Expert Column | VOL. 9, ISSUE 56, September-December 2009 |

The Consumption Explosion

Plotting the rich-poor divide on a map of environmental responsibility

Middle class consumption patterns around the world, not population in the South, is the most immediate ecological challenge. But with sprouting middle classes in India and elsewhere, mapping the geography of responsibility for hazardous global environmental changes is now a complex matter.

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Population explosion – population bomb – population problem – population overload… These are some of the terms that dominated the first wave of international environmental debate forty years ago. Most of the people throwing these phrases about were in the global North and were referring primarily to rapid growth of human numbers in the South. Some have revived this tired way of thinking in the context of concern about climate change. Yet focusing on population is distracting, and fails to acknowledge the shifting geographies of environmental responsibility. The most pressing need is to take a radically different view of the nature and quality of ‘rich world’ consumption whether it occurs in Manchester, Manhattan or Mumbai. The divide in terms of responsibility and vulnerability is no longer North-South but between rich and poor across the globe.

The rapid expansion of middle class lifestyles in India and elsewhere mean that one can no longer draw tidy lines between environmental responsibilities and impacts. When the projected hundred million Indian Tata Nano drivers turn the keys in their ignition they will be helping to fuel a consumption explosion that threatens everyone. The way Indian society makes use of this cheap and efficient new car is one important measure of whether we are likely to cope with collective environmental challenges of the next fifty years.

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Climate change is proving that the lifestyles and economic frameworks generated by such foundation stones of the American dream as GM and Exxon are as destabilising as any terrorist threat – and much more pervasive. Humanity’s search for wealth and security threatens to lead it on a fossil fuelled journey to a dark dead-end. The last fifty years has seen an explosion in the rates of consumption linked to rich world lifestyles. Most people in the developed world have revised every aspect of the way they eat, drink, travel, house themselves, wash, rest and play. In all of these changes resources and energy – mostly fossil fuel energy – have been seen as limitless and cheap. Hence the ecological impact of the daily routines of middle class lifestyles across the world has ballooned.

However, the materialist binge has offered a poor deal: correlate it against a host of indicators such as mental health; relationship and family breakdown; obesity and other health statistics and it becomes clear that the consumption spree has bought very little contentedness. Indeed, the evidence is mounting that the constant pressure to define oneself in terms of ‘getting and spending’ limits rather than extends chances of achieving a ‘good life’. One of the ways in which rich societies have avoided asking themselves difficult questions about consumption is that they continue to focus instead on population – elsewhere. This misdirected gaze carries with it serious problems.

First, it serves no practical purpose. Policies to reduce population growth rates have not worked except in the context of China’s one child policy. That policy has been delivered at enormous social cost and intrusion in family life, and is anathema to democratic political systems. However, it has been clearly shown that family size reduces where other policies and programmes are well established. Family sizes stabilise at the levels that the planet could cope with where: women have good levels of education and health care (including family planning); where food security is well established; where there are good water supply and sanitation systems, and where people can be more confident of their welfare in sickness or old age. These are not ‘population problems’ but challenges of economic development, governance and investment. Hence as a minimum, it is in everybody’s interest that the Millennium Development Goals are pursued with the same urgency and energy as has been invested in the support of global financial systems across the last twelve months.

Second, to invoke a ‘population problem’ is also politically obstructive, because it always carries with it the assumption that this is a problem not for the developed world (with its modest and declining family sizes) but of the developing world. It is essential that responses to the current economic and ecological challenges be rooted in collaboration. This will not be possible if there is any sense that ‘Northern environmentalism’ is trying to dictate the life chances of people in the South. Talk from the marbled halls of UN conference centres about the need to contain population drags debates back to the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. It suggests to Southern politicians and populations a time travel moment, recalling that Stockholm meeting of nearly 40 years ago which was read in the South as ‘the North wants to limit our development in order to protect the only areas of wilderness that haven’t been ravaged by them in the pursuit of riches’. ‘Population crisis’ is widely read as a colonist’s phrase and it gets in the way of negotiating agreements rooted in acknowledgement of our global interdependence, and the increasingly wide and messy distribution of responsibility for carbon emissions. While negotiations should acknowledge the primary responsibility for current and historic emissions that the developed world holds it is poor thinking to argue that the spread of high-consumption lifestyles in the South are somehow exempt from discussion. The coincidence of the banking crisis and key climate change talks generate a rare opportunity to raise funds through putting a price on carbon that can be spent on clean development and protecting the most vulnerable. The consequences of failing to take this opportunity will be felt across the world.

Does this mean throwing away the keys to the Tata Nano? Certainly environmentalists in India and around the world were quick to see the downsides of a car that would lock many more millions into private road transport for the rest of their lives. At the same time many commentators in India and beyond viewed it as a milestone to celebrate in the country’s journey to ‘normal’ levels of development.

However, climate change, and the wider bundle of environmental issues including loss of biodiversity, resource depletion, soil erosion and deforestation change the terms of what successful development means. Climate change poses the challenge of finding just and politically acceptable ways of defusing the consumption bomb. Some argue that we should start by seeing sustainability not as a constraint but as an opportunity to redefine what we mean by quality. Quality in our experience of our homes, towns, cities, journeys and food should mean that we know there is no ‘hidden ugliness’. What design thinker Edwyn Datchevski calls the hidden ugliness of social or environmental impacts of products and services can be replaced by a sense of the deep beauty of a thing that is made with people and planet in mind. This extends not just to how a single object is designed but also how it is used. Hence it may be seen to be ugly for a couple to keep two cars and commute short distances (slowly, in traffic jams). At the same time it could be recognised that a district nurse taking improved health care services to a remote village in a tidily designed and efficient vehicle, or a car club member hiring a Nano to go with friends to an out-of-the-way wedding, are examples of ‘beautiful’ applications of a good technology. Hence the remapping of environmental responsibility is not just about geopolitics, but also about much more intimate geographies of everyday lives.

Some means of containing consumption explosion require that we revise the costs we attach to things: by paying the real environmental and social costs of goods and services society will be sending clear and efficient signals about waste and hazards. Hence the price of building and running a Tata Nano will go up to reflect the full environmental costs. At the same time, taxing damage to the environment will allow other taxes, such as corporate or personal income tax, to be reduced. Putting a price on carbon is a clear and intuitive way to get the biggest polluters (whether individuals or corporations) to pay into funds that will help the world’s most vulnerable to adapt to climate change and other global environmental changes.

Attacking the consumption problem will mean changes in middle class lifestyles. But what will this practically mean, and is it all bad news? As a UK based academic I can anticipate that in a world where carbon is appropriately priced I, and millions of others, will be changing our behaviour. The results will include: spending less time trapped in traffic queues; less time at airports being processed for hours in advance of rushed weekend breaks; less need to head into the shops to replace badly designed items made redundant by the loss or breakage of a single component part; and, no opportunity to consume goods produced with (invisible) child labour or reckless environmental harm. Looked at this way these changes begin to sound like
an improvement.

To recognise that we live in an interdependent world implies that we redraw the map of political responsibility. The consumption explosion of the late 20th Century in the developed world has been further fuelled by the rapid growth of middle class lifestyles in India and elsewhere. Climate change means that the consequences of these changes will be felt globally, although the poorest people in the poorest nations will suffer most. Acting now to avoid the risks, waste and suffering that climate change promises implies a revolution in what we value and how we express that in our everyday lives. Yet we also need to recognise that drafting this new map of environmental responsibility can result in a better world to live in.

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