Greedy little worlds: Need to reconsider ‘responsible consumerism’

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world-enviro“All we ever want is more
A lot more than we had before
So take me to the nearest store…”
The “greedy little world” that Shania Twain alludes to in her superhit single is not something which we can unfortunately hum along and forget about. The World Environment Day, celebrated globally on June 5, passed by with nothing much happening in India, except the usual call for planting more trees. An interesting comment, however, was made by Union Minister for Science & Technology, Dr Harsh Vardhan, who bringing in the theme of this year’s global events (‘Seven billion dreams. One planet. Consume with care.’), called for “a culture of responsible consumerism”.
The minister said that air pollution in India’s sprawling metro cities was recognised as a major threat to the future generations. This corroborates what a recent WHO report found out- that India has 13 of the 25 most-polluted cities in the world, with New Delhi getting the dubious distinction of bagging the top spot. This claim has been contested by the Indian government, which acknowledges the poor urban air scenario but maintains that it is certainly not the worst.
Semantics aside, the problem of urban pollution is a critical one and Indian cities have constantly found a place in several rankings as being the worst to live in. A recent study by Kolkata-based cancer institute showed irreversible lung damage in Delhi school children due to breathing in the toxic air. When Gardiner Harris, a New York Times correspondent, wrote about his family’s difficult experience with his 12-year-old son developing full blown asthma due to Delhi’s air pollution, his story found resonance with countless Indian families too, who suffer (mostly) silently from contaminated water, air, land, food and what not, compromising their ability to lead fulfilling lives in myriad ways.
In the midst of this environmental powder keg like situation, one can surely go beyond a phrase like developing a “culture of responsible consumerism”- another of those things which just sounds weighty, doesn’t say much and does even less. Consumerism has to be understood for what it is – the drive to possess, acquire and hoard material possessions – and to tame this insatiable greed there needs to be a change in mindset, to develop a sense of community and collective living. This is, however, becoming increasingly difficult with the breakdown of societal structures which develop social harmony such as joint families and ties to native places/ communities, loss of social spaces in landscapes characterized by segregations, a constant valorising of individual consumption and propaganda/ advertising which caters to and nourishes these values.  One may think that the world is a global village, but the truth is that superficial connections have taken over several meaningful bonds, and have made us excessively individualistic. Our lifestyles and values today do not promote environmentally conscientious behaviour- use of public transport, carpooling, cycling, walking, segregation of waste, rainwater harvesting, non-use of running water for daily chores. These are a drop in the ocean, but feed into the necessary process of developing a sense of belonging and a collective responsibility.
Given that revisiting the past glories (imagined and real) of India is in vogue, it may be worthwhile to recall that the pursuit of ‘the good life’ through practice of renunciation of material goods- Vairāgyara (loosely translated as detachment towards worldly possessions) – and respect for all forms of life (with animism surviving even in mainstream religion) has a strong lineage in several socio-religious-cultural traditions of the subcontinent. Invoking these cultures of sharing, community living and responsibility towards all living creatures rather than a watered down Western ideal when giving a broad brush theme for environmental conservation, could then be more useful.


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