On a drowsy afternoon a few days ago while conversing with a friend, she started off saying how she wants to do something substantial to stave off the imminent, irreversible damage to the environment. She referred to the controversial drilling in the Arctic Ocean by major oil corporations as an example of how capitalistic greed is driving environmental problems through the roof and how companies should stop doing so.
On the one hand, while I agreed that institutions, both public and private, should be held accountable for the footprint they are leaving. At the same time, I was shocked how easily she could blame corporations and their ‘so-called’ greed without accepting the environmental accountability of a simple thing like upgrading her cell phone to the latest standards even though she had one in perfect working condition. I asked her and myself, is it the capitalists destroying the environment, or are we, the consumers, who are incentivizing them to continue to do so?
But first, let us understand what this hefty term, consumerism, actually means. According to Wikipedia, consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. In other words, consumerism is a theory that people consuming more products and services in large quantities are better off.
This has led to a culture where social responsibility is thought to be only in the hands of the government and society. This is in direct conflict with the idea of a capitalistic society where individualism is encouraged as each entity is in the pursuit of its own goals without considering how these goals might be affecting others and the community in general.
In today’s India, self-worth is often tied to the buying power of an individual. Do we have the latest smartphone? Check. The latest fitness band? Check. Enough clothes to not repeat wearing the same one? Cameras to experience photo-worthy moments? Couple these with the media encouraging flashy lifestyles, and you get the perfect scenario where we are moved to consume more and more. But what is the actual cost of our wants?
We may think being photographed while consuming a grande coffee in an eco-friendly paper cup is a good idea. But are we at the same time aware that excessive coffee demand globally is responsible for mass deforestation, land degradation, and death of aquatic species due to chemical run-offs from excessive cultivation of coffee in tropical places with fragile ecosystems like Brazil and Vietnam?
We feel that we must have separate shoes for every occasion and still some more, just in case. In that event, are we aware that rubber production imbalances the soil nutrients and leaves the soil unsuitable for cultivation, as is the case in Thailand? These are just some examples where regular consumer items have a heavy toll on the environment, leaving aside the effect of energy procured from fossil fuels required to manufacture these.
Now, I am not advocating for all to give up everything and live a hermit’s life. The point I want to drive home is whether we are consuming what we need or what we want, or being influenced by external factors? Even if we are buying what we want, being influenced innately, or by external agencies, are we ready to take the moral and social responsibility towards our environment that comes with our consumerism?