Greed and human destiny

Print edition : September 26, 1998

The Human Development Report, 1998, highlights the glaringly skewed priorities in global expenditure patterns. The report's agenda for action is, however, much less radical than its assessment of the problem.

THE explosion of consumption in the second half of the 20th century may be one of the most striking economic facts of our epoch. Public and private consumption have grown at an unprecedented rate - increasing by an estimated six times compared to four decades ago, and more than 20 times compared to a century ago. Consumers today enjoy an unprecedented abundance of choice, and it is certainly true that this abundance has meant that many millions of people today enjoy much improved material conditions.

Yet it is also no secret that the consumption patterns today are highly unequal and badly distributed, and often exacerbate inequalities. They undermine the environment and the natural resource base for future generations. They have excluded a major part of humanity - at least one billion people have been entirely left out of the consumption boom, and a larger number is materially worse off today compared to a generation ago. Indeed, the current phase of capitalist globalisation has been associated with a substantial increase in inequality, environmental stresses and adverse social effects arising from the pressure of competitive spending.

All this is perhaps well known and has been frequently discussed. The increasingly unequal patterns of consumption, and the combination of the affluence of a few with the material and social exclusion of many, are so apparent in our own country that they may need no further elaboration.

Nevertheless, some of the data provided in the latest Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme, which focusses on this question, still have the ability to shock because of their stark quality. Globally, the 20 per cent of people in the highest income countries account for 86 per cent of the total private consumption expenditure, while the poorest 20 per cent of the world population account for only 1.3 per cent. This basic inequality then gets reflected in the total annual expenditure on a range of luxury or inessential items, which far exceeds the estimated additional expenditure that would be required to supply basic health and nutrition and basic education to all the world's population. The accompanying table gives some idea of how skewed and unfair the revealed priorities in expenditure have been.

HDR 1998, by focussing on patterns of consumption, puts a somewhat different angle to its traditional concerns of measuring human development. One aspect that it highlights is the large and increasing inequalities in consumption levels both among and within countries. A second is that ever-expanding consumption puts strains on the environment and undermines livelihoods. However, unlike in some earlier work, the vision here is not one of a "spaceship earth" which is rapidly consuming its non-renewable resources, where further expansion of global consumption threatens human survival itself, and where, therefore, there is no sustainable possibility of increasing the consumption of the poor without reducing that of the rich. This pessimistic scenario is side-stepped by pointing out that although the world is burning more fossil fuels and consuming more mineral resources, the much publicised fears that the earth will run out of such non-renewable material resources has been proved false. This is both because new reserves have been discovered and because there is greater efficiency in material use today.

The real environmental problems, according to the Report, relate to renewable resources - water, soil, forest, fish and biodiversity - and to the fact that pollution and waste exceed the planet's sink capacity. These are not features which make further growth in consumption impossible, but require greater efficiency in the way consumption is carried out. The efficiency required relates to better management of renewable natural resources and of waste disposal, and this is considered not only to be technologically possible but also vital to the future of mankind. In the absence of such management, the environmental damage falls most severely on the poor while the well-off remain the dominant consumers, and rising pressures for conspicuous consumption turn destructive, reinforcing exclusion, poverty and inequality.

HDR 1998 emphasises that existing consumption patterns must be changed, so that consumption becomes "shared, strengthening, socially responsible and sustainable." The dynamics must shift towards redistribution from high-income to low-income producers, from polluting goods and production processes to cleaner ones, from promoting goods produced by large companies to those that empower poor producers, from conspicuous display to meeting basic needs and increasing human capabilities.

THESE are worthy intentions indeed, and there would be few people foolhardy enough to dispute them. But how, you will naturally ask, is all this to be achieved? The huge difficulty of breaking away from the tremendous lure of consumerism is something that continues to be faced by progressive social movements throughout the world, and remains a major dilemma for progressive politics as well. Governments buffeted by current vested interests have found it difficult to control consumerism fed by unequally distributed incomes, and the growing publicity given to affluent lifestyles makes it even more difficult to circumscribe the aspirations of the less privileged.

The HDR's agenda for action is unfortunately much less radical than its assessment of the problem. The aim is basically two-fold: to raise the consumption of the billion plus people who have so far been left out of the global expansion of consumption and are unable to meet basic needs, and to improve efficiency in natural resource use and in the regeneration of renewable resources. The glaringly skewed priorities in global expenditure that the HDR highlights are to be discouraged because they have a negative impact on society and reinforce inequalities and poverty.

But, apart from promoting consumer rights and consumer access to information which counters the onslaught of advertising, there is little in the HDR by way of a solution to the underlying cancer of human greed, whose spread it concedes has been vastly accelerated by the process of globalisation. There is no explicit recognition that unequal patterns of spending cannot be reversed unless there is a prior redistribution of the world's highly skewed wealth and property ownership. There is no mention of restricting advertising expenditure which has ballooned out of all proportion even in poor developing countries, only of providing some counter-information through public service broadcasting.

As a consequence of this more timid approach to policy, the basic message of the HDR remains tiredly old-fashioned: rich country governments must be prepared to spend more on world development, by not only restoring official development assistance and through debt relief to poorer countries but also by a concerted move towards realising the environmental goals acknowledged in several recent international conventions and agreements. Within countries, especially poor countries, the priority should be on efficiency and the reduction of waste - predominantly through reduction of subsidies and other fiscal measures which encourage the employment of labour and discourage overburdening of natural resources. This second priority is sought to be achieved mainly through market reforms, aided by consumer awareness and supplemented by public action in the fields of education, health and nutrition. There is little directly on redistribution in the agenda which therefore does not challenge the Washington Consensus.

In the process, the HDR ducks the basic issue it itself raises: that existing inequalities lead to patterns of consumer behaviour, both private and in the public domain, which not only exclude the poor but also put them at the receiving end of environmental degeneration.

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