Consumption and the Limit to Resources

I will come back to what Michelle Obama has to do with this topic after I present the facts that are pertinent to the story. These facts are fairly well known but it was nice to find them described succinctly in Jared Diamond’s book (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) that I started to read again at the urging of Vinod.

Here is the essential statistic: on average, each citizen of the US, Western Europe, and Japan consumes about 32 times more resources and puts out 32 times more waste than do inhabitants of developing countries.

The leaders of all developing countries aspire to lift the living standard of their citizens to match those of the developed ones – the elites are already living at that level shaping the aspirations of the rest of the citizens. The East Asian countries have been growing rapidly over the last quarter century and the goal of the Indian government is to grow the economy at ten percent per year for the next twenty years.

Is this a feasible proposition? Diamond calculates that if every developing country citizen adopted the living standards of developed countries, the global impact in terms of resource use and waste generation would multiply by a factor of twelve. And he notes: “I have not met anyone who seriously argues that the world could support twelve times its current impact.”

People in the Third World aspire to First World living standards… Even in the most remote villages and refugee camps today, people know of the outside world. Third World citizens are encouraged in that aspiration by the First World and the United Nations development agencies, who hold out to them the prospect of achieving their dream if they will only adopt the right policies, like balancing their national budgets, investing in education and infrastructure, and so on.

But no one in First World governments is willing to acknowledge the dream’s impossibility: the unsustainability of a world in which the Third World’s large population were to reach and maintain current First World living standards…. Even if the human populations of the Third World did not exist, it would be impossible for the First World alone to maintain its present course, because it is not in a steady state but is depleting its own resources as well as those imported from the Third World… What will happen when it finally dawns on all those people in the Third World that current First World standards are unreachable for them, and that the First World refuses to abandon those standards for itself?

I thought of this as I heard the chatter surrounding the state dinner in Washington for Dr. Manmohan Singh. All the talk was about Michelle Obama’s ensemble that must have cost over $10,000 – it took over a dozen persons working more than twenty days under the supervision of a hotshot designer to the glitterati. In all likelihood, it would be worn just once. And then I imagined the prime minister’s wife taking out a sari she has probably worn before, and will wear again, tying up her hair as she does every day, and accompanying her husband to the White House. This is a huge contrast in living styles and standards – the opulence on one side not fazed by the deepest economic crisis for generations and over ten percent unemployment; the modesty on the other not dented by almost double digit growth for over a decade.

How will these trends play out in the future? My guess is that the First World is unlikely to abandon the lifestyle that it takes for granted. But would the billions in South and East Asia resist the temptation of emulating them? And, if not, would it be a fair outcome to the distribution of global resources.

Both presidents Obama and Hu Jintao are going to the Copenhagen climate talks with pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But this should not be mistaken for any intention to decrease the desired rates of economic growth. All it means is a commitment to be more efficient in the use of energy, i.e., to use less energy per unit of output – the output itself is not to be restrained. One can draw a parallel with the goal of increasing fuel efficiency of automobiles – by itself that is not enough to reduce the total amount of fuel used; the gains can be offset if the number of miles that automobiles are driven increases in proportion which has been the case to date.

Given this dilemma, do we have a choice not to question the notion of progress that we have taken for granted and that has become synonymous with the relentless growth of GDP? Instead of developed and developing societies, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss spoke of “hot” and “cold” societies. “The hot societies are the modern ones, driven by the demons of historical progress. The cold societies are the primitive ones, static, crystalline, harmonious. Utopia… would be a great lowering of the historical temperature [yielding] freedom in which man would finally be freed from the obligation to progress, and from the age-old curse which forced it to enslave men in order to make progress possible.”

Is there an alternative conceptualization of progress that could make everyone better off? Or, are we condemned to either accept an unfair distribution of global resources or to hurtle down the path of an inevitable confrontation?

The excerpt on Claude Levi-Strauss is from an essay by Susan Sontag, A Hero of Our Time, in the New York Review of Books, November 28, 1963.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:53h, 28 November Reply

    I think the article here by Rajesh Kasturignan can give us some insight into how ‘progress’ and ‘development’ have come to supersede all other considerations in the minds of people (elite and masses) worldwide,

    “The United States is the promised land of development: a nation of plenty where everyone has enough air to breathe, enough milk to drink and a large house to sleep. Isn’t the American dream often stated as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” But liberty and happiness are elusive terms; their meaning is often tied to a tacit story of development, usually involving high technology. Can we, any longer, imagine liberty without conjuring an image of a fast car or plane that swiftly transports us to a mountainous valley or a tropical beach? Can we imagine happiness without a glass or two of our favourite drink? ”

    “Developmental heaven has many of the trappings of traditional religion, except that it goes one step further – everything you want in heaven is available now, for a small price.”

