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Less is more

The logic of capitalist material development and environmental protection works in opposite ways, which was recognised by two early critics of capitalism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Anup Sinha Published 04.08.23, 07:54 AM

The Telegraph

Among the many dangers and uncertainties lurking around our existence as a species, the risks of environmental disaster appear to be the most proximate. These risks are typified by focusing on global climate change. Climate change, albeit important and impending, is one of the many other associated environmental disasters awaiting us if we do not change our lifestyles and habits. For instance, the alarming loss of biodiversity, referred to by scientists as the Sixth Mass Extinction, is supposed to have a number of adverse consequences on human health, local climate, food production and ecological services, such as nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. Another disaster awaiting us is the rapid depletion of natural resources, some of which are non-renewable. The ever-growing production of wastes — solid, liquid and gaseous — is polluting and taking up environmental space. The effects of astonishing economic development over the past 200 years have suddenly brought to light the natural consequences of the massive enterprise of modernity. There are many more instances where human activities are hitting the boundaries of natural tolerance and regeneration.

How we mitigate and adapt to climate change is important. However, it is more important to view environmental disasters as a whole. All the problems of the environment are linked to our lifestyles — what we produce, how we produce, what we consume and how we consume goods and services. The causality runs from human activities to environmental stress and decay. What we gain in the short-term — material prosperity and comfort — we lose in the long-term in the form of natural degradation. Human beings are myopic and self-centred in their attitude towards the future. Asking them to alter lifestyles in significant ways now so as to benefit the future inhabitants of the planet is well-nigh impossible. The logic of capitalist material development and environmental protection works in opposite ways. We need to choose one over the other. This contradiction was recognised by two early critics of capitalism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They called it the “metabolic rift” with nature.


We now know that tackling cli­mate change has not exactly exhibited the urgency and the global cooperation needed in spite of the growing scientific evidence on the subject. Whatever little changes we are witnessing, such as the growing number of electric cars, are perfectly compatible with private profitability and material consumption. Hence, even if all vehicular traffic gets converted to non-fossil fuel power, it might be good for climate change, the demands for road space, metals to make the cars and other associated ancillaries would all continue to rise. So would waste and pollutants of various kinds.

If, at all, the environment is to be saved and the existence of the human species sustained, we have to accept a number of disruptive changes in the way we live and organise society. Before anything else, a clear realisation has to dawn upon all of us that we are part of the natural world of the planet; by destroying nature, we would be destroying ourselves. The metabolic rift is ingrained in us. Nature is outside us, and is to be controlled for our use and benefit — an infinite gift hamper to be dipped into, as well as a bottomless garbage pit for dumping our wastes. This perception is fundamentally flawed. Once this flaw is realised, people can change lifestyles relatively easily — we can then see more clearly the wasteful nature of capitalism. Do we really need all the food on our plates? Do we need to eat all the processed food? Do we need all the clothes in our wardrobes? Do we need a car all the time? Is public transport completely abhorrent? Why can we not reuse material things? These are just a few thoughts to start with.

The answer is: of course, we can live with less. More is not better. So many people actually make do with less despite the material lures of the good life. The transition to an environmentally-friendly society could begin with individuals reordering their priorities and becoming more conscious of the choices they make. People would consider these choices seriously if they are either convinced of the positive consequences, or are afraid of calamity striking them during their lifetime. The consumer might not be the real constraint