If seven billion people (roughly today's
world population) were to consume as much as in the West today,
we would need 10 worlds, not one, to satisfy their needs. If we
go on consuming at this rate until 2030, the human race will find
it difficult to survive
by Priya Florence Shah
Ladakh. There are few better examples of how modern development
paradigms can devastate a traditional culture that has thrived for
more than 1,000 years. Ladakh conjures up images of a wildly beautiful
desert region in the Western Himalayas. An area scant in resources
and an extreme climate, traditions of frugality and cooperation,
coupled with an intimate knowledge of the local environment, have
enabled the Ladakhis not only to survive, but to prosper.
Hunger, crime, pollution, and ethnic conflict were all but unknown.
Strong family and community bonds provided a deep sense of psychological
security. Ladakh's traditional culture was not only extremely successful,
but also environmentally sustainable. A culture in which knowledge
and wisdom were finely tuned to the local ecosystem.
The invasion of the tourists changed all that. The Ladakhis had
an extreme, sudden exposure to modern culture. Young people were
suddenly exposed to another model of identity -- one which seemed
infinitely superior, and was based on what appeared to be infinite
wealth and pleasure. People who once described themselves as rich,
now compared themselves with the imagery of an idealised Western,
"You could think of it as having spread a giant commercial
around the world that essentially tells people that they should
adopt a complete change in diet and way of life. That giant commercial
produces within people a sense of inferiority if they can't live
up to that image," says Helena Norberg-Hodge who has seen the
transition, and is campaigning for alternative models of development.
The invasion of anti-rural, anti-farming propaganda -- an underlying
theme of the media and advertising messages flooding into Ladakh
-- made the Ladakhi way of life seem embarrassingly inferior and
primitive. Coupled with the typically Western, centralised model
of development introduced by the government it was like a double
whammy for the Ladakhi culture.
Centralization replaced local sources of food, clothing and building
materials with imports and consumer goods, resulting in the inevitable
migration of people to the cities. As subsidised food trucked into
Ladakh over the Himalayas is often cheaper in the bazaar than food
grown a five-minute walk away, local agriculture has suffered badly,
and many Ladakhis have abandoned their farms in pursuit of paid
jobs in Leh or outside Ladakh.
Children -- who once learned from relatives and neighbours how
to grow barley at 14,000 feet, how to build a house, tend animals,
recognise useful plants and herbs -- are being sent to Western-style
schools where the curriculum ignores Ladakh's culture and local
resources. Trained only as urban consumers and producers, most are
left `educated' but unemployed.
Villagers flock to Leh in search of the few scarce jobs available,
causing a population explosion in the city. Soulless concrete `housing
colonies' sprawl further and further into the desert, while the
thin air chokes with diesel fumes from the trucks and buses that
pour into the capital every day. Rubbish piles up in the streets
and on open dumps, and once-pristine water supplies are in many
places unfit to drink.
In the `modern' economy created by development and modernisation,
women are increasingly marginalised, their status lowered. The traditional
Ladakhi farmer, once the backbone of the economy, is increasingly
considered backward and irrelevant, an impediment to progress. Some
of modernisation's most destructive effects have occurred on a psychological
Development pressures have been systematically breaking down traditional
social and economic structures, while visions of a seemingly superior
Western lifestyle are stripping away the self-esteem of young Ladakhis,
who now routinely compare themselves with a glamorised media version
of the Western, urban consumer. As a result, people who were once
proud to be Ladakhi now think of themselves as impoverished, primitive
It is a sad but familiar story, one being repeated in nations the
world over by those who believe that the spread of the Western industrial
model across the globe is an inevitable evolutionary trend. However,
global environmental crises have made it increasingly obvious that
the consumption levels of the already-industrialised countries cannot
be sustained, and that it will never be possible for the rest of
the world's population to reach those levels of consumption.
It is then a deception to suggest that `evolution', aided by higher
levels of international trade and economic growth, will some day
allow the billions in the Third World to live like affluent Westerners,
believes the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC),
an organisation working in Ladakh. There is mounting evidence to
suggest that this is true, and that present patterns of consumption
are not sustainable.
Everybody (from a single individual to a whole city or country)
has an impact on the Earth, because they consume the products and
services of nature. Their ecological impact corresponds to the amount
of nature they occupy to keep them going. A nation's `ecological
footprint' corresponds to the aggregate land and water area in various
ecosystem categories that is appropriated or claimed by that nation
to produce all the resources it consumes, and to absorb all the
waste it generates on a continuous basis, using prevailing technology.
