//HOW MUCH SHOULD A PERSON CONSUME? University of California Press, Chapter IX

HOW MUCH SHOULD A PERSON CONSUME? University of California Press, Chapter IX

“The United States is presiding at a general reorganization of the ways of living throughout the world.”
André Siegfried, speaking in 1932

This chapter takes as its point of departure an old essay by John Kenneth Galbraith—an essay so ancient and obscure that it might very well have been forgotten even by its prolific author. The essay was written in 1958, the same year that Galbraith published The Affluent Society, a book that wryly anatomized the social consequences of the mass consumption age. In his book, Galbraith had highlighted the ‘preoccupation with productivity and production’ in postwar America and Western Europe. The population in these societies had for the most part been adequately housed, clothed, and fed; now they expressed a desire for ‘more elegant cars, more exotic food, more erotic clothing, more elaborate entertainment’.
When Galbraith termed 1950s America the ‘Affluent Society’ he meant not only that this was a society most of whose members were hugely prosperous when reckoned against other societies and other times, but also that this was a society so dedicated to affluence that the possession and consumption of material goods became the exclusive standard of individual and collective achievement. He quoted the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, who remarked that in modern America, ‘any device or regulation which interfered, or can be conceived as interfering, with [the] supply of more and better things is resisted with unreasoning horror, as the religious resist blasphemy, or the warlike pacifism’.
The essay I speak of was written months after the book which made Galbraith’s name and reputation. ‘How Much Should a Country Consume?’ is its provocative title, and it can be read as a reflective footnote to The Affluent Society. In the book itself, Galbraith had noted the disjunction between ‘private affluence and public squalor’, of how the single-minded pursuit of wealth had diverted attention and resources from the nurturing of true democracy, which he defined as the provision of public infrastructure, the creation of decent schools, parks, and hospitals. Now the economist turned his attention, all too fleetingly, to the long-term consequences of this collective promotion of consumption, of the ‘gargantuan and growing appetite’ for resources in contemporary America. The American conservation movement, he remarked, had certainly noted the massive exploitation of resources and materials in the postwar period. However, its response was to look for more efficient methods of extraction, or the substitution of one material for another through technological innovation. There was, wrote Galbraith, a noticeable ‘selectivity in the conservationist’s approach to materials consumption.’ For

if we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible to seek to increase the supply, or decrease waste, to make better use of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes. But what of the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem. If it continues its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? Yet in the literature of the resource problem this is the forbidden question. Over it hangs a nearly total silence. It is as though, in the discussion of the chance for avoiding automobile accidents, we agree not to make any mention of speed!

A cultural explanation for this silence had been previously provided by the great Berkeley geographer Carl Sauer. Writing in 1938, Sauer remarked that ‘the doctrine of a passing frontier of nature replaced by a permanent and sufficiently expanding frontier of technology is a contemporary and characteristic expression of occidental culture, itself a historical-geographical product.’ This frontier attitude, he went on, ‘has the recklessness of an optimism that has become habitual, but which is residual from the brave days when north-European freebooters overran the world and put it under tribute.’ Warning that the surge of growth at the expense of nature would not last indefinitely, Sauer—speaking for his fellow Americans—noted wistfully that ‘we have not yet learned the difference between yield and loot. We do not like to be economic realists’.
John Kenneth Galbraith had identified two major reasons for the silence with regard to consumption. One was ideological, the worship of the Great God Growth. The principle of Growth (always with that capital G) was a cardinal belief of the American people; this necessarily implied a continuous increase in the production of consumer goods. The second reason was political, the widespread scepticism of the state. For the America of the 1950s had witnessed the ‘resurgence of a notably over-simplified view of economic life which [ascribed] a magical automatism to the price system…’. Now Galbraith was himself an unreconstructed New Dealer, who would tackle the problem of over-consumption as he would tacke the problem of under-employment, that is, through purposive state intervention. At the time he wrote, however, free-market economics ruled, and ‘since consumption could not be discussed without raising the question of an increased role for the state, it was not discussed’.
Four years later, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, and the modern American environmental movement gathered pace. Would not one have expected this new voice of civil society to undertake what the market could not? As it happened, consumption continued to be the great unasked question of the conservation movement. The movement principally focused on two things: the threats to human health posed by pollution, and the threats to wild species and wild habitats posed by economic expansion. The latter concern became, in fact, the defining motif of the movement. The dominance of wilderness protection in American environmentalism has promoted an essentialy negativist agenda, the protection of the parks and their animals by freeing them of human habitation and productive activities. As the historian Samuel Hays points out, ‘natural environments which formerly had been looked upon as “useless” waiting only to be developed, now came to be thought of as “useful” for filling human wants and needs. They played no less a significant role in the advanced consumer society than did such material goods as hi fi sets or indoor gardens’. While saving these islands of biodiversity, environmentalists paid scant attention to what was happening outside them. In the American economy as a whole, the consumption of energy and materials continued to rise.
A perceptive, and home-grown, critic of this selective environmentalism was the poet Wendell Berry. In an essay published in 1987, Berry rejected ‘an assumed division or divisibility between nature and humanity, or wildness and domesticity’. In his view, ‘conservation is going to prove increasingly futile and increasingly meaningless if its proscriptions and forbiddings are not positively answered by an economy that rewards and enforces good use’. He was himself of the conviction that ‘the wildernesses cannot survive if our economy does not change’.
In the American context, Wendell Berry was—the metaphor is inescapable—a voice in the wild. For the growing popular interest in the wild and the beautiful not merely accepted the parameters of the affluent society, but was wont to see nature itself as merely one more good to be consumed. The uncertain commitment of most nature lovers to a more comprehensive environmental ideology is illustrated by the paradox that they were willing to drive thousands of miles, using up scarce oil and polluting the atmosphere, to visit national parks and sanctuaries; thus using anti-ecological means to marvel in the beauty of forests, swamps or mountains protected as specimens of a ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’ nature.
The selectivity of the conservationist approach to consumption was underlined in the works of biologists obsessed with the ‘population problem’. Influential American scientists such as Paul Ehrlich and Garret Hardin identified human population growth as the single most important reason for environmental degradation. This is how Ehrlich began the first chapter of his best-selling book, The Population Bomb:

I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a couple of years ago. My wife and daughter and I were returning to our hotel in an ancient taxi. The seats were hopping with fleas. The only functional gear was third. As we crawled through the city, we entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, people arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.

