Reduce consumption to save earth

Reduce consumption to save earthReduce consumption to save earth

The disastrous impacts of global warming are beginning to appear live and clear especially in the frequent occurrence of extreme weather events. The...

The disastrous impacts of global warming are beginning to appear live and clear especially in the frequent occurrence of extreme weather events. The main culprit is carbon emissions. But controlling this is difficult because the leaders fail to recognise the inherent conflict between unending growth and environment.

The source of carbon emissions is ever increasing production and consumption of goods and services. Traveling in air-conditioned car and shopping in air-conditioned mall adds to consumption of energy and to carbon emissions. We want to reduce carbon emissions while increasing the rates of growth. This is like pouring oil in the fire and simultaneously trying to quench the smoke.

Belief is that this difficult task can be accomplished by the use of clean technologies just as an improved oven uses less fuel and emits less smoke. But the total carbon dioxide emitted will increase if four dishes are cooked on the improved oven instead of two dishes on the conventional oven. The use of clean technologies may not lead to a reduction in emissions.

California provided special incentives to people to use fuel-efficient hybrid cars. The energy dissipated during application of brake is captured and stored in a battery in these cars. That gives better fuel average. But this did not lead to a reduction in fuel consumption. Instead, people undertook more - and longer - journeys. We can see this happening before our eyes every day. Rich families use copper coated fuel-efficient cooking vessels. They also consume more energy per person.

Generally, a person who is capable of using expensive clean technologies also has higher consumption. We think we can reduce carbon emissions by the use of clean technologies. Such is unlikely to take place. Instead the clean technologies are likely to add to consumption and put more strain on the already stretched earth.

The larger problem of sustainable development is also not solved by the use of clean technologies. AIDS, for example, has been created due to uncontrolled sex. Groundwater level is depleting across the country because of excessive withdrawal for the cultivation of water-hungry crops like grapes and chilies. Excessive consumption of meat by the rich is depriving the poor of even staple food grains, causing malnutrition and leading to spread of TB.

Wars are being launched to capture the natural resources in faraway lands and this is fuelling the growth of terrorism. Use of genetically modified crops is suspected to increase the incidence of diseases such as blight. These myriad problems will continue to increase even if we manage to control carbon emissions. Ultimately humankind will have to reduce its consumption to levels that are supported by the earth.

Modern economics is the main impediment to such reduction of consumption. A primary principle of economics is that increased consumption leads to higher welfare or 'utility'. Any introductory book of economics will teach this: If 5 units of utility are obtained by consumption of one banana, 3 or 4 units will be obtained by the second banana. The consumption of bananas should be increased till the additional increase in utility is more than the cost of buying the additional banana.

This becomes a prescription for ever increasing levels of consumption since cost of production is often reduced by the use of modern technologies. We find this to be true in our daily life. An ice-cream with three flavours seems to provide more pleasure. But there is a problem. This approach indicates that those consuming more should be happier persons. But we see the opposite. The rich are seen to suffer more with psycho-somatic diseases such as blood pressure, asthma and insomnia. More consumption is leading to more unhappiness.

The root of this problem lies in ignoring psychology. Psychologists define happiness in terms of unification of the conscious and the subconscious. A person will truly be happier upon eating two bananas if his subconscious desire is that of eating bananas. But he will be unhappy if he eats bananas while his subconscious desire is that of eating cake. He may be led to consume bananas through advertisements.

But such consumption may be contrary to his subconscious desires. This explains why rich people are unhappy. They are consuming myriads of things but do not know what they truly want. Unfortunately, modern economic theory has no concept of the subconscious. It assumes that fulfillment of conscious desires will provide happiness. And ever-new conscious desires are implanted in his mind through advertisements and other stratagems.

Mankind is trying to increase consumption under the impression that this is the route to happiness. This is the real source of problems like carbon emissions, terrorism and depletion of groundwater. These problems will not be solved even if our leaders somehow manage to control carbon emissions.

Many civilisations have become extinct in human history. Ancient Egypt, Indus Valley, Iraq, Greece and Rome have all died. Empires of Mongols, Portugal, Spain and Britain have imploded in the last six hundred years. This has happened because these people could not present a definition of sustainable growth. For example, Rome indulged in large scale loot of other countries.

Rome became internally weak from such over-consumption and could not protect itself from the attacks by Berbers. The challenge before man is to secure happiness without unending increase in consumption. The control of carbon emissions alone will not deliver.

The beginning has to be made by a combined effort of economists and psychologists. 'Happiness' will have to be connected with subconscious desires instead of consumption. Every person must be encouraged to discover his subconscious desires. If the subconscious desire is of eating ice-cream, then he should not be encouraged to consume more bananas. A cultural policy of controlling consumption will have to be made.

Schoolchildren will have to be taught that happiness comes from discovering one's inner self rather than from mindless increase of consumption. Restrictions will have to be placed on advertisements that implant new desires in the minds of innocent people. King Yayati sought the youth of his son so that he could fulfill his sexual desires. But he found no happiness even then.

He then realised that happiness comes from within rather than without. This is the message that needs to be spread. Then consumption will reduce and all the associated problems along with.We face today the danger of extinction. But it is unfortunate that instead of quenching the desire of unending consumption, the talk is only of controlling carbon emissions — that too with increase in consumption. This will not do.

Author was formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru

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