We, the consumers

Modern society is little concerned with how goods we use are produced and disposed of

By Savyasaachi
Published: Monday 15 November 2010

SavyasaachiSome ways usually adopted for conservation are nature reserves, biodiversity registers, pollution control measures, carbon-trading to check climate change and technologies to clean water and air. But they fail to strike at the root of modern conservation crisis: the insatiable appetite of a consumer. This appetite that defines our day-to-day lives has taken away the ozone layer, forests, rivers and minerals. Our culture, language, nationality and even religion legitimise consumption.

The consumer with insatiable appetite is usually seen as a denizen of the industrialised world. Geographer and thinker Jared Diamond, for example, says that the burden lies in the consumption patterns of one billion people in developed countries, who consume 32 times more than the people in developing world. If the entire developing world were to catch up, world consumption would increase eleven-fold. Diamond explains that the real problem is that one American consumes as much as 32 Kenyans.

But the problem is not confined to the developed world. The developing world is also gradually and “progressively” becoming like the developed world. The race for increasing GDP and per capita income is whetting consumption in the developing world.

Advertisements are instructive. “I am Samsung,” says one. It shows a Bollywood star holding a Samsung mobile phone. He has surrendered his identity, the ‘I’, to Samsung. The phone is not merely an object of utility, it is a part of an identity that is built on consumer goods. Consumers’ identities are largely shaped by the cars they drive, the clothes and watches they wear. The ‘I’ plays a little part in the production of these items. Consumers are not aware of or even concerned about the processes involved in the production of goods.

Over several hundred years this shift in basis of the ‘I’ has replaced human productive capabilities with technological productive capabilities. It has created idle time and space for high consumers who are living off other people’s work. Reliance on technological productive capacity also leaves a mass of people unemployed.

Each consumer contributes to accumulation of waste. The goods that define the ‘I’ have lives ranging from a few days to a few years. No product is designed to last a lifetime. Products, other than organics, accumulate as nonrecyclable waste. These in mass quantities convert natural landscapes into wastelands.

Today industries create products that are designed to fail and need replacing in a short timeframe. This is called planned obsolescence. Commonly used products are often designed and marketed with such obsolescence in mind. Industrial production, marketing and advertising function in several ways to deem a product unusable. A consumer goes in for new purchases out of either necessity—for products have short life—or a perception that the product is not in style. This aggravates the waste accumulation problem. People discard products at a speed that gives natural resources little time for recovery. It leads to a progressive decline in resilience.

Consumption is also whetted by the “buy now, pay later” principle. Increase in GDP (or a nation’s consumption factor) indicates a fall in individual productive capacity and a rise in technological capability. GDP increase goes hand in hand with increase in unemployment. In recent times, we have seen the “buy now, pay later” principle leading to dislocation of the economy. This disconnect between production and consumption is at the core of modern ecological and conservation crisis.

Savyasaachi is with the Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi

amir khan

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