14 Years ago, newly married, I very proudly showed off Mangere Bridge to Mitu, my Indian wife. Her reaction has stayed with me. Expecting glowing praise for the lack of crazed bus drivers and unpopulated nature strips she solemnly said, ’It’s just not fair’. It was the first time in her life she saw, first hand, the gross inequalities in the distribution of the world’s resources.
Chandran Nair is the founder of the Global Institute For Tomorrow and author of Consumptionomics. He has insightfully highlighted how that inequality could not only be an injustice but could bring consumer capitalism to it’s knees.
Globalisation has been an important driver of developed nation’s economies. Automobile manufacturing joint ventures in India, Japanese plasma televisions in Liberia. Literally, mountainsides of Australian and New Zealand coal shipped to Asian steel furnaces.
The West sees gob smacking potential in markets like India where car ownership is 30 per 1000 citizens compared to 750 per thousand in the OECD. They feel justified when they see China become the world’s largest car consumer at only 150 cars per 1000.
This is Nair’s point. The 20th century’s watermark of success was indiscriminate consumption. India and China, deprived of Lycra cycling shorts and iPads, are making quantum leaps in consumerism. Hungry tigers pouncing about after being freed from the chains of homebred Stalinism. This he believes has to be vanquished for if the developing world continues to affectionately adopt this model the world will perish.
If China and India were to have a comparable consumption of cars of 750 per 1000 there simply wouldn’t be enough oil to power 1.5 billion cars.
Nair makes the unsettling claim that Americans consume 9 billion chickens a year and that Asia consumes 16 billion. But here’s the thing. Asia is 13 times the population of the United States and if they were to consume at American levels by 2050 they would be impossibly consuming 120 billion birds.
Nair projects this vision of increasing environmental disaster that could, ironically, eventuate with a more equal world.
I greatly enjoy Nair’s take on this startling paradox but what is acutely disappointing is his proposed solution.
He believes that Asia should almost solely bear the responsibility of reducing consumption of it’s citizens. Strong Government intervention, with various environment taxes, to ensure that Mr. Singh or Mr. Lee don’t aspire to Mr. Smith’s open plan townhouse. To settle for less than the West, for the greater good.
Last year my eyes welled up thinking what a great humanitarian I was. I went with my Father-in-laws servant, affectionately called Hero, to buy him a mobile phone. Being a tightfisted humanitarian I purchased the cheapest model. I pompously handed it to Hero, who looks like a Somali pirate, waiting for the flow of tears and great touching of feet. He took one look at the phone, screwed his face up like he had taken poison and threw it back across the counter. ‘Touch wallah chaiye!’ (I want the one with the touch screen!).
Hero is illiterate and comes from one of the poorest districts of West Bengal but he would dutifully see the advertisements for local rip-offs of the iphone in the Times Of India.
The heart of India is now host to the strongest consumerism. They will not take second best even if it kills the planet. Why should they?
Isn’t it absurd to expect India to punish her citizens if they aspire to their western counterpart’s level of environmental destruction?
A draft of this article was shown to friends and I was surprised at the number who insisted that India must further decrease it’s carbon footprint. Possibly exacerbated by Gillard backtracking on her election promise to not implement a carbon tax.
Grudgingly, on long careful reflection I feel this has genuine merit. If this planet is to see it’s next century without it’s populace choking on Chinese car exhaust and drowning in apopylytic floods from Russian forest fires, India must equally bear the yoke.
Assuming there are one billion people in the developed world, quick math gives us the equation. If the third world was to equally share the burden of nursing our planet back to health they would have to increase their consumption, per capita, by 50 fold and the First World would have to consume a 6th of current levels.
The West has molested Mother Nature single handed, whilst excluding India from 150 years of industrial progress, and alone must pay penance.