In a recent post on JoyinEnough.org, Tony Emerson investigated the Ireland of his childhood to see how sustainable it was. Life in 1950s Ireland stacked up pretty well, with localised ways of life and fairly limited consumption.
It made me think about my own childhood, which was very different. I grew up in Madagascar in the 1980s and 90s – the other side of the world from Ireland and decades later than Tony’s experiences, but with a few similarities too. What was life like in 1980s Madagascar? How close did it come to a sustainable way of life? And what can we learn from the comparison?
A faraway place
For a start, Madagascar was one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1980s. It still is. The entire Malagasy economy was worth around $10 billion in 2016. That’s about the market value of Marks & Spencer – a single British high street company worth the same as an entire nation of 25 million people. On a per capita basis, people have an average income of just $450 a year. In 1986, the year we arrived in Madagascar as a family, average incomes were half that.
There are many reasons why Madagascar is poor, including bad governance and corruption. One of the simplest is that it is far away. Along with Timbuktu or Outer Mongolia, Madagascar is the archetypal obscure place. It’s geographically marginalised and overlooked, which is why pirates used to go there to lie low in the 1700s. As an island, there are no land-based neighbours to trade with. Trade has to go by sea, and imports and exports are expensive. That has meant that Madagascar has been isolated and self-reliant, giving it a rich biodiversity but fewer options out of poverty.
Meeting everyday needs
Energy consumption was very low in 80s Madagascar, and to this day it has one of the lowest rates of energy use in the world. Electricity was only available in the cities and bigger towns, and was the preserve of upper middle classes and expatriates. On the plus side, it was almost entirely clean energy from hydropower. Most people used candles and paraffin lamps. Bottled gas was sometimes available, sometimes not, and charcoal was the main cooking fuel. This took a heavy toll on the country’s forests.
Transport options were limited. There were two operational railway lines running out of the capital Antananarivo, one going to the next sizeable town along, the other to the main port of Toamasina. Roads linked the major towns, with large parts of the country more or less inaccessible. Buses and ‘taxi-brousses’ – canvas topped pick-ups with benches in the back – plied the routes between towns, and you took your chances on the narrow roads and hair-raisingly decrepit bridges. Within towns, people walked or took the bus, or might hail a man-powered rickshaw if they had a load to carry. Taxis were available, mostly little French cars. Some of them were decades old and quite literally held together with string and bits of wire.
If my ten year-old-self were to see me now, the biggest disappointment would be that I don’t own a Land Rover. Like most missionary families, we owned a car and I was very fond of ours. It was somewhat battered and had eccentricities of its own, such as a homemade lock on the passenger door. (Why would anyone sell a car with locks on two of the three doors?) There was a metal panel between the two front seats that you could slide out, for no apparent reason, and see the road flashing past underneath. Private motoring was very much an elite activity. Car parts were hard to come by. Since there was only one oil refinery and it was vulnerable to cyclone damage, fuel shortages were not uncommon. The longer we lived in Madagascar, the more we used the bus.
The staple food in Madagascar was rice, often served with beans or nuts. People ate fish, especially on the coast, but meat was a luxury. We kept our own chickens and ducks. Beef – from Madagascar’s distinctive hump-backed Zebu cattle – was for special occasions. There were almost no processed foods beyond local biscuits and a limited range of sweets and snacks. Many convenience foods were unavailable or only for sale in Prix-Unique, the capital city’s version of Harrods. We would buy a box of breakfast cereal from there for Christmas or the occasional birthday.
Instead, we made our own. My mum baked bread, dried fruit, and made yoghurt. There were dozens of flavours of home-made ice-cream in her repertoire. I remember my sister making marshmallows. My father missed cornflakes and conducted various experiments in making his own, most of which had the flavour, colour and consistency of cardboard. English comfort foods may have been unavailable, there was a fabulous range of fresh fruit and vegetables to make up for it. This diet was low meat, firmly local, fresh and organic – quite sustainable in land use terms, though rice and beef are major sources of methane emissions.
One of the most striking differences is around waste. Many people simply burned their rubbish, though others had central collection points where household waste would be picked up and taken away. On one memorable occasion we visited the landfill site outside the city, taken around by a Catholic priest who worked with the community there. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people lived and worked in the smoky grey wasteland of the dump. Some scavenged for plastics or scraps of cloth for recycling. Others looked for metal, picking up every last ring-pull or paperclip. Some dug tunnels into the deeper layers, searching for gold or other precious metals discarded by mistake. Pigs rooted around for anything edible. By the time people had sorted through it, every last useful thing had been removed and nothing but grey dust was left. It was a hellish landscape and a miserable way of life, but in its own way this informal recycling and reuse network was closer to a circular economy than anything modern Britain has to offer.
When people are poor, materials are precious and are stewarded more carefully. Waste is the privilege of the rich. Many of the sustainable lifestyles of 1980s Madagascar were similarly tied up with poverty – people ate a mainly vegetarian diet because they couldn’t afford meat. They would make do and mend because family budgets didn’t stretch to a new pair of shoes. Life was localised because the country didn’t have transport infrastructure.
We can’t romanticise this kind of simplicity. There’s nothing to celebrate about low consumption lifestyles that are the result of abject poverty. But what we can recognise is that over-consumption is the aberration. Throughout history, most people have consumed in moderation, taking care of the possessions that they have. Very little has gone to waste. That’s still true in many parts of the world. As we create circular economies, reduce waste and adopt more sustainable practices, modern Western consumerism will be the historical anomaly.
For Madagascar, the challenge is to improve lifestyles and lift people out of poverty without adopting all of our bad habits. For example, Antananarivo could adopt a bus rapid transit system so that people don’t need a car – as Dar Es Salaam has done in Tanzania. Energy access could spread through renewable energy, skipping the big infrastructure of fossil fuels.
To take the model from Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, Britain fails today by overshooting the planetary boundaries. Madagascar fails by falling below the minimal standards of wellbeing. A fair and sustainable future lies in between, where everybody has their basic needs met within the limits of the biosphere.
1980s Madagascar doesn’t offer us any kind of template for sustainable living, not when people lacked so many basic necessities such as healthcare or clean water. But it does shine a light on our excess, on how much we take for granted, and the kinds of attitudes to consumption and materials that might lead us back towards a greener way of life.