On 1 April 2013, I put out a news item announcing that the Government of India had set a Sustainable Consumption Line, and all those consuming above that line would have action taken against them. Several readers wrote to me asking for more details, some even wanted to write to the Government congratulating it for the bold step. Eventually, of course, people figured out it was a spoof.

But my intention was more than merely using April Fool's Day for some fun. It was a light-hearted attempt at addressing a serious issue. So here's taking the serious element ahead, with a few thoughts meant more to stimulate a dialogue than offer a conclusive blueprint.

Why do we need to limit consumerism?

Collectively, humanity has in many ways already overstepped the ecological limits that the earth places on us. In 2005 the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that "60 per cent (15 out of 24) of the ecosystem services examined ... are being degraded or used unsustainably, including fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water purification, and the regulation of regional and local climate, natural hazards, and pests."

In 2009, a large team of scientists led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre concluded that of nine 'planetary boundaries,' "humanity has already transgressed three ... for climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, and changes to the global nitrogen cycle." The Global Footprint Network estimates that we are already on 'planetary overshoot,' consuming what the earth provides 50 per cent faster than can be replenished ... with horrifying implications for both future generations and victims of environmental damage in current generations. Human development is, clearly, unsustainable and unjust.

While the sheer number of people is certainly one factor behind this trend, an equally or perhaps more serious factor is the wasteful consumption pattern common in industrial countries, and also among the rich in the so-called developing countries. Profligate consumerism is trashing the earth. If you've got a car, air conditioner, refrigerator, electrical appliances in your kitchen, a home theatre and stereo system, or exotic food items that have come from half-way across the world, or if you simply use a new disposable plastic bag every time you shop, or take flights across the world (to conferences about saving the world!), chances are you are part of this class that is treating the earth like a giant extraction machine and as big a dump. Like me.

We don't all consume the same

Rich (industrialized or urbanized) countries of the world are today consuming far above their fair share of the earth's resources. Each average citizen in the United Arab Emirates needs over 10 global hectares (gha, or a hectare with a world average ability to produce resources and absorb wastes), each American over seven ... whereas each Indian needs less than 0.9. According to the Global Footprint Network, the earth can accommodate a per person consumption of 1.8 gha.

This inter-country contrast is mirrored by the inter-class contrast within a country. A back-of-the-envelope calculation that my co-author Aseem Shrivastava and I did for our book Churning the Earth (Viking/Penguin 2012), indicated that per capita ecological footprint of the richest one per cent people in India (folks like us owning the products mentioned above) is 17 times that of the poorest 40 per cent. These folks already enjoy well above the global acceptable limit of 1.8 gha.

To make consumption truly sustainable, there is a need for a measure to determine what is sustainable and ways to implement this measure - a Sustainable Consumption Line, which determines whether an individual is living sustainably.

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While on one side there is shameless profligacy and waste in consumption, on the other, there are several billion people who do not have enough to consume, suffering deprivations of food, energy, water, shelter, clothing, and other basic needs. This, too, should be a reason for the rich to cut down, because only then will global ecological space be created to enable the poor to enhance their lives; else such enhancement will take us further along the path of ecological suicide and socio-economic conflict.

Unfortunately, we live in an upside-down world in which the poor and powerless continue to face all kinds of limits to their consumption, while the rich and powerful have a virtual free-for-all. Take for instance, natural resources. In many countries, communities that live inside or adjacent to forests have quotas on the amount of timber, non-timber forest produce, fuel, and other such products they can use. If they happen to fall within a protected area (over 13 per cent of the earth's surface is under such land use), the restrictions are even stricter, and in some cases absolute. This is justified in the name of forest and wildlife conservation.

But is there any such limit on rich (mostly urban or semi-urban) consumers? Their distance from forests and other natural ecosystems makes their use of natural resources virtually invisible, but it is very real. So for instance there is no limit to how much electricity an urban (or rich rural) family can consume, notwithstanding that it comes from power stations or dams that have had major ecological impacts on forests, wetlands, grasslands or marine areas, and have displaced or dispossessed local communities. There is no limit on the amount or kind of minerals the rich can use, regardless of the fact that mining threatens crucial ecosystems and cultures worldwide.

In India alone, over 100,000 hectares of forest land have been diverted for mining in the last 30 years, and countless rivers and lakes have been polluted beyond repair by mining run-off. There is no limit on how much vehicular fuel the rich can use, for we are collectively blind to the impact this has on areas from where fuel is extracted or the pollution and climate change being caused by vehicular emissions.