Here exploding numbers are blamed for increasing pollution, stinking hot air, and even technological obsolescence (that ancient taxi!). Through the 1970s and 80s, Neo-Malthusian interpretations gained wide currency. Countries such as India, and, especially, Bangladesh, were commonly blamed for causing an environmental crisis. Not surprisingly, activists in these countries were quick to take offence, pointing out that the United States of America consumes, per capita as well as in the aggregate, a far greater proportion of the world’s resources. Table One gives some partial evidence of this. For apart from its over-use of nature’s stock (which the table documents), American society has also placed an unbearable burden on nature’s sink (which the table ignores). Thus the atmosphere and the oceans can absorb about 13 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. This absorptive capacity, if distributed fairly amongst all the people of the world, would allow each human being to have the right to emit about 2. 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. At present an American discharges in excess of 20 tonnes annually, a German 12 tonnes, a Japanese 9 tonnes, an Indian a little over one tonne. If we look at the process historically the charges mount, for it is the industrialized countries, led by the United States, who have been principally responsible for the build-up of greenhouse gases over the past hundred and fifty years.

Table I

U. S. Share of World Consumption of Key Materials, 1995 (figures in million tonnes)

(1) (2) (3) (4)*

Material World Production U. S. Consumption 3 as % of 2

Minerals 7, 641 2, 410 31. 54

Wood 724 170 23. 48

Metals 1, 196 132 11. 03

Synthetics 252 131 51. 98

All Materials 9, 813 2, 843 28. 97

* U. S. population is approximately 4. 42 % of total world population

Source: Computed from State of the World 1999 (New York: Worldwatch Institute and W. W. Norton, 1999)

These figures explain why Southern scholars and activists like to argue that the real ‘population problem’ is in America, since the birth of a single child there would have the same impact on the global environment as the birth of (say) seventy Indonesian children. There was a Bangladeshi diplomat who made this case whenever he could, in the United Nations and elsewhere. But after a visit to an American supermarket he was obliged to modify his argument, to claim instead that the birth of an American dog (or cat) was the equivalent, ecologically speaking, of the birth of a dozen Bangladeshi children.
Arguments like this, when presented or published in the United States, tend to lay one open to the charge of ‘anti-Americanism’. So let me make it clear at once that I consider America to be, in many respects, a model for the world. Within its borders, it is far and away the most democratic of all the countries that claim membership of the United Nations. Over the years, I have often been
struck by the dignity of labour in America, by the ease with which high-ranking Americans carry their own loads, fix their own fences, and mow their own lawns. This, it seems to me, is part of a wider absence of caste or class distinctions that would be simply unthinkable in Europe or, indeed, India. Unlike those other places, here one can actually travel from the log-cabin to the White House, as witness the careers of Honest Abe in the 19th century and Dishonest Bill in the twentieth.
Left-wing intellectuals have tended to downplay these American achievements: the respect for the individual, the remarkable social mobility, the searching scrutiny to which public officials and state agencies are subjected. They see only the imperial power, the exploiter, and the bully, the invader of faraway lands and the manipulator of international organizations to serve the interests of the American economy.
Admittedly, on the world stage America is not a pretty sight. Even between its various wars of adventure, its arrogance is on continuous display. The United States has disregarded strictures passed on it by the International Court of Justice, and defaulted on its obligations to the United Nations. It has violated the global climate change treaty, and the global biodiversity treaty. It has not signed the agreement to abolish the production of land mines. The only international treaties it signs and honours are those it can both draft and impose on other countries, such as the agreement on Intellectual Property Rights.
Liberals and libertarians, whether American or not, salute the robustly democratic traditions of the United States. Socialists and anti-imperialists, whether American or not, castigate the bullying and overbearing instincts of the United States. Neither side is willing to see the other side of the picture. For the truth about America is that it is at once deeply democratic and instinctively imperialist. This curious co-existence of contrary values is certainly exceptional in the history of the world. Other democratic countries, such as Sweden or Norway at the present time, are not imperialist. Scandinavian countries honour their international obligations, and (unlike the Americans) generously support social welfare programmes in the poorer parts of the world. Other imperialist countries, such as France and Great Britain in the past, were not properly democratic. In the heyday of European expansion, men without property and all women did not have the vote. Even after suffrage was extended, British governments were run by an oligarchy. The imagination boggles at the thought of a Ken Starr examining the sexual and other peccadilloes of a Benjamin Disraeli.
My own view is that the link between democracy at home and imperialism abroad is provided by the American consumer economy, its apparently insatiable greed for the resources of other lands. Contrary to what Wendell Berry had thought, the wildernesses at home continued to be protected, but only because the ecological footprint of the American consumer grew, and grew. The free-booting instincts of the pioneer, once set loose on the lands to the West which were formally part of the nation, now found play in lands and waters east, south and north—whether these belonged to America or not. To cite only the most obvious example, the United States imports well over 50% of the oil it consumes.
This link seems to have escaped American environmentalism and, more surprisingly and regrettably, American scholarship as well. Consider the rich and growing academic field of environmental history. As I suggested in Chapter I, scholars in other parts of the world have taken much inspiration from the works of American exemplars, from their methodological subtlety and fruitful criss-crossing of disciplinary boundaries. For all this, there is a studied insularity among the historians of North America. There were, at last count, more than three hundred professional environmental historians in the U. S., and yet few have seriously studied the global consequences of the consumer society, the impact on land, soil, forests, climate, etc. of the American Way of Life.
One example of this territorial blindness is the Gulf Wars. In that prescient essay of 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith remarked that ‘it remains a canon of modern diplomacy that any preoccupation with oil should be concealed by calling on our still ample reserves of sanctimony’. To be sure, there were Americans who tore apart the veil of this sanctimonious hypocrisy, who pointed out that it was the United States government that had backed and armed Saddam Hussain, the dictator it now wished to overthrow. Yet the essentially material imperatives of the adventures in the Middle East remained unexamined. It was the leftwing British newspaper, The Guardian, which claimed that the first Gulf War was carried out to safeguard The American Way of Driving. No American historian, however, has taken to heart the wisdom in that throwaway remark, to reveal in all its starkness the ecological imperialism of the sole superpower in the world.


