh, 2013.




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© Nilesh Chatterjee & Dharmendra Singh. Playing Hot Potato (Pass the Parcel) with Mother Nature: Who will save the environment and How? The Essayist July 2013.



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Hot Potato (Pass the Parcel) Game

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