Consumption Ethics – A Utopia?

Oct 8, 2011   //   by Pabitra   //   Development, Environment, Featured, Global Issues, Lifestyle, Population, Resources  //  2 Comments

As questions are coming up increasingly regarding the constraints of Growth in a world of finite resources, there should now be some ethical limits of personal consumption. The consumer economy feeds on popular demand, sometimes the demand seems to be ‘manufactured’ (bottled water industry) and incredible choice of consumption that encourages one to consume without almost no sense of reasonability. In the past, I had a brief stint with TED Conversations and I pitched this idea to see what reaction it could possibly bring. There were not many reactions, everyone who chose not to challenge the idea preferred to circumvent the crux of the issue – a voluntary resignation from the consumer race. Perhaps the most honest sounding comment came from Simona Stoicesescu (yes I am not misspelling the last name) where she asked: ‘Why cannot everybody be wealthy? It is not limited stock. We are creating value. Wealth can be used to create jobs for people, meaning, chances for discoveries, solutions for bigger problems, wealth is good.’ While I disagreed with Simona, I would complement her with honest engagement with the question, though the connotations of wealth she was using was very different from what I was putting on debate. Another TEDster, Anshul Pandey discarded my idea (of a consumption ethic) as ‘Utopian’.

Wealth is a dicey word. When we say health is wealth, we sure do not mean wealth as in your personal possessions, your house, cars, clothes, shoes, ipads and private airplanes. So for the umpteenth time let me rule all those dicey items of wealth. I even discount money in your bank, as unless you pull it into the economy and convert it into an article of use or consumption, it is useless. At least for my point here.   The wealth I am talking about is ‘personal’ wealth and wealth of consumable goods and services. I am interested to know views about how much Larry Page, Bill gates or Steve Jobs (bless his soul) should buy and store and not so much use at all just because they can afford. Note that my question is not about Google, Microsoft or Apple. If value is wealth, there is no question of limit. But if personal wealth is possession of material goods, consumption of energy and leaving a huge carbon and water footprint, there seems to be a limit. Such wealth is priced without the value of the shared resources of earth which is finite. So I am interested to know how anybody can be free to amass such personal wealth without a limit inside a finite world.

It is well known that this ‘monstrous’ consumption engine depletes world of natural resources, fossil fuel being one of those, at a rate that is unsustainable. The side effects are huge wastes, more energy for recycling the waste, more pollution and Climate Change ultimately.

I find the world running from pillar to post to avert the gloomy pictures the IPCC panelists offer. There are MDGs now to achieve and one important aspect of that is poverty alleviation. But that is pulling the lower end up. What about pulling the higher end down? Can there be wealth limits? Can there be a value system that determines limit of absolute personal wealth and consumption?

Economists and Psychologists do not seem to agree that there can be such an ethical limit, a quantitative one at least. Plus such constraints can destroy the whole economic system of the present. Owning and possessing is in human nature and once we stopped outright plunder in modern days, we can buy things that we want. This creates market, enters neo-classical economics, and we forget how many ‘necessary’ items of life are now gathering dust in our attics, or say, the three burners out of six of my cook-top were never used at all.  However inefficient, wasteful and resource hungry the system might be, it is the only system that we know can bring progress and development in our lives.

Makes me wonder if there can be a BPL (Below Poverty Line) card for a poor (in some countries this is known as social security) what prevents the best of our minds to devise an AWL (Above Wealth Line) card too for the likes of Mr. Anil Ambani?  That will make the cross subsidies a good lot transparent.

The question appears to be the most by-passed in the list of few questions humanity seeks answer for.  But sooner or later, I feel, we have to face it seriously in our ever contracting world of common resources.

Many of my well informed friends link it with Capitalistic ideals of free enterprise and equitable reward for personal efforts. While, in a way, this has a connection with basic economics, we will do better not to mistake it for a communist credo – simply because it is not. All our innovations and excellence work on the demand side of our societies and this question takes you to the supply side of it. It makes you ask yourself, how many pairs of shoes you will need to be comfortable and happy when half the world walks bare foot.

Hopefully, people have started looking for answer.

Images Courtesy: The New York Times   Canis Hoopus

Feature Image Courtesy: Angus Roberts


  • I loved your clip since I have often been accused of being a minimalist, but I suspect that man was not married. I have reached a point in my life where I realize that the things I have now will last the rest of my life. It gives one a certain perspective.

    I like your idea that there should be an ethical principle that governs how much of the Earth’s resources we use and perhaps even how many children we bring into the world. Something other than how much money we have and chance should guide us in those things.

    • Thanks. That’s a rare insight. I once dreamed about carrying my life in a backpack and my wife disagreed. She wanted a home and to settle down. Most women do that. Objects mushroomed around me – many of which we rarely use but we felt happy that we ‘have’ those. It’s only recently we realized these objects do not define our happiness or fulfillment.

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