MANY urban Americans idealize “green living” and “slow food.” But few realize that one of the most promising models for sustainable living is not to be found on organic farms in the United States, but in Afghanistan. A majority of its 30 million citizens still grow and process most of the food they consume. They are the ultimate locavores.
During the 12 months I spent as a State Department political adviser in northern Afghanistan, I was dismayed to see that instead of building on Afghanistan’s traditional, labor-intensive agricultural and construction practices, the United States is using many of its aid dollars to transform this fragile agrarian society into a consumer-oriented, mechanized, fossil-fuel-based economy.As an architect, this part especially interested me:
In 2004, the Department of Energy carried out a study of Afghanistan. It revealed abundant renewable energy resources that could be used to build small-scale wind- and solar-powered systems to generate electricity and solar thermal devices for cooking and heating water.
Rather than focus on those resources, the United States government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build large diesel generators and exploit the country’s oil, gas and coal reserves. The drilling of new oil wells may provide unskilled, poorly paid jobs for some locals, but the bulk of the profits will likely flow overseas or into the pockets of a few warlords and government officials.
American taxpayers’ dollars are also being used for energy-inefficient construction projects. During my year in Afghanistan, I sat for hours in meetings with local officials in remote mountain and desert locations, sweating or freezing — depending upon the season — inside concrete and cinder-block schools and police stations built with American aid. These projects are required to adhere to international building codes, which do not permit the construction of traditional earthen structures.The author concludes:
These structures are typically built with cob — a mixture of mud, sand, clay and chopped straw molded to form durable, elegant, super-insulated, earthquake-resistant structures. With their thick walls, small windows and natural ventilation, traditional Afghan homes may not comply with international building codes, but they are cooler in summer and warmer in winter than cinder-block buildings. They also last a long time. Some of Afghanistan’s oldest structures, including sections of the defensive wall that once surrounded the 2,000-year-old Silk Road city of Balkh, are made of cob and rammed earth. In England, people are still living in cob houses built before Shakespeare was born.
Sustainable development in Afghanistan has taken a back seat to “quick wins” that can be reported to Congress as indicators of success: tractors that farmers can’t repair and that require diesel fuel they can’t afford; cheaply built schools; and smooth but wafer-thin asphalt, which will never stand up to Afghanistan’s punishing climate without costly annual maintenance.Afghanistan's Last Locavores
If donor nations dismiss Afghans’ centuries of experience in sustainability and continue to support the exploitation of fossil fuels over renewable energy, future generations of rural Afghans will be forced to watch in frustrated silence as the construction of pipelines, oil rigs and enormous power grids further degrades their fragile and beautiful land while doing little to improve their lives.
If there was ever a place that needed appropriate technology, this is it. But, then again, it was never about improving the lives of rural Afghans, was it? Building roads and schools, no matter how crummy or unsustainable leads to profits, and that is the real reason for the occupation. It aligns with the most cynical view of Capitalism - that it must fight wars to open markets so that it can continually expand its profits.