I would now like to contrast the American case with the German one. Environmentalists in Germans have been more forthright in their criticisms of the consumer society. ‘The key to a sustainable development model worldwide’, writes Helmut Lippelt, ‘is the question of whether West European societies really are able to reconstruct their industrial systems in order to permit an ecologically and socially viable way of production and consumption’. That Lippelt does not include the U. S. or Japan is noteworthy, an expression of his (and his movement’s) willingness to take the burden upon themselves. West Europeans should reform themselves, rather than transfer their existing ‘patterns of high production and high consumption to eastern Europe and the “Third World” [and thus] destroy the earth’.
For the German Greens, economic growth in Europe and North America has been made possible only through the economic and ecological exploitation of the Third World. The philosopher Rudolf Bahro was characteristically blunt; ‘the present way of life of the most industrially advanced nations’, he remarked in 1984, ‘stands in a global and antagonistic contradiction to the natural conditions of human existence. We are eating up what other nations and future generations need to live on’. From this perspective,

The working class here [in the North] is the richest lower class in the world. And if I look at the problem from the point of view of the whole of humanity, not just from that of Europe, then I must say that the metropolitan working class is the worst exploiting class in history… What made poverty bearable in eighteenth or nineteenth-century Europe was the prospect of escaping it through exploitation of the periphery. But this is no longer a possibility, and continued industrialism in the Third World will mean poverty for whole generations and hunger for millions.

Bahro was a famous ‘Fundi’, a leader of that section of the German Greens which stood in the most uncompromising antagonism to modern society. But even the most hardheaded members of the other, or ‘Realo’, faction, acknowledged the unsustainability, on the global plane, of industrial society. The parliamentarian (and future Foreign Minister) Joschka Fischer, asked by a reporter where he planned to spend his old age, replied: ‘In the Frankfurt cemetery, although by that time we may pose an environmental hazard with all the poisons, heavy metals and dioxin that we carry around in our bodies’. Or as a party document more matter-of-factly put it: ‘The global spread of industrial economic policies and lifestyles is exhausting the basic ecological health of our planet faster than it can be replenished’. This global view, coupled with the stress on accountability, called for ‘far-reaching voluntary commitments to restraint by wealthy nations’. The industrialized countries, who consume three-fourths of the world’s energy and resources, and who contribute the lion’s share of ‘climate-threatening gaseous emissions’, must curb their voracious appetite while allowing Southern nations to grow out of poverty. Green theorists ask for the cancellation of international debt, the banning of trade in products that destroy vulnerable ecosystems, and most radical of all, for the freer migration of peoples from poor countries to rich ones.
These elements in the Green program were, of course, forged as an alternative to the policies promoted by the two dominant political parties in Germany, themselves committed to the Great God Growth. Between 1998 and 2005, the Greens found themselves sharing power at the Federal level, junior partners, but partners nevertheless, in a coalition dominated by the Social Democrat. Being in power certainly tamed them. They now worked only for incremental change, instead of the wholesale restructuring of the consumption and production system some of them had previously advocated.
The critique of over-consumption made manifest by the German Greens is not absent in other European environmental traditions. A few months prior to the Earth Summit of 1992, the Dutch Alliance of Sustainable Development invited four Southern scholars to write a report on the Dutch economy and environment. A Brazilian anthropologist, an Indian sociologist, a Tanzanian agronomist and an Indonesian activist, two men and two women, spent six weeks in Holland, talking to a wide cross-section of citizens and public officials. Their report focused on the Dutch ‘addiction to affluence’, as revealed in an over-reliance on the motor-car, a dependence on the lands and resources of other countries, and high levels of pollution. The foreign critics posed the sharp question, ‘Can Dutch society put limits to itself?’ They thought, optimistically, that the developed democratic culture of the Netherlands did offer possibilities of self-correction, but for that to work, political action had to be accompanied by technical change, by the exercise of individual restraint, and by a wider social resolve to share their wealth with the less-advantaged societies of the South.
It says something about Dutch environmentalists that they extended this invitation in the first place. At the risk (once more) of being called anti-American, it must be said that one cannot easily imagine the Sierra Club initiating such an examination.


