How much should a person consume?

Book>> How Much Should A Person Consume, Thinking Through The Environment by Ramachandra Guha Permanent Black New Delhi, 2006

Published: Thursday 15 March 2007

Bhavani Nadkarni
In 1958, the us thinker John Kenneth Galbraith laid threadbare the social consequences of mass consumption in The Affluent Society. Galbraith highlighted the "preoccupation with productivity and production" in post-war usa and Western Europe. Productivity and production has become the hegemonic credo of the world today. It's the overwhelming preoccupation of policy-makers, economists and the middle classes in much of the post-globalised Third World. But societies here have a critical difference with those studied by Galbraith.Galbraith's subjects had, by and large, been adequately housed, clothed, and fed; so, now they expressed a desire for "more elegant cars, more exotic food, more erotic clothing, more elaborate entertainment". That's not so in the Third World enormous swathes of deprivation here are interspersed by small pockets of middle and upper class affluence

But make no mistake. It's not a small number we are talking of. The Indian middle classes, for example, comprise a much larger market than entire population of Australasia. What does their swaggering buoyancy augur for democracy? What does it do to the already strained natural resources? Are there any moral checks to the middle class's voracity? Ramachandra Guha's How much should a person consume does not offer easy answers.

And that's among the greatest merits of this collection of essays. Guha has had a long--though sometimes tart--scholarly engagement with environmental movements in India. He homes in on this engagement to answer the question raised in the book's title. One can't help but discern a self-reflexive academic at work here. Experiential and scholarly influences form the core of these essays. Most of them have appeared elsewhere and seem to have been expanded for this volume.
Mentors and detractors The volume's title rings of another of Galbraith's works an essay, "How much should a country consume" written a few months after The Affluent Society. Guha acknowledges this intellectual debt. And the book also straddles dominant strains of environmental thought in the us and those in India. Fittingly so. Though us conservation ideology has influenced policy-making in this country, it is also at loggerheads with the ground reality here. Guha describes the us preservationist John Muir's save-the-wilderness movement as the dominant theme of environmentalism in the us. He then goes on to show why it remains ill-suited to India in two essays 'Authoritarianism in the wild' and 'Democracy in the forest'. Some of Guha's harshest strictures are reserved for Indian wildlife conservationists who continue to rely on such received wisdom.

Some of his strongest praise is heaped on the Scottish town planner Patrick Geddes, the us thinker Lewis Mumford and the Indian ecologist--Guha's mentor--Madhav Gadgil. Geddes conceptualised the city as an extension of the countryside, Mumford engaged with the sociological implications of technology and urban life and Gadgil continues to combine his passion for fieldwork with a commitment to solving practical problems.

The three thinkers inhabit the intellectual interface between the three locales Guha concentrates on the wilderness, the village and the city.These have been subjects of philosophies which Guha describes as the troika of primitivism, agrarianism and scientific industrialism. He rejects these as romantic and incapable of offering socially progressive and ecologically sustainable alternatives.

Guha also has little patience for Gandhian models which emphasise the village as the centrepiece of economic development. But he also acknowledges the radical inspiration which a lot of India's environmental movements draw from Gandhian thought--Chipko, for instance, or the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Guha describes them as radical critiques of received notions of development, as well as a defence of people's rights over their environment.

But how much should we consume? Guha's potted ecological history makes for an excellent introduction to this complicated subject.

His analyses, however, sit uncomfortably with the solutions he advocates privatisation of goods and services. To be fair he does say that social and environmental costs must be taken into account. And he also calls for participatory democracy, greater literacy, land reform and health care.

But such homilies are now routinely mouthed by advocates as diverse as left-wing economists and World Bank mandarins. And Guha's optimism about the way the world is heading does appear somewhat nave, especially in the aftermath of the recent report of the Inter governmental Panel on Climate Change.

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