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How I Went to Kenya, and Had to Re-Learn How to Be an Environmentalist

Adapting to life in Kenya means adapting to an environment where it is harder to be a good environmentalist.

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In significant ways, life in this developing city supports environmentalist choices that are less common in the US. Even those who can afford one don't bother owning a laundry dryer (and often not a washer either). It’s seen as pointless, mostly in terms of the cost of electricity—though one Kenyan woman I spoke with said she doesn’t want a dryer, even though she could afford one, because she prefers the freshness of clothes that have billowed out in the equatorial sun to those that have banged around in a hot machine.

As well, frequent power outages require adapting to a lifestyle less dependent on electricity. Nobody so much as raises an eyebrow when the lights turn dark at a café; nobody is surprised. Few will complain when, at home, the computer they’re pecking at turns dim. This is just what happens. People simply light a candle and move on to doing something else. Adapting to this fact of life in Nairobi has made me more particular about how I arrange my days. When I have access to electricity and an Internet connection, I don’t waste it; I do what I must do first. There is little room for frittering. When I don’t have access to electrical connections, I don’t waste that time either; I write out drafts of stories I’m working on by hand, so that when I am plugged in again, my work is already nearly done, and then I enjoy the space that opens out to me for reading books or visiting my neighbors.

In other words, I am learning to consolidate my electricity needs, instead of assuming that I must be connected to do any sort of work or have any sort of fun. While I still feel anxious when a deadline approaches and I’m chasing wireless connections around the city, I do appreciate the lessons I’m getting in making the most of my un-wired time … and in patience.

It’s noteworthy that Nairobi is a fast-growing city. As the fierce rate of construction moves forward, and the middle-class continues to expand, demand for electrical power is increasing. More broadly, the energy demand in developing nations is expected to grow by 70 percent by 2030, according to ExxonMobil’s Outlook for Energy 2011 report.

Natural Landscape and Sustainability

The Kenya Wildlife Service is one of the most robust sectors of governments, managing 22 parks, 28 reserves, five sanctuaries, four marine parks, and six marine reserves throughout Kenya, altogether totaling about 8 percent of the country’s landmass. The magnificent parks are fundamental to Kenya’s economy: the tourism industry stands for 12 percent of GDP, with land managed by KWS accounting for 90 percent of safari tourism and about 75 percent of total tourist earnings. But pains are taken to ensure that these spaces are not only for tourists; admission prices for citizens are quite low, encouraging Kenyans to interact regularly with the natural world.

Developing nations have largely taken the lead in guaranteeing constitutional protections for the environment. Namibia’s founding constitution, developed after it gained independence in 1990, was one of the world’s first to write environmental protections into its guiding document. South Africa followed suit with the constitution it passed in 1996. Ecuador did the same in 2008, going so far as to acknowledge nature’s “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” While institutional capacity to enforce these rights varies, the acknowledged aspiration is a powerful force in moving forward with intelligent development.

When Kenya passed a new constitution last year, it too affirmed environmental rights as the fundamental law of the land. Specifically, Kenya’s constitution says that, “Every person has the right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes the right … to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations through legislative and other measures….” The text includes provisions that give Kenyans the right to sue for damage to the environment (preemptive to any human harm) and it eliminates “process and activities that are likely to endanger the environment.”

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