Fifty years before the founding of the German Green party, and thirty years before the article by Galbraith with which this chapter began, an Indian politician had pointed to the unsustainability, at the global level, of the Western model of economic development. ‘God forbid, he wrote, ‘that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts’.
The man was Mahatma Gandhi, writing in his journal Young India in December 1928. Two years earlier, Gandhi had claimed that to ‘make India like England and America is to find some other races and places of the earth for exploitation’. As it appeared that the Western nations had already ‘divided all the known races outside Europe for exploitation and there are no new worlds to discover’, he pointedly asked: ‘What can be the fate of India trying to ape the West?’ .
Gandhi’s critique of Western industrialization has, of course, profound implications for the way we live and relate to the environment today. For him, ‘the distinguishing characteristic of modern civilization is an indefinite multiplicity of wants’; whereas ancient civilizations were marked by an ‘imperative restriction upon, and a strict regulating of, these wants’ . In uncharacteristically intemperate tones, he spoke of his ‘wholeheartedly detest[ing] this mad desire to destroy distance and time, to increase animal appetites, and go to the ends of the earth in search of their satisfaction. If modern civilization stands for all this, and I have understood it to do so, I call it satanic’.
At the level of the individual, Gandhi’s code of voluntary simplicity also offered a sustainable alternative to modern lifestyles. One of his best known aphorisms, that the ‘world has enough for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed’, is, in effect, an exquisitely phrased one-line environmental ethic. This was an ethic he himself practiced; for resource recycling, and the minimization of wants, were integral to his life.
Gandhi’s arguments have been revived and elaborated by the present generation of Indian environmentalists. As explained in Chapter II, their land is veritably an ecological disaster zone, marked by high rates of deforestation, species loss, land degradation, and air and water pollution. The consequences of this abuse of nature have been chiefly borne by the poor in the countryside—the peasants, tribals, fisherfolk and pastoralists who have seen their resources snatched away or depleted by more powerful economic interests. For in the last few decades, the men who rule India have attempted precisely to ‘make India like England and America’. Without the access to resources and markets enjoyed by those two nations when they began to industrialize, India has had perforce to rely on the exploitation of its own people and environment. The natural resources of the countryside have been increasingly channelized to meet the needs of the urban-industrial sector; the diversion of forests, water, minerals, etc. to the elite having accelerated processes of environmental degradation even as it has deprived rural and tribal communities of their traditional rights of access and use. Meanwhile, the modern sector has moved aggressively into the remaining resource frontiers of India, the North-East and the Andaman and Nicobar islands. This bias towards urban-industrial development has resulted only in a one-sided exploitation of the hinterland, thus proving Gandhi’s contention that ‘the blood of the villages is the cement with which the edifice of the cities is built’.
The preceding paragraph brutally summarizes arguments and evidence provided in a whole array of Indian environmentalist tracts. Simplifying still further, one might say that the key contribution of the Indian environmental movement has been to point to inequalities of consumption within a society (or nation). In this respect they have complemented the work of their German counterparts, who have most effectively highlighted the inequalities of consumption between societies and nations.
The criticisms of these environmentalists are strongly flavoured by morality, by the sheer injustice of one group or country consuming more than its fair share of the earth’s resources, by the political imperative of restoring some semblance of equality in global and national consumption. I now present an analytical framework that might more dispassionately explain these asymmetries in patterns of consumption. Derived in the first instance from the Indian experience, this model rests on a fundamental opposition between two groups, termed omnivores and ecosystem people respectively. The two groups are distinguished above all by the size of their ‘resource catchment’. Thus omnivores, who include industrialists, rich farmers, state officials, and the growing middle class based in the cities (estimated at in excess of 100 million), have the capability to draw upon the natural resources of the whole of India to maintain their lifestyles. Ecosystem people, on the other hand—who would include roughly two-thirds of the rural population, say about 400 million people—rely for the most part on the resources of their own vicinity, from a catchment of a few dozen square miles at best. Such are the small and marginal farmers in rain-fed tracts, the landless labourers, and also the heavily resource-dependent communities of hunter-gatherers, swidden agriculturists, animal herders and wood-working artisans, all stubborn ‘pre-modern’ survivals in an increasingly ‘post-modern’ landscape.
The process of development in independent India has been characterised by a basic asymmetry between the omnivores and the ecosystem people. A one-sentence definition of economic development, as it has unfolded over the last sixty years, would be: ‘Development is the channelizing of an ever increasing volume of natural resources, through the intervention of the state apparatus and at the cost of the state exchequer, to subserve the interests of the rural and urban omnivores’. Some central features of this process have been:

1. The concentration of political power/decision making in hands of omnivores.

2. Hence the use of the state machinery to divert natural resources to islands of omnivore prosperity, especially through the use of subsidies. Wood for paper mills, fertilizers for rich farmers, water and power for urban dwellers, have all been supplied by the state to omnivores at well below market prices.

3. The culture of subsidies has fostered an indifference of omnivores to environmental degradation caused by them, this compounded by their ability to pass on its costs to ecosystem people or to society at large.

4. Projects based on the capture of wood, water or minerals—such as eucalyptus plantations, large dams or open-cast mining—have tended to dispossess the ecosystem people who previously enjoyed ready access to those resources. This has led to a rising tide of protests by the victims of development; Chipko, Narmada and dozens of other protests that we know collectively as the ‘Indian environmental movement’.

5. But development has also permanently displaced large numbers of ecosystem people from their homes. Some twenty million Indians have been uprooted by steel mills, dams, and the like; countless others have been forced to move to the cities in search of a legitimate livelihood denied to them in the countryside (sometimes as a direct consequence of environmental degradation). Thus has been created a third class, of ecological refugees, living in slums and temporary shelters in the towns and cities of India.

This framework, which divides the Indian population into the three socio-ecological classes of omnivores, ecosystem people, and ecological refugees, can help us understand why economic development has destroyed nature but also failed to remove poverty. The framework synthesizes the insights of ecology with sociology, in that it distinguishes social classes by their respective resource catchments, by their cultures and styles of consumption, and also by their widely varying powers to influence state policy.
The framework is analytical as well as value-laden, descriptive and prescriptive. It helps us understand and interpret nature-based conflicts at various spatial scales: from the village community upwards through the district and region on to the nation. Stemming from the study of the history of modern India, it might also throw light on the dynamics of socio-ecological change in other large, rapidly industrializing countries such as Brazil and Malaysia, where too have erupted conflicts between ‘omnivores’ and ‘ecosystem people’, and whose cities are likewise marked by a growing population of ‘ecological refugees’. At a pinch, it might explain asymmetries and inequalities at the global level too. It was in the middle of the 19th century that a German radical proclaimed, ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’. But as another German radical recently reminded this writer, the reality of our times is very nearly the reverse—the process of globalization whose motto might very well be ‘Omnivores of the World, Unite!’


