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Millennium goals for the rich?

Guest post by Anna da Costa

Earlier this month, Sri Lankan scientist Dr M Munasinghe made an innovative proposal at the discussions for the 2012 UN Sustainable Development Summit: the creation of Millennium Consumption Goals to task the rich with using less “stuff”.

Just as the eight Millennium Development Goals were designed to tackle some of the challenges of “underdevelopment”, which include extreme poverty, inadequate healthcare and widespread illiteracy, the “MCGs” would target the symptoms of so-called “overdevelopment” such as widespread environmental degradation, social deterioration, high levels of obesity and unbalanced lifestyles.  

Currently the richest 20% of the world’s population consume more than 80% of the Earth’s resources (60 times more than the poorest). By reducing such demand amongst the rich, said Munasinghe, the MCGs would provide poorer parts of the world with better access to their share, resulting in more balanced and sustainable growth.  

It is not a new idea that our relentless consumption of Earth’s natural reserves spells trouble. Back in the 1950s, economist EF Schumacher warned that “infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world” was impossible and furthermore undesirable for human well-being. Similarly, Indian revolutionary MK Gandhi famously argued that humanity has “enough for its needs, but not for its greed”.  

With the global rich consuming resources three times faster than the Earth replenishes them, straining ecosystems and driving climate change, these predictions are playing out.   But as well as the environmental impacts, it is argued that our unquenchable demand for “stuff” ultimately takes away from the deeper meaning in life. In other words, past a certain point, getting richer doesn’t mean getting happier – in fact, it may even make us less happy. As the author Tim Jackson put it at a recent TED talk: “We are spending money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to make impressions that don’t last, on people we don’t care about.”  

Munasinghe believes that establishing MCGs would not only benefit the global community but also help citizens of developed nations by supporting a focus on the things money can’t buy.   Undeterred by the UN’s typically slow pace of proceedings, Munasinghe has said there is no need to wait for these goals to be formalised; that they can work through voluntary efforts too. “Many communities and cities have contacted me about establishing MCGs at the local level (usually carbon emissions, energy, water and land use), even individuals,” he said.   

He also argued that, by targeting wallet size rather than culpable nations, these goals could cut across international boundaries and “reduce the potential for deadlock due to nationalistic self-interest” – succeeding where, for example, Kyoto targets have failed.  

Erik Assadourian, author of Worldwatch report “Transforming Cultures: from Consumerism to Sustainability” believes these goals are a step in the right direction: “The MCGs will at least give a more robust counterweight to the original goals [the MDGs], helping to pull sustainability and our destructive consumer ways directly into the conversation. This will hopefully help reinforce the truth that perpetual economic growth is in fact in direct conflict with development.”  

But can these seemingly contradictory goals – to develop and de-develop – really achieve their end within a global economy whose very health is measured by growth in consumption, or “GDP”?   “The limitations of GDP are widely recognised”, said Dimitri Zenghelis, one of the Stern Review’s lead economists. “Not only is it not synonymous with happiness or wellbeing, but more so, it can be a perverse measure of these factors,” he said, describing how the Kobe earthquake actually pushed up Japanese GDP because of all the reconstruction that had to take place in its wake: “GDP is a measure of output, not outcomes.”

However, Zenghelis pointed out that, for all its shortcomings, “we are stuck with GDP as the most universally accepted and transparent proxy of wellbeing,” – for now.   The important thing, he said, is to be aware of its limitations, to ensure it captures the changing nature of economic activity and to be independently aware of those social and environmental elements that are not adequately accounted for. “We do not need a single number to make sense of everything. Life is not like that, and attempts to simplify a complex world into one metric will be fraught with disappointment and failure.”  

So where now, and what next? Are consumption goals for the rich realistic? And if so, how could they be implemented? Munasinghe has opened this question to the world at large, inviting suggestions and dialogue from all. His website can be visited here.  

Leaving more questions than answers, one thing is certainly clear. This proposal underscores the importance of examining our economic system far more deeply and asking the fundamental question what, in the end, we are developing towards? If we are truly to develop sustainably, we will need to ensure that the two agendas – development and "de-development" – complement rather than contradict one another.


Also in chinadialogue's well-being series:

Is earth justice possible?

How to make China happy

Growth can't go on

Towards sustainable capitalism

Shooting at the wrong goal


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my incomprehension and confusion

It is an indisputable fact that the world economy is based on consumption. The industry is merely a medium and the aim of production is to lead people to consume and spend money. This article says that the rich should curb their consumption activities, consume less or even stop consuming, which is against the essential principle of economics. Therefore I failed to get the author's point. Another aspect of consumption, which is the basis of economy, is that it naturally leads to waste, deliberately or otherwise. For instance, the boss of a restaurant naturally hopes to get more customers, without concerning a lot about the waste problem. Just let those who are not in the business activity care about it. Rich people’s desire needs to be controlled, but at the same time poor people’s desire is equally strong. If the rich reduce their consumption, as a result of the market rule, the luxury goods' prices will fall to such a level that the "less rich" could afford them. People's desire is insatiable, regardless of their financial conditions. It is impossible to call on the rich to save their money. Besides, if the rich has less needs, it may not be beneficial to the environment, and may even worsen poor people’s conditions. It will be a dangerous situation for China, as China's economy is partly dependent on providing the rich in Western countries with cheap goods. As suggested in this article, if the need for goods is greatly reduced, it will be a disaster for China’s market. If the rich stop consuming, then the government will reduce the taxes on a large scale to compensate for the unsold goods and absorb them in the domestic market - just like what usually happens when the financial crisis reaches its apex. Imagine there's no way to stimulate consumption strongly, then the factories go bankrupt and the workers lose their jobs. I wonder if this picture is what the author has in mind. In China we have many so-called "experts" who sometimes provide far-fetched advice. I realize that there are also "foreign experts" in the same line.

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请聘请一些真正的翻译员或至少是一些真正关心其翻译质量的译员。作品中充斥着不计其数的词义的曲解和含糊。很简单的一小段如:“GDP is a measure of output, not outcomes”完全翻译错误。翻译到最后更是惨不忍睹,从中文译文中你完全得不到任何有意义的信息。

hire some real translators

Hire some real translators or at least someone who cares about the quality of his or her work. Tons of distortions and ambiguity. Simple soundbites such as “GDP is a measure of output, not outcomes.” came out totally wrong. And it got worse towards the end, making it impossible to get any meaning out of the Chinese version.