Equality And Simplicity

Of Environment and Life-Style

Bharat Dogra

It is now widely agreed that the dimensions of environmental problems facing the world today are of the nature of a full-blown crisis, an unprecedented crisis never before experienced in human history at a global level.

A former Secretary General of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation Anders Wijkman said some time back, "The Swedish government recently conducted a study on how many people throughout the world can be supported at the present standard of living in Sweden. The answer was, 500 to 600 million. What happens to the rest? The question is not just of shortage of raw material. The biosphere cannot cope with the present pattern of consumption. That is why today you are faced with problems like global warming, ozone layer depletion, or accumulation of chemicals and heavy metals in the ecosystem." When he was asked whether people will accept an alternative model, he replied : "At the very least, they will accept the lowering of their standard of living that will be caused if pollution is really controlled. The German and Swedish governments have calculated that this control will affect the gross national product by five to ten per cent. I am sure that if this control is enforced, people will actually be much happier. But too few people in power want to draw this conclusion."

The real task of environment protection is to evolve a life-style, a way of living which is in harmony with the protection of environment. It has been said time and again that the life-style which has been adopted by the majority of people in developed countries and elite minorities in other countries puts a lot of pressure on environment. This life style is not in conformity with protection of environment and if all people of the world succeed in adopting such a resource-intensive life-style then nothing but environmental catastrophe will result. Even less excusable is the incredibly wasteful life-style by the richest people—perhaps not more than 5 percent of the world's people but who grab an incredibly high share of the world's resources.

The majority of world's people are of course in no position to consume excessively and hence become a burden on environment, but precisely because they are denied proper, secure means of livelihood, they are driven to accepting any available job, which in many cases can be harmful for their health as well as for environment. Thus high levels of inequality damage environment in two ways—those at the top continuously put a lot of pressure on environment by their excessive consumption and the poor are sometimes driven in desperation to environmentally destructive activities.

What is more, even for poor and slightly better-off people the life-style of the rich remains a desirable model—something that they would like to adopt whenever it is possible to do so. Hence whenever economic prosperity comes to new areas there is a rush for the same consumer goods and life-style, increasing the pressure on environment despite all the rhetoric of environment protection.

Unwilling to challenge the existing notions of 'good' life (which involve a very heavy use of material goods) the elites place a very high reliance on purely technological solutions for mounting environmental problems. There is no doubt that technology if properly guided can help the society in reducing pollution and disposing waste to some extent. But to use technology not as a help but as an alternative for badly need social change is deception. One cannot hide behind technology to escape from issues of social change which stare the concerned people in the face.

Population is likely to increase at a rapid rate for sometime, so the only way of reducing the pressure on environment is to restrain per capita consumption. Since the poor cannot be asked to do so—as they do not even meet their basic needs today—the only way out is to ask the rich people to reduce their per capita consumption (particularly its more wasteful aspects) by significant levels.

This raises the question of what exactly is the pattern of life which can be said to be in accordance with the needs of environment protection. Briefly one can say that a basic change in thinking is required. So far a desirable life-style is based on consuming and accumulating as much as it is possible to buy and grab. A society is supposed to be developing in proportion with how much its consumption and accumulation are increasing. A person is said to be progressing in proportion to the material goods and assets he acquires. This thinking has to go, it has to be removed from it's roots.

Instead this should be replaced by a different thinking by raising questions like—in order to lead a healthy and wholesome life, what is the minimum level of material goods one needs? Can one do without some of the material goods otherwise needlessly accumulated? Have people been unnecessarily using and accumulating material goods which they do not really need? When someone progresses to this stage and tries to consume and accumulate only as much as is necessary for a healthy and wholesome life, then it can be said that this person has a life-pattern which is conducive to environment protection. When such values spread widely in a community or a country, then it can be said that this community or this country has a life pattern which is in keeping with the needs of environment protection.

Commitment to environment protection demands a new approach to life which may be called the opposite of the acquisitive approach. The acquisitive approach motivates its followers to acquire more and more comforts and luxuries of life to the extent possible for them. The approach which is in keeping with environment protection is exactly the opposite of this. It requires its followers to ask what are the minimum facilities that they need in order to meet their basic needs, keep good health and carry out their work. This approach expects its followers by and large to lead a life of contentment within these limits, (to which a few inexpensive frills may be added here and there to add colour to life—special concessions for children and newly weds!)