What then is the prospect for the future? There are, at present, two alternative answers to this question. One answer guides the work of the institutions that constitute the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’. It also informs the economic policies of most national governments. The other answer animates the activism of the environmental and anti-globalization movements.
The first alternative I call The Fallacy of the Romantic Economist. This states that everyone can become an omnivore, if only we allow the market full play. When, back in 1972, resource scientists had raised the question of ‘Limits to Growth’, the economist Wilfrid Beckerman claimed that there was ‘no reason to suppose that economic growth cannot continue for another 2, 500 years’. The optimism was wholly characteristic of a profession mistakenly dubbed the ‘dismal science’. And with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the optimism has been reinforced and renewed. Economists everywhere are the cheerleaders for the processes of globalization now unfolding, processes which, in their view, promises a universalization of American styles of consumption.
My own opinion is that aspects of economic globalization are indeed welcome. These include the free flow of information, the inducements to innovation, and the encouragement to entrepreneurship. In countries like China and India, the retreat of the State from the economy has led to much quicker rates of economic growth. All this has greatly augmented human welfare, in the short-term. The long-term prospects are more worrying. One problem, foregrounded by left-wing critics, is that the fruits of economic growth have been very unevenly distributed. Although, in both India and China, aggregate poverty has substantially reduced, there remains large pockets of deprivation.
The problem of equity can perhaps be mitigated by purposive social policies, by spreading education and health across the board, and by nurturing opportunities for growth among communities and regions who appear to be ‘falling behind’. Less tractable is the problem of ecology.
Consider thus the spread of personalized transport in China, where, as it was once in America, the possession of a car is the one true sign that a human being has become properly modern. As The Economist magazine approvingly reports, the car is seen by the middle-class Chinese as the ‘symbol of freedom and status’. In 2002, the demand for cars in China increased by 56%, in 2003 by 75%. In 2004, the State news agency, Xinhua, proclaimed that ‘China has begun to enter the age of mass car consumption. This is a great and historic advance’. Shanghai has a Formula One race-track now, costing $ 320 million. The city will soon have a $ 50 m car museum.
There has been, as our precocious chapter epigraph suggests, a general reorganization of ways of life in the past century, which the Americans have led, with the rest of the world panting behind them. The Chinese, relative latecomers to this race, are striving hard to catch up with the leaders. In the capital city, Beijing, one in six residents now have cars. But for the country as a whole the proportion is one in 125, way below the U. S. average, which is 6 in 10. But, as the quote from Xinhua indicates, the public and popular desire is for China to become, in these respects, exactly like America. And in the cities of modern India the feelings are the same. Here too there has been a rapid spread of the motor-car, here too the sentiment among the young professional that not to possess one is to be left out in the cold.
Consider the impact on the environment of the spectacular recent growth in the economy of my own home town, Bangalore. Within a generation, a once sleepy cantonment has been transformed into a city of eight million, and a industrial and commercial hub. Although the growth has been led by a relatively ‘dematerialized’ industry, namely informational technology, the income generated and the desires spawned have had strikingly material effects. Bangalore now has an estimated 2 million motor vehicles. A little over half of these run on two wheels: scooters and motor-cycles. About a quarter are cars; the rest, buses, trucks, and utility vehicles. These take metals to build and oil to run and roads to drive on, and, lest we forget, emit by no means harmless chemicals into the air. The massive influx of population has also caused a building boom—with large offices made of cement and glass, and larger apartment buildings, likewise consuming vast amounts of energy and materials.
A question never asked by economists (or by The Economist) is this—can the world, as a whole, achieve American levels of car ownership? Can there be a world with four billion cars, an China with 700 million cars and an India with 600 million cars? Where will the oil and gas to run them come from? The metals to build them with? The tar for the roads to drive them on? And I take the car here as merely being indexical of a certain style of consumption. For with its use also come demands for other resources, other goods. In China and India now, as in the America of the 1950s, with the wish to possess more elegant cars has come also the desire for more exotic food, more erotic clothing, more elaborate entertainment.
In a recent series of articles, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written with alarm about the threats to the global environment posed by Chinese economic development. The billion-strong population of China, he says, use 45 billion pairs of chopsticks every year, these accounting for 25 million full-grown trees. Should they not move to eating with their fingers or with steel utensils instead? Speaking of the increasing energy consumption in China, he notes that a single shop in the city of Shenzen sold one thousand air-conditioners in a single hot weekend. ‘There is a limit to how long you can do that’, Friedman warns.
‘What we don’t want’, writes the New York Times columnist, ‘is for China to protect its own environment and then strip everyone else’s in the developing world by importing their forests and minerals’. ‘China’s appetite for imported wood’, he points out, ‘had led to the stripping of forests in Russia, Africa, Burma and Brazil. China has just outsourced its environmental degradation’. This, says Friedman, ‘is why the most important strategy the U. S. and China need to pursue, in concert, is one that brings business, government, and NGOs together to produce a more sustainable form of development—so China can create a model for itself and others on how to do more things with less stuff and fewer emissions’.
Friedman might have added that China has only been doing for the past decade what his own country has done for the past century: that is, protect its woods and forests while devastating the environments of other countries. Even now, it might help if the original sinner promotes a more sustainable form of development within its own borders. It still does more things with much more stuff and massive emissions, facts which make its preaching to other countries so much harder to swallow. That said, the industrialization of India and China does pose special problems, these caused by the weight of sheer numbers. As Gandhi understood as early as 1928, if the most populous nations sought to emulate the ecologically wasteful ways of the most powerful, they put in peril the very conditions of human survival on this earth. So, by the time the Indians and the Chinese reach American levels of consumption, will they have stripped the world bare like locusts?
When I once posed this question in a seminar at the University of California at Berkeley, a biology professor answered that the solution lay in developments in modern genetics. It would soon be possible, he said, to engineer adult human beings who were two feet tall and weighed, on the average, a mere twenty kilograms, but who had the brains and techniques to yet outwit and dominate the rest of creation. This new race of Super(Small)Men would drive smaller cars on narrower roads to tiny offices from still more tiny homes. In other words, they could live more-or-less like the average American today, while consuming a fraction of the resources he did.
That prospect is, for the moment and perhaps for a long while yet, in the realm of fantasy. In the world we know and live in, what we see is India and China simply trying to become like England and America and thus, as Gandhi predicted, trying to ‘find some other races and places of the earth for exploitation’. The Chinese interest in the Sudan or the Indian interest in Central Asia exactly parallels America’s interest in the Middle East. We can see the leaders of these ‘emerging’ economies emulate the leaders of the already emerged, travelling to obscure parts of the world, sniffing around for oil. Both countries are also, like America, expanding their military, and both are, like America again, refusing to endorse international agreements that would bind them to the more responsible use of natural resources.
Forget the rest of the world, then. All Chinese or all Indians cannot become omnivores, either. The attempt to chase this fallacy will lead only to bitter social conflict and serious environmental degradation.


