This was the only essay that I practiced during the entire preparation period. It was a huge coincidence that a similar essay topic came in the UPSC Mains 2016 Essay Paper. I will reproduce the essay below. I have scored 164 in Essay.
Consumption, Consumerism & Environment
Little girl Sunita watches her richer counterpart shop bright new clothes for the upcoming festive season. She cravingly stares at them while breathing in the smokes off cars running by her shabby tent on the footpath. Sunita is a victim of consumerism.
Our modern economic systems hinge on mass-consumption. The measure of a country’s ‘growth’ is defined by the amount of consumption. The industry, capitalists and governments push for higher growth by driving consumption. In such situation, we ignore the limit of our needs, breeding the culture of consumerism. And as Gandhiji pointed out much before Rio ’92 conference, there is not enough for everyone’s greed.
In our blind chase for consumerism-driven economic growth, we have failed to factor in the environmental cost. It is a capital that is not accounted for. The result is that we are exceeding earth’s carrying capacity even as millions go hungry. The externalities are affecting the world’s poor disproportionately by vitiating the environment.
Vandan Shiva in ‘Stolen Harvest’ has exposed the precarious environmental situation created by fast food chains like KFC. Water guzzling animal breeding farms are run on cleared Amazon forest land to feed the consumerism. At the same time the world is staring at water wars and global warming.
This unsustainable lifestyle promoted by consumerism has created glaring inequalities. For example, the Times Square, NY consumes as much electricity in one night as the entire Zimbabwe in one year. Such massive inequality further forces the poor to adopt unsustainable methods like log burning to meet their energy needs. Thus, the cycle of environmental degradation continues.
Closer home, we have seen the negative effects of unsustainable methods of agriculture in Punjab. In our focus on meeting consumption demands, the environmental costs were ignored. The result is salinated soil, depleted ground water and higher incidence of cancer.
Consumerism has promoted ‘Climate Injustice’. The colonial countries and developed nations consume disproportionately larger amount of resources. However, their demands are met by vitiating the environment in poorer nations. The 5th IPCC Report points out how the developed nations have exported their production factories and thus externalities to the developing nations.
Thus, while the cocoa farmer in Cameroon does not know what chocolate is, his farm could be hit most by the global warming. And while Sunita’s parents cannot afford a house or a car, they will take in the dirty air from others’ vehicles.
Consumption driven economy is also behind the food shortage and its fallout has been on the environment. About 70% of the cereals grown in the USA are fed to the animals in the meat industry. The extensive monoculture, mechanization, use of chemical fertilizers, extension of agriculture in forest areas and overuse of water have affected the environment. It has caused habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, global warming due to methane and food scarcity.
The biggest beneficiaries of consumerism, at least in the short run, are the corporates. A section of the big corporates have also promoted climate change denialism to keep accumulating wealth uninterrupted. Oil companies like Shell have allegedly funded a section of scientists and politicians to deny the effects of climate change so that there is no moderation in consumption levels. Such activities have further harmed the cause of environmentalism.
The global community, however, has built a consensus around the idea of sustainable living and development. Right from the Club of Rome to the UNFCCC summit in Paris, the efforts have been to contain climate change by promoting sustainability. Remarkable success of the Montreal Protocol and modest achievements of the Kyoto Protocol are testimonies to that effort. Unfortunately, the global community has skirted the question of consumerism even at this point.
The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) of different nations talk about reducing emissions, increasing emission efficiency, peaking emission targets. However, moderation in consumerism, an essential component of sustainability, has been ignored. Similarly, the sustainable development goals (SDGs) have multiple targets to achieve equality, reduce poverty, etc. There has been a consensus on the minimum standards of living but no talk of the ceiling on the standards.
In India, the culture of consumerism entered with the opening of economy in 1991. While still at its infancy, the effect of unsustainable living are already showing. The Uttarakhand floods were largely driven by ‘developmental’ activities in the flood plains and fragile Himalayan ecosystem. Even the Chennai flood of 2015 was apparently caused by the greed of builders and promoters, driven by consumerism.
For a developing nation like India, the challenge is even greater. On the one hand she has to sustain the culture of frugal living amidst the onslaught of consumerism. On the other hand she has to ensure that there is social and economic justice through economic progress. This, however, is definitely achievable.
To contain the gluttony of consumerism without compromising the need for development, the world has to firstly define the upper limits of standard of living. While we have tools like Multidimensional Poverty Index, Poverty Line, Depth of Poverty, etc. there is no definition of a sustainable lifestyle. All the nations have to promote the acceptance of such a lifestyle to achieve environmental sustainability.
Additionally, a cultural shift is needed in the global community. The fashion of wealth display has to make way for the fashion of ecological consciousness. A society where green living is promoted will naturally avoid the clutches of consumerism.
The industry and big corporates have a big role to play. They are the ones who promote blatant consumerism through advertisements, rapid churning of new models and glorifying the culture of flaunting. In the longer run, they have to realize that the ever-expanding consumption is not sustainable. A responsible corporate community must tone down the promotion of consumerism.
A living example of how Capitalism can be blended with Socialism and create sustainable living with high standards comes from the Nordic countries. The Nordic Socialism, as it is called, has had higher taxes, cradle-to-grave welfare programs, environmentally sustainable energy programs etc. Denmark is a wind energy surplus country while Sweden imports garbage to run its waste-to-energy programs. Another example is Bhutan which ranks high on Gross National Happiness Index and is a carbon negative country. The global community can follow these models and protect itself from the dangers of rampant consumerism. This will ensure that the cocoa farmers of Cameroon tastes the fruit of his own labour and Sunita’s parents can afford a home and her education in a safe and healthy environment.