One must hasten to add that the person visualized here is not a dull and frowning person, unhappy at the limits he (or she) has set himself and jealous of the high life led by others. Rather he is a person who having opted out of the rat race for more and more acquisitions has reached a stage of real contentment. He is mentally at peace with himself, and by staying away from alcohol, tobacco, rich food, over-eating and many other characteristics of the high life, it is most likely that he has also improved his physical health.

It is also quite likely that this person is engaged in some work relating to the welfare of others. As soon as a person moves out of acquisitive thinking and is relieved of the pressure of accumulating more and more for himself and his family, he suddenly seems to have more time for others.

All this is not a matter merely of a person changing his life-style, it has wider social and political implications. So commitment to the protection of environment demands a change of approach to life from acquisitiveness to simplicity. But to call upon the people to make this change would be meaningless unless it is accompanied by a call for another commitment—the commitment to equality in socio-economic life.

A predominant feature of the existing world is the extreme inequality that exists between person to person, nation to nation. Some persons, communities, entire nations are condemned to a highly deprived existence, denied even the most basic needs, while other persons, communities, nations enjoy the most lavish luxuries. These inequalities, moreover, are clearly the result of injustice, of the tendency of some persons or nations to exploit others, to prosper at the cost of depriving others.

In these socio-economic conditions there are obvious problems in spreading the message of life style of simplicity. On the one hand there are persons and nations who benefit from an unjust and unequal system. The process of squeezing out such benefits is itself so alienating and self-centered that it is unlikely that these people will listen to the message of a new life-style except in very special circumstances. Further the high life pursued by these persons creates a very attractive model to which a lot of other persons aspire. Thus the socio-cultural conditions in such an unjust society are not at all conducive to spreading the message of a new life-style of simplicity.

At the other end there are the people who have been deprived of even basic needs by the unjust and unequal system. It can only be a cruel jcke to talk to them about a life-style of simplicity. However it is a fact that the life-style of the rich intrudes into their life also in some ways for example in the form of imitation products or a one time spending spree.

Therefore for the message of a non-acquisitive and simple life-style to have any meaning, there should first be a commitment to change the injustice and inequalities of this world—whether these are between person to person, nation to nation, community to community. Any talk of changing the acquisitive life-style without attacking the injustices and inequalities of the present world is meaningless.

However, the reverse of this is also true, as far as the task of environment protection is concerned. A society which has established socio-economic equality to a considerable extent but is not alert to the need to spreading the message of a simple non-acquisitive life style is asking for trouble of more than one kind. It is simply not possible to provide a consumerist and acquisitive life-pattern (following the norms set by the elites of developed countries) to all people. If such are the ambitions to which people have been led, then at some place the norm of equity will break. A section of the people will be excluded from this dream world or the avaricious nation will try to exploit other countries to satisfy the greed of its own citizens. This is an even worse, an even more unjust, violation of the equality norm. If the equality norm is not broken, then the desperate nation trying to tap its natural resources too rapidly and on too large a scale will end up creating ecological havoc which in turn will wipe up whatever gains that have been obtained in the standard of living.

Very lavish and comfortable life-style can exist either for a minority in highly unequal societies or else these have to be supported by the exploitation of the natural resources and workers of other countries. It would be very unwise to promise the sky to workers while mobilising them for fight against an unequal and unjust system. Instead the concept of a satisfactory but simple life-style should be emphasised from the outset. Without this additional concept of a non-acquisitive life-style, an equal society cannot be sustained. It will either not remain true to its own objectives, or build up ecological catastrophes, or collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, as has been tragically seen in some countries in the recent past.

On the other hand, to preach for a non-acquisitive and simple life-style without attacking inequalities and injustices is sheer hypocrisy. This is empty talk and will not take people anywhere.

Thus equality and simplicity are two important concepts which acquire their real significance only when taken together with each other. One without the other will not take the society far, but the two taken together will help greatly in building a new, a better world.

Even if a society has not heard one line about environment protection and 'ecological consciousness', if it abides by the norms of equality and simplicity, then this society would've achieved more for the protection of environment compared to another society which spends millions of dollars in holding environment seminars and lectures and preparing pollution control gadgets but which does not abide by the norms of equality and simplicity. These two concepts of equality and simplicity are the foundation stone on which any real and significant work of environment protection can be done.

Vol. 46, No. 20, Nov 24 - 30, 2013

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