The alternative to the fallacy of the romantic economist is what I call the Fallacy of the Romantic Environmentalist. This holds that ecosystem people want to remain ecosystem people. The fallacy comes in two versions; the agrarian, and the primitivist or deep ecological. Let us take them in turn.
In 1937, soon after he had moved to a village in central India to devote himself to rural reconstruction, Gandhi defined his ideal village as follows:

It will have cottages with sufficient light and ventilation, built of a material obtainable within a radius of five miles of it. The cottages will have courtyards enabling householders to plant vegetables for domestic use and to house their cattle. The village lanes and streets will be free of all avoidable dust. It will have wells according to its needs and accessible to all. It will have houses of worship for all, also a common meeting place, a village common for grazing its cattle, a co-operative dairy, primary and secondary schools in which [vocational] education will be the central fact, and it will have Panchayats for settling disputes. It will produce its own grains, vegetables and fruit, and its own Khadi. This is roughly my idea of a model village…

In many respects this is an appealing ideal: stressing local self-reliance, a clean and hygienic environment, the collective management and use of those gifts of nature so necessary for rural life, water and pasture. The problem is that Gandhi himself wanted it generalized. That is, in the India of his conception there would 700, 000 such villages run on ecological and moral lines. As for cities and factories, it was not clear what would happen to those that already existed; certainly new ones were not to be encouraged. A certain statis was also implied; India was, and would always remain, a land of villages and villagers.
The anti-urban orientation of Gandhi was shared by his followers, such as J. C. Kumarappa, and it has been emphatically affirmed by his modern-day admirers. Contemporary Gandhian environmentalists, such as Medha Patkar and Sunderlal Bahuguna, see cities as corrupting and factories as polluting, this again in both senses, moral as well as ecological. The opportunities the one offer and the commodities the other produces are regarded as ephemeral to the good life. Certainly, their own work has been on protecting themselves and their constituency from these inducements. The peasant must remain a peasant; indeed, they would say, he wants to remain a peasant.
The ‘ecosystem person’ of the deep ecological vision is more likely to be a hunter-gatherer than a subsistence farmer. Still, like the agrarian, the committed deep ecologist is resolutely opposed to the artefacts of modernity; whether technological, social, or aesthetic. Some elements of their preferred Utopia have been described in Chapter III; to which let me now add a contemporary effort to create such a Utopia in practice. This is the handiwork of a man named Douglas Tompkins, an American billionaire who had a mid-life conversion experience and became a deep ecologist. Selling his clothing business for $ 150 million, he bought a thousand square miles of Chilean forest and resolved to save it for posterity; save not just the forests, but also the people who dwelled in it. He had a home built for himself, by local workmen using local methods, and employed local folk musicians playing timeless, or at least unchangeable, tunes. There was no electricity allowed in the campus; and no cars, although an exception was made for the helicopter which brought the owner in and sometimes took him out. Otherwise, Tompkins kept out ‘the global economy which was a threat to their traditional culture’. As a visiting journalist wrote, Tompkins did not merely seek to save the land and forests, he planned ‘to freeze the people in place’.
Strikingly, the environmental activists’ rejection of modernity is being reproduced in and by influential sections of the academic world. Anthropologists in particular are almost falling over themselves in writing epitaphs to development, in works that seemingly dismiss the very prospects of directed social change in the world outside Europe and America. It is implied that development is a nasty imposition on the innocent peasant and tribal, who, left to himself, would not willingly partake of Enlightenment rationality, modern technology, or modern consumer goods. This literature has become so abundant and so influential that it has even been anthologized, in a volume called (what else!) The Post Development Reader.
The editor of this volume is a retired Iranian diplomat now living in the South of France. The authors of those other demolitions of the development project are, without exception, tenured professors at well-established Western universities. I rather suspect that the objects of their sympathy would cheerfully exchange their own social position with that of their chroniclers. For if it is impossible to create a world peopled entirely by omnivores, it is equally a fallacy that ecosystem people want to remain as they are, that they do not want to enhance their own resource consumption. I think the tenured critics of ‘development’ and ‘modernity’ need to be reminded of these words of the late Raymond Williams, here speaking of his boyhood in Wales:

At home we were glad of the Industrial Revolution, and of its consequent social and political changes. True, we lived in a very beautiful farming valley, and the valleys beyond the limestone we could all see were ugly. But there was one gift that was overriding, one gift which at any price we would take, the gift of power that is everything to men who have worked with their hands. It was slow in coming to us, in all its effects, but steam power, the petrol engine, electricity, these and their host of products in commodities and services, we took as quickly as we could get them, and were glad. I have seen all these things being used, and I have seen the things they replaced. I will not listen with any patience to any acid listing of them—you know the sneer you can get into plumbing, baby Austins, aspirin, contraceptives, canned food. But I say to these Pharisees: dirty water, headaches, broken women, hunger and monotony of diet. The working people, in town and country alike, will not listen (and I support them) to any account of our society which supposes that these things are not progress: not just mechanical, external progress either, but a real service of life.

