On the Environment Day, last week the UN secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, said the world should pursue the goal of sustainable development where people increase their quality of life without increasing environmental degradation. He was articulating this year’s World Environment Day theme — seven billion people, one planet, consume with care.
Actually the operative word is care. However, both Ban ki Moon and United Nations Environment Programme are not the first ones to forward this concept. The idea that mindless consumerism will rock the civilisation boat has been around for quite some time.
Long before sustainable development became fashionable an Indian Economist professor JC Mehta of Allahabad University forwarded the theory of minimisation of want. He termed it — “wantlessness”.
He was not only an economist but a philosopher. He maintained that the economic model based on constant growth was unsustainable as the Earth’s resources were finite and would take centuries to replenish. So the best way to live well was to want less, preserve what we have and buy thoughtfully.
I don’t know whether MIT researchers ever got the chance to lay their hands on Prof Mehta’s paper, they nevertheless tread the same path almost 30 years later. In 1972, funded by Volkswagen Foundation, they undertook a study to find out if the population and economic growth kept increasing exponentially with resources remaining static what would be the outcome.
The research paper which eventually came out as a book – Limits to Growth – generated sharp reactions. People attacked it for various reasons, its premises, its lack of data etc. However, many economists later accepted the fundamental premise that indefinite growth was an unsustainable concept and would collapse sometimes in future.
The world kept moving at its own pace. The global economy kept growing, consumerism expanded and the national economies measured their success by the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) figures. No one knew how to break this spell of constant growth mantra and few cared about it.
Another 37 years passed by before Tim Jackson came up with a revolutionary premise – Prosperity Without Growth. In a book by the same title he said that the input inflow of raw material should be restricted in incremental as well as absolute numbers to give the environment a breathing space to recoup itself. He called it decoupling.
It makes a lot of economic sense. If the resource input is decreased the cost of producing a product will decrease. However, care will have to be given to keep the overall consumption of resources in check.
These days carbon intensity per unit of GDP is coming down yet the absolute carbon emission is increasing. It is because the total consumption of resources is on the rise albeit at a lower rate. This defeats the ultimate purpose of bringing down the global emissions in absolute terms.
To achieve the goal of carbon emission reduction and environment protection the second part of the equation – the consumer will have to be engaged. Consumer behaviour will have to be addressed and the throw away culture will have to be reined in.
It is in this regard that consume with care has been the right theme chosen by the UN and will act as a clarion call for all the consumers around the world to work on their habits and contribute in saving the environment.
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