In a recent report titled Ecological Footprints of Nations, Mexican
researchers compare the ecological impact of 52 large nations, inhabited
by 80 per cent of the world population, and shows to what extent
their consumption can be supported by their local ecological capacity.
One key finding is that today, humanity as a whole uses over one-third
more resources and eco-services than what nature can regenerate
(as compared to an ecological deficit of one-fourth in 1992).
The researchers calculate that from approximately 2 hectares per
capita of biologically productive area that exists on our planet,
only 1.7 hectares per capita are available for human use. These
1.7 hectares become the ecological benchmark figure for comparing
people's ecological footprints. In fact, humanity's average ecological
footprint measures 2.3 hectares of ecologically productive space.
This means that the average footprint is more than 35 per cent larger
than the available space -- an overshoot which indicates that humanity's
consumption exceeds what nature can regenerate on a continuous basis.
And if current growth trends persist, the amount of available biologically
productive space will drop to 1 hectare per capita in a little over
30 years, or once the world population reaches its predicted 10
billion. In only ten out of the 52 countries does the average citizen
use less than what is available on a per capita basis world-wide.
India, Pakistan and China are three notable exceptions (see box),
being among the few countries that consume at a level which could
be reproducible for everybody in the world without endangering the
planet's life-support capacity.
According to the Human Development Report 1998, world consumption
has expanded at an unprecedented pace over the 20th century, with
private and public consumption expenditures reaching 24 trillion
dollars at the end of the millennium -- a six-fold increase from
half a century ago. The HDR also states that consumption clearly
contributes to human development when it enlarges the capabilities
and enriches the lives of people without adversely affecting the
well-being of others. It clearly contributes when it is as fair
to future generations as it is to the present ones, and when it
encourages lively, creative individuals and communities.
Today's patterns of consumption, however, are undermining the environmental
resource base, and exacerbating inequalities. And as in self-sufficient
rural communities like Ladakh, these patterns are accelerating the
breakdown of local economies and the communities that depend on
them, and steadily eliminating cultural diversity. Runaway growth
in consumption in the past 50 years is putting strains on the environment
never before seen.
The burning of fossil fuels has almost quintupled since 1950. The
consumption of fresh water has almost doubled since 1960. The marine
catch has increased fourfold and fisheries are now scraping the
bottom of the barrel. Wood consumption, both for industry and for
household fuel, is 40 per cent more than it was 25 years ago.
A larger slice of the pie
The real issue is not consumption itself but its patterns and
effects, states the HDR. The 20th century's growth in consumption
has been badly distributed, leaving a backlog of shortfalls and
gaping inequalities. The figures bring out the stark inequalities
Globally, the 20 per cent of the world's people in the highest-income
countries account for 86 per cent of total private consumption expenditures;
the poorest 20 per cent a minuscule 1.3 per cent. The richest fifth
consume 45 per cent of all meat and fish, 58 per cent of total energy,
84 per cent of all paper, have 74 per cent of all telephone lines,
and own 87 per cent of the world's vehicle fleet.
The ecological footprint numbers also reveal the extent to which
wealthy people and countries have already `appropriated' the productive
capacity of the biosphere. Based on the conservative assumption
that the wealthy quarter of humanity consumes three-quarters of
all the world's resources, this wealthy quarter alone already occupies
a footprint as large as the entire biological capacity of the Earth.
In fact, if all the people of the world adopted the consumption
patterns and lifestyle of the first 42 countries, there would simply
not be enough ecological capacity to support them sustainably. If
developing countries continue to embrace the industrial-country
model, the human impact on the natural world will only become more
severe and widespread. Some estimate that if seven billion people
(roughly today's world population) were to consume as much as in
the West today, we would need 10 worlds, not one, to satisfy these
The Indian materialist
In India, besides the environmental impacts from subsistence consumption,
continued economic growth has translated into a more than doubling
in per capita net national product between 1950 and 1990, according
to the Tata Energy Research Institute. What this means is that the
average person may be demanding substantially more natural resources,
generating substantially more pollution, and discarding substantially
And since economic theory states that as income increases, people
spend a smaller portion of their income on food, and more on other
types of goods (like automobiles and appliances), there may be a
worsening in the form of environmental damage affected. The increases
in aggregate consumption have indeed had their impacts on air pollution,
water pollution, and land degradation.
Between 1970 and 1990, the number of vehicles has grown 11.5 times,
from about 1.9 million to more than 21 million. At the same time,
the figure per 1000 population has increased from 3.4 to 25.31,
and is expected to exceed 40 by the year 2000. Moreover, of the
total 25 million vehicles registered in 1993, 82 per cent are personal
modes of transport, with the share of two-wheelers and cars at 70
per cent and 12 per cent respectively. An estimated 2000 metric
tonnes of air pollutants are emitted into the atmosphere every day
in Delhi. Vehicular sources contribute about 63 per cent of total
pollutants emitted, followed by industries and thermal power plants,
29 per cent, and 8 per cent from the domestic sector.