This point can be made as effectively by way of anecdote. Some years ago, a group of Indian scholars and activists gathered in the southern town of Manipal for a national meeting to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s one-hundred-and twenty-fifth birth anniversary. They spoke against a backdrop of a lifesize portrait of Gandhi, clad in the loincloth he wore for the last thirty years of his life. Speaker after speaker invoked the mode of dress as symbolizing the message of the Mahatma. Why did we all not follow his example and give up everything, to thus mingle more definitively with the masses?
Then, on the last evening of the conference, the Dalit (low-caste) poet Devanur Mahadeva got up to speak. He read out a short poem in Kannada, written not by him but by a Dalit woman of his acquaintance. The poem spoke reverentially of the great Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar (1889-1956), and, especially, of the dark blue suit that Ambedkar invariably wore in the last three decades of his life. Why did the Dalit lady focus on Ambedkar’s suit, asked Mahadeva? Why, indeed, did the countless statues of Ambedkar put up in Dalit hamlets always have him clad in suit-and-tie, he asked? His answer was deceptively and eloquently simple. Now if Gandhi wears a loin-cloth, said Mahadeva, we all marvel at his tyaga, his sacrifice. The scantiness of dress is, in this case, a marker of what the man has given up. A high-caste, well-born, English educated lawyer had voluntarily chosen to give up power and position and live the life of an Indian peasant. That is why we memorialize that loincloth.
However, if Ambedkar had worn a loin cloth that would not occasion either wonder or surprise. He is an Untouchable, we would say—what else should he wear? Millions of his caste fellows wear nothing else. It is the fact that he has escaped this fate, the fact that his extraordinary personal achievements—a law degree from Lincoln’s Inn, a Ph D from Columbia University, the drafting of the Constitution of India—allowed him to escape the fate that society and history alloted to him, that is so effectively symbolized in that blue suit. Modernity, not tradition, development, not stagnation, is responsible for this inversion, for this successful yet all-too-infrequent storming of the upper caste citadel.
Finally, it should be said that the aspirations for a better, or at least different, life, among the disprivileged or disadvantaged are not restricted to economic elements alone. The journalist who visited Douglas Tompkins’s Chilean estate found that the folk musicians employed to preserve their music listened, on the sly, to American rap.


Let me now attempt to represent the story of Ambedkar’s suit in more material terms. Consider these simple hierarchies of fuel, housing and transportation:

Table II

Hierachies of Resource Consumption

Fuel Used Mode of Housing Mode of Transport
Grass Cave Feet
Wood, Dung Thatched hut Bullock cart
Coal, Kerosene Wooden house Bicycle
Gas Stone House Motor scooter Electricity Cement House Car

To go down any of these lists is to move towards a more reliable, more efficient, and generally safer mode of consumption. Why then would one abjure cheap and safe cooking fuel, for example, or quick and reliable transport, or stable houses that can outlive one monsoon? To prefer gas to dung for your stove, a car to a bullock-cart for your mobility, a wood home to a straw hut for your family, is to move towards more comfort, more well-being and more freedom. These are choices that, despite specious talk of cultural difference, must be made available to all humans.
At the same time, to move down these lists is to move towards a more intensive and possibly unsustainable use of resources. Unsustainable at the global level, that is, for while a car expands freedom, there is no possibility whatsoever of every human on earth being able to possess a car. As things stand, some people consume too much, while other people consume far too little. There is an intimate, though not often enough noticed overlap, between ecological entitlements and economic status. For not only do the rich and powerful consume more than their ‘fair share’ of the world’s resources, they are also usually better protected from the consequences of environmental degradation. It is these asymmetries that a responsible politics would seek to address. Restricting ourselves to India, for instance, one would work towards enhancing the social power of ecological refugees and ecosystem people, their ability to govern their lives and to gain from the transformation of nature into artefact. This policy would simultaneously force omnivores to internalize the costs of their profligate behavior. A new, ‘green’ development strategy would have six central elements:

1. A move towards a genuinely participatory democracy, with a strengthening of the institutions of local governance (at village, town or district levels) mandated by the Constitution of India but aborted by successive Central Governments in New Delhi. The experience of the odd states, such as West Bengal and Karnataka, which have experimented seriously with the panchayat or self-government system suggests that local control is more conducive to the successful management of forests, water, and other natural resources.

2. Creation of a process of natural resource use which is open, accessible and accountable. This would centre around a properly implemented Freedom of Information Act, so that citizens are fully informed about the designs of the state, and better able to challenge or welcome them, thus making public officials more responsive to their public.

3. The use of decentralization to stop the widespread undervaluing of natural resources. The removing of subsidies and the putting of a proper price tag will make resource use more efficient and less destructive of the environment.

4. The encouragement of a shift to private enterprise for producing goods and services, while making sure that there are no hidden subsidies, and that firms properly internalize externalities. There is at present an unfortunate distaste for the market among Indian radicals, whether Gandhian or Marxist. But one cannot turn one’s back on the market; the task rather is to tame it. The people and environment of India have already paid an enormous price for allowing state monopolies in sectors such as steel, energy, transport, and communications.

5. The outline of sustainable policies for specific resource sectors. Chapters IV and V outline ways in which the management of the forest and the wild can be made consistent with the twin, if sometimes competing, claims of ecological integrity and social equity. Likewise, scientists and social scientists with the relevant expertise need to design policies for sustainable policies for transport, energy, housing, health, and water management. These policies must take account of what is not merely desirable, but also what is feasible.

6. This kind of development can, however, only succeed if India is a far more equitable society than is the case at present. Three key ways in enhancing the social power of ecological refugees and ecosystem people (in all of which the Indian state has largely failed) are land reform, literacy—especially female literacy—and proper health care. These measures would also help bring population growth under control. In the provision of health and education the state might be aided by the voluntary sector, paid for by communities out of public funds.

The charter of sustainable development outlined here applies, of course, only to one country, albeit a large and probably fairly representative one. Its raison d’etre is the persistent and grave inequalities of consumption within the nation. What then of inequalities of consumption within nations? This question has been authoritatively addressed in a study of the prospects for a ‘Sustainable Germany’ sponsored by the Wüppertal Institute for Climate and Ecology. Its fundamental premise is that the North lays excessive claim to the ‘environmental space’ of the South. For the way the global economy is currently structured,

The North gains cheap access to cheap raw materials and hinders access to markets for processed products from those countries; it imposes a system (World Trade Organization) that favours the strong; it makes use of large areas of land in the South, tolerating soil degradation, damage to regional eco-systems, and disruption of local self-reliance; it exports toxic waste; it claims patent rights to utilization of biodiversity in tropical regions, etc.

