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" – complem
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