India as a whole may face severe water stress by 2025 with a per
capita availability of only 1389 cubic metres/annum. Uncontrolled
extraction, without commensurate recharge, and leaching of pollutants
from pesticides and fertilizers into the aquifers, has resulted
in pollution of groundwater -- the major source of drinking water
in rural India.
In only six years, between 1985 and 1991, per capita electricity
consumption expanded by 50 per cent. Energy demand by households
is growing rapidly because of rising incomes, growing population
and urbanization. Rising incomes are associated with a demand for
household appliances running on electricity such as televisions,
refrigerators, air-conditioners and washing machines.
These statistics are closely tied to India's economic transition
from agriculture to industry and to the general increase in standard
of living and shift towards a more Western-style consumption ethic.
Rapid industrialization and economic growth have led to the intensification
of consumerism, which in turn has added to the problem of disposing
of colossal amounts of garbage generated each day. The towns and
cities of India today generate as much as 48 million tonnes of municipal
waste; by 2047 this quantity would increase to around 300 million
As a society, we Indians have gone from self-sufficiency to keeping
up with the neighbours, to aiming for the Lifestyles of the Rich
and Famous. This is economically manifested in the chronic purchasing
of new goods and services, with little attention to their true need
and durability, or the environmental consequences of manufacture
and disposal. The growing popularity of `disposable' items exemplifies
this. Rather than compete on quality or reliability, products are
made for one-time use, resulting in a wasteful use of energy and
Government subsidies, like those for the price of diesel fuel,
provide little incentive for many vehicle owners to curtail their
fuel consumption. Subsidies for agricultural consumers of power
-- estimated at around Rs 14,000 crores in 1996/97 -- lead not only
to misutilisation of electricity, but also to overexploitation of
groundwater resources leading to lowering of water tables.
Unlike the HDR which accentuates the relationship between poverty
and environmental degradation, biophysical accounting systems, like
the ecological footprint, lay the blame on conspicuous consumption.
"The `smoking gun' of global change is the consumer excess
that accompanies high GDP/capita, not debilitating poverty,"
states William E Rees, co-author of Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing
Human Impact on the Earth.
Improving our own local environments, he believes, is not a licence
for private consumption to savage the global commons. "We simply
cannot grow our way to sustainability in a world that sees people
first as potential consumers and only second as responsible citizens,"
he maintains. If we don't attain sustainability by the year 2030,
according to the Worldwatch Institute, then we are not going to
survive as a human race.
To face the challenge of sustainability we need to realise the
extent to which humanity's economic activities have to become less
resource consumptive and less contaminating. This is the conundrum
that Anil Agarwal of the Centre for Science and Environment calls
`the challenge of the balance'.
For developing countries, development means increasing their consumption
of the products of industry, but can they do this without further
risk to the global environment? It has been calculated that the
`environmental burden' of most products must decrease by a factor
of 10 to achieve equity in standards of living while remaining within
the globe's carrying capacity. The World Bank, in drafting its World
Development Report for 1997 on `The State in a Changing World',
conceded that markets do not always produce the most desirable outcomes,
most notably in their lack of consideration for future generations
and their inability to lead automatically to equitable solutions.
Experts everywhere are now acknowledging that `price signals' favouring
environmentally responsible practice and internalising environmental
costs need to be introduced into the market or reinforced by government
action. This will require governments to take hard decisions; to
change their policies to tax wastage of resources and pollution;
to tax efficient transport vehicles at lower rates than those that
are polluting. Government policies must make it not just possible,
but more profitable for consumers to choose products that consume
less resources in manufacture and produce less waste in disposal.
We as individuals also have the duty to fight consumerism that
is driven by huge sums spent on advertising where clever minds and
fabulous sums of money are spent in convincing us that we need an
endless stream of things. A simple way of fighting this stream of
propaganda is asking oneself, "If a product is so great and
so essential, how is it that I have lived without it until now?"
Consuming less also means doing little things that force manufacturers
to become environmentally conscious. Like not giving in to advertising
hype. Like being more informed, like consciously selecting products
with the least packaging and most recyclable material.
By reducing overall demand for socially destructive products and
services we can take away from the sales of non-sustainable enterprises.
These small steps taken by everyone will lead to industrial competition
that will lead to more environmentally conscious technologies. It
is now upto the concerned citizen and the government to show industry
that indeed "Less is More."