Seen ‘against the backdrop of a divided world’, says the report, ‘the excessive use of nature and its resources in the North is a principal block to greater justice in the world… A retreat of the rich from overconsumption is thus a necessary first step towards allowing space for improvement of the lives of an increasing number of people’. The problem thus identified, the report goes on to itemize, in meticulous detail, how Germany can take the lead in reorienting its economy and society towards a more sustainable path. It begins with an extended treatment of overconsumption, of the excessive use of the global commons by the West over the past two hundred years, of the terrestrial consequences of profligate lifestyles—soil erosion, forest depletion, biodiversity loss, air and water pollution. It then outlines a long range plan for reducing the ‘throughput’ of nature in the economy and cutting down on emissions.
Table III summarizes the targets set by the Wüppertal Institute. The report also outlines the policy and technical changes required to achieve them. These include the elimination of subsidies to chemical farming, the levying of ecological taxes (on gasoline, for example), and the move towards slower and fuel-efficient cars while shifting the movement of goods from road to rail. Some concrete examples of resource-conservation in practice are identified—such as the replacement of concrete girders by those made with steel, innovative examples of water-conservation and recycling within the city, and a novel contract between the Munich municipal authorities and organic farmers in the countryside. Building on examples such as these, Germany could transform itself from a nature-abusing society to a nature-saving one.
The Wüppertal Institute study is notable for its mix of moral ends with material means, as well as its judicious blending of economic and technical options. More striking still has been its reception. The original German book sold 40, 000 copies, with an additional 100, 000 copies of an abbreviated version. It was made into an award-winning television film, and discussed by trade unions, political parties, consumer groups, scholars, church congregations and countless lay citizens. In several German towns and regions the attempts have begun to put some of these proposals in practice.
Admittedly, to reduce consumption even in a green-conscious rich society like Germany will take great skill and dexterity. On the one hand, as the Wüppertal Institute has demonstrated, the affluent economies of the West might easily limit material consumption without a diminution in individual or social welfare. On the other hand, if the economy does not ‘grow’ at, say 3% to 4% an annum, this will lead to unemployment. Which is precisely what happened during the SPD-Green coalition of 1998-2005, leading to their removal from office in the German elections of 2005. Of course, one might still aim for a ‘steady-state economy’ and address the problem of unemployment by following policies of internal redistribution, but this could put place great strains on the welfare state.

Table III

Some Environmental Objectives for a Sustainable Germany

Environmental Indicator Target set for the year 2010


Energy consumption (overall) at least –30%
Fossil fuels – 25%
Nuclear power – 100%
Renewables + 3 to 5% per year
Energy efficiency + 3 to 5% per year


Non–renewable raw materials –25%
Material productivity + 4 to 6% per year

Substance release

Carbon Dioxide – 35%
Sulphur Dioxide – 80 to 90%
Nitrogen oxides – 80% by 2005
Ammonia – 80 to 90%
Volatile organic compounds – 80% by 2005
Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers – 100%
Agricultural biocides – 100%
Soil erosion – 80 to 90%

Land Use

Agriculture Extensive conversion to organic farming methods
Forestry extensive conversion to ecologically adapted silviculture

Source: Wolfgang Sachs, Reinhard Loske and Manfred Linz et al, Greening the North: A Post–Industrial Blueprint for Ecology and Equity (London: Zed Books, 1998)

That governments are compelled to pursue policies which are popular enough to win or retain office¬, thus further complicates what is already a deeply complicated relationship. The social needs and demands of the economy have to be made consistent with the natural constraints of ecology; and both have to be harmonized with the political imperatives of democracy.
To effectively and sustainably resolve these conflicts requires us to truly think through the environment: think through it morally and politically, historically and sociologically, and—not least–economically and technologically. The challenges that this poses are formidable indeed. Yet they have to be met. The inequalities of consumption must be addressed, and at both national and international levels. And the two are interconnected. The Spanish economist Juan Martinez-Alier provides one telling example. In the poorer countries of Asia and Africa, firewood and animal dung are often the only source of cooking fuel. These are inefficient and polluting, and their collection involves much drudgery. The provision of oil or LPG for the cooking stoves of the Nigerian or Nepali peasant woman would greatly improve the quality of their lives. This could be done, says Martinez-Alier, very easily if one very moderately taxed the rich. He calculates that to replace the fuel used by the 3000 million poor people in the world, we require about 200 millions of oil a year. Now this is less than a quarter of the United States’ annual consumption. But the bitter irony is that ‘oil at $15 [or even $ 50] a barrel is so cheap that it can be wasted by rich countries, but too expensive to be used as domestic fuel by the poor’. The solution is simple—namely, that oil consumption in the rich countries should be taxed, while the use of LPG or kerosene for fuel in the poor countries should be subsidized. Thus,to allow the poor to ascend but one step up the hierarchies of resource consumption requires a very moderate sacrifice by the rich. In the present climate, however, any proposal with even the slightest hint of redistribution would be shot down as smacking of ‘socialism’. But this might change, as (and when) conflicts over consumption begin to sharpen, as they assuredly shall. Within countries, access to water, land, forest and mineral resources will be fiercely fought over between contending groups. Between countries, there will be bitter arguments about the ‘environmental space’ occupied by the richer nations. As these divisions become more manifest, the global replicability of North Atlantic styles of living shall be more directly and persistently challenged. Sometime in the middle decades of the 21st century, John Kenneth Galbraith’s great unasked question ‘How Much Should a Country Consume?’—with its Gandhian corollary, ‘How Much Should a Person Consume?’—will come, finally, to dominate the intellectual and political debates of the time.


(published as Chapter IX of Ramachandra Guha, How Much Should a Person Consume? University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006)