  • Vinod
    Posted at 12:24h, 29 November Reply

    Taking on the question in the last para, I can’t help feel we are entering the realm of religion. The reason I say that is because we are really asking ourselves – ‘What can give happiness to society as a whole and to the individual as well?’ – The subject of happiness is very hard to speak of in the public domain without bringing in philosophy and religion. In other words, the taboo against mixing religion and politics (the justification for which I do not dispute) which often goes to the extent of abolishing religion from public life altogether may be the conceptual block for development theorists. Is it time to give religion a second chance? Can happiness be articulated in non-religious vocabulary? Does secularism have the language to talk about happiness?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:29h, 29 November Reply

      Vinod: Religion has an unhappy track record and giving it another go asks for a lot of faith. Karen Armstrong has launched a movement to focus religion away from belief to ritual with an emphasis on compassion for others. And there is a recent article arguing that prosperity and happiness are highest in countries that are the least religious.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:49h, 30 November Reply

      SA, the link that Vikram posted has the same message as your blog post. Is ‘development heaven’ our goal? Is that the where all happiness lies for all and sundry?

      I still wish to hear from you whether secular development heaven has a non-materialistic vocabulary for what constitutes happiness.

      • SouthAsian
        Posted at 16:20h, 30 November Reply

        Vinod: This is not what I studied at school so I am going to argue from first principles. Religion is one source of values but it cannot be the only source of values – it is hard to imagine a value-less society. When one looks at pre- and post-1979 China, one sees a change in values without any corresponding change in religious beliefs. It would be reasonable to conclude that the nature of the economy also drives the value system – a sort of Marxian notion. Now if we have a capitalist economy in which progress is equated with growth which in turn is equated with accumulation, we should expect the kind of values that are dominant today – values associated with buying and selling in which success is reflected by wealth. But we needn’t have this kind of economy – even the social democracies of Europe are different from the ‘let the market rule’ model of the US.

        Values also reflect the social norms of communities and to some extent are legitimized by the leadership of the community – one reason why I contrasted Mrs. Manmohan Singh with Michelle Obama. Norms change slowly and it is upto the leadership to uphold the values that are in the interest of the entire community. The Indian political leadership, given its lead by Gandhiji, has held to the norms but if this issue is not thought through consciously and turned into an expectation by civil society, my fear is that the value system would erode as the economy transforms. Already one can see the Indian business elite begin to adopt consumerist values, the bureaucrats would follow, and the politicians would not be able to resist.

        Our cultural traditions provide us with a set of values. We will be able to sustain them if we make the attainment of a just society our objective. There is a nice essay that reiterates the point that history is the story of dominant ideas. If we allow the idea of free trade to dominate the idea of universal human equality, we will see the kinds of values that we don’t like – and we can be sure that those who dominate would make all efforts to make us believe that any alternative idea is utopian. That is for us to decide. But whichever way we do, I don’t think that the idea of universal human equality needs religion to become acceptable – especially in India where the religious tradition is not rooted in social equality.

      • Vinod
        Posted at 02:55h, 01 December Reply

        SA, thanks for your answer. Do you think that before a society talk about the goals for their society, they should first talk about their values and the kind of external development that will sustain those values?

        • SouthAsian
          Posted at 16:17h, 02 December Reply

          Vinod: There are things that can be done in a firm that are much less possible in a country. For example, a firm can have a mission or value statement – those who do not subscribe to the values can leave. Firms can also be reorganized to reflect new values. None of these are really feasible at the level of countries – revolutions are exceptions (think of the value statement of the French Revolution). In a country, goals and values are always contested so the notion of an agreement is illusory. What can and should be done is to engage in a vigorous debate about issues because all issues reflect some underlying values. Some issues are hard to ignore (e.g., the Naxalite movement), others are barely noticed (e.g., India’s position on Burma). Both reflect values that should be part of the public discourse. Caring about society places the burden of engaging with these issues and values and asking the question: Am I in moral agreement with the values embedded in the policies pursued by my country?

  • Balasubramaniam Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 17:04h, 29 November Reply

    I thought the image of Manmohan Singh’s wife pulling out a sari she has probably worn before from her cupboard and simply making up her own hair was exceedingly beautiful. The world of pomp and celebrity so concerned with always making a fashion statement seems so hollow in contrast to some of the simple virtues of the developing world. I don’t see it as just a contrast between consumption and lifestyle standards; it is also an eloquent statement about fundamental values.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:16h, 23 January Reply

    I can’t help linking this piece about Michelle Obama’s lovely 2013 Inaugural Ball ensemble.

    I have now begun to feel that the world depicted in the piece is so different to ours that we should not be judgmental about it the way I was when I wrote the blog post.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 03:25h, 27 January Reply

    Professor John Quiggin argues it is possible to end poverty while protecting the environment:

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