Americans and Europeans are of course past masters at this, but parts of the erstwhile poor world are also fast catching up, joining their consumerist big brothers in what can be called the 'global North'. For instance, Greenpeace India estimates that the richest Indians are already reaching the global average of per capita carbon emissions (of about 5 tonnes per year) and that their emissions are almost double the per capita limit (2.5 tonnes) considered necessary if we want to restrict temperature increase to below two degrees.

Perhaps among the few limits imposed on urban populations is landholding; in India for instance there was a ceiling on how much land a family could own. Increasingly, though, in the post-1991 economic globalisation phase, such ceilings in both cities and villages are being done away with or diluted.

The Sustainable Consumption Line

'Sustainable development' has become quite a buzzword. Virtually every agency of the United Nations, every big multilateral and bilateral agency, and most big civil society organizations are involved in discussions regarding the framework that will, in 2015, replace the current Millennium Development Goals. Sustainability is supposed to be a fulcrum of this framework. One crucial component of this is 'sustainable consumption', but unfortunately, there is very little talk of the need to drastically cut down existing consumption levels of the global North.

To make consumption truly sustainable, there is a need for a measure to determine what is sustainable and ways to implement this measure. Several countries have measures or indicators by which they determine people eligible for social welfare schemes, for example in India we have a Below Poverty Line (BPL). As a counterpart, what is needed now is a Sustainable Consumption Line, which determines whether an individual (or, extrapolated, a family, community or region) is living sustainably. Then those Above Sustainable Consumption Line (ASCL) would be eligible for actions that help or force them to scale down.

Of course, both the conceptualization of the SCL and even more, its implementation, will be highly complex. Full information on what kinds and levels of consumption are sustainable is sketchy, and global averages could be misleading. Any individual or group will have a unique mix of products and services being consumed that will make composite calculations difficult. Assessments will need to include not only how much of what is consumed, but how it was obtained, transported, processed, and so on.

This complexity should however not be an argument making a start; the SCL can be made more and more sophisticated and meaningful over time. At the beginning, some relatively simple aspects can be taken. As examples:

  • Sustainable energy consumption: Every household of average size is to be allowed only a certain kw per month of electrical power from the grid, at subsidized rate; it can buy more at the full cost incurred to supply it, but again up to a limit beyond which no-one is allowed. Concomitantly, the government and other agencies commit to vigorously promote energy-saving in all devices so the family quota can go a longer way, as also to support energy self-sufficiency at household and community level using decentralised renewable sources.

  • Sustainable water: Every household of average size is allowed only a certain number of litres of water use in a day. To begin with this could be the direct water use, but eventually the 'embedded' water use (i.e. needed to produce the products and services that a household is using) can also be integrated, or dovetailed with the sustainable materials measure.

  • Sustainable transport: Every household of average size is allowed only one private motorised vehicle, and can use it only occasionally, say once a week; concomitantly there is a commitment by governments and other public agencies to urgently improve public transport, cycle lanes and footpaths, and special facilities for the elderly and disabled, in all settlements. Eventually private motorised vehicles may not be needed at all. Additionally, every individual is entitled to a certain maximum number of trips by air and by train in a year.

  • Sustainable shelter: Every household of average size is allowed a certain maximum built up area for its dwelling; anything in excess of this already owned or used by the household will be made available for housing the homeless or those with less than average built-up area. Unoccupied houses will be eligible for take-over by the homeless, as is the case in some European countries.

  • Sustainable waste: Every household of average size can generate only a certain maximum amount of waste in a month; anything in excess has to be recycled, composted, or otherwise dealt with within its premises or the premises of the community/colony it resides in. For its part, the government commits to eliminating wasteful use of materials in all products (e.g. in packaging), and facilitate household and community-level recycling, composting, and other safe disposal of waste.

... and so on, for the consumption of materials, food, and other products, and for the use of spaces and services (land, roads, other infrastructure). There also has to be some exceptions built in, for instance in the case of travel for essential services like medical professionals, government officials on necessary duty, etc.

Setting and implementing the limits

How would the actual amounts in each of the above be calculated? One option is to calculate what would be a sustainable ecological footprint per person, building in the impacts of the use of various resources and services and then working out the per capita that could be allowed if the total footprint was to be restricted to the relevant country's or region's ecological and social capacity. This is of course simpler said than actually worked out, but it is possible to get a rough idea, and keep refining it over the years.

There is already an average worked out by the Global Footprint Network of 1.8 global hectares, as the per-person upper limit of what the earth can provide. This does not include freshwater use and planetary space needed for other species, so the figure is likely to be smaller. Also this would need to be further nuanced for specific ecological and cultural conditions. But it is a reasonable starting point to build on.

But if setting limits is complex, even harder will be their actual implementation. We need social and legal measures that

  • (a) guide and facilitate the transformation towards sustainability of consumption patterns,
  • (b) impose strong disincentives and penalties for those seriously breaching the ASCL,
  • (c) provide incentives for those who pro-actively and voluntarily comply, and
  • (d) empower communities from whom resources are being snatched away to feed the consumerism of the rich.

The last point may well be the most important factor. The recent refusal by 12 gram sabhas in Odisha to allow Vedanta corporation to mine bauxite from their hills and forest lands, and similar actions by other communities in many parts of the world, have shown the potential of local, direct democracy. The more such resistance takes place, and the more it is empowered by policies such as the requirement of free prior informed consent, the more difficult it will be for the rich to grab what they want.

A potentially strong measure to achieve consumption limits would be to provide upper limits to incomes and wealth. Some civil society organizations do this voluntarily, imposing both an upper limit of salary or honorarium because it is considered profligate for someone to earn more, and a minimum ratio between and maximum and minimum pay to reduce the levels of inequity. Governments too set limits, though these are based more on what is affordable rather than on considerations like personal profligacy and equity. The private sector and the world of virtual incomes have hardly any such limits, as is clear from the obscenely high incomes or returns that CEOs and investors around the world take home.

Inevitably this also calls for questioning the very fundamentals of today's model of 'development' and growth, and the political economy of both capitalism and state socialism. These are all based on ignoring the ecological limits that the earth places on us, not to mention the serious inequalities of power and wealth such models inevitably result in. Arguments that technology will provide ways out of the limits the environment places on us have repeatedly proved to be false, though most certainly, better technologies that reduce materials and energy consumption are part of the answer. But this is not the place to go further into this complex subject, it is only necessary to flag it here to place the ASCL in a macro-context.

Of utmost importance is reining in the advertising industry, and other ways in companies push their products, including the use of mass media, movies, celebrities, fashion shows, professionals, and so on. Civil society naming and shaming of companies that use unethical means of various kinds to create consumerist demand, in the manner done by forums like Adbusters for instance, is one method.

Education and awareness regarding the impact of a throw-away culture, and providing a sense that there is nothing "uncool" about using a product for its full lifetime, rather than buying the latest model simply because it is available, are other strategies.

Government regulation will also be necessary, at least till social pressure and monitoring are adequate. Prohibitive taxation on luxury and wasteful items, as well as on processes that make products appear redundant even though they are perfectly functional would also be required. As a part of the re-structuring and re-invention of education and learning geared to create responsible adults, curricula and materials used have to be made sensitive to these issues.

Should some form of 'consumption trading' be allowed, in which individuals and families can use the quota of those who voluntarily agree to use less than what they are entitled to, like carbon trading? I would not recommend this, considering the widespread and systematic abuse of the carbon trading mechanisms (or related ones like clean development mechanism). Market-based measures have a way of being hijacked and distorted by the powerful.

Pic: A garbage sorting centre in Pune. Courtesy: Ashish Kothari.

Unfair and Infeasible?

Most readers will think that these ideas are downright unfair, and impossible to implement. There will be the inevitable outcry regarding the supposed infringement of private or personal freedoms, and the restrictions on what are claimed to be 'deserved' remuneration and compensation. But keep in mind that such freedoms cannot be a license for trashing the earth, or taking up more than one's fair share of the earth's resources thereby depriving someone (or something) else.

In so far as over-consumption leaves other people impoverished, or results in ecological catastrophes that leave others homeless or dead, or snatches away the space of other species to survive, it is akin to theft or murder. Consider the movement against smoking in public, so successful in so many countries; if over-consumption of any product is socially harmful, why should it be tolerated in the name of personal freedom?

For forest-dwellers in India, it would seem equally unfair that they can take out firewood only as much as they can lift on the head, when they could be cutting much more to sell. Those of us who make environmental policy (forest-dwellers rarely do!) think it is justified to put this limit, because the forest needs to be protected from over-harvesting. But then why not the same for our consumption, which has an equally if not worse impact, albeit often in far-away ecosystems invisible to us?

As for being impossible to implement, that's a function of governance, and of course also of convincing people that this is for their (our) own good...or at least the good of our children. Ultimately, more than laws and regulations, it will be awareness and concern about our collective future, social compacts and customs, and peer pressure, that will make the ASCL system work.

A culture of 'enoughness' rather than 'more and more,' the celebration of voluntary simplicity (not to be equated with poverty) rather than profligacy, making durable and long-lasting products acceptable again rather than a 'throw-away culture', a respect for other humans and the rest of nature such that we continuously, almost subconsciously assess the impacts of our actions on them .... these and other aspects need to be the basis of a powerful culture and psyche underlying our lives and lifestyles. When that happens, we will be looking at our neighbour with envy if they are BSCL (yes, you guessed it, Below Sustainable Consumption Line) while we are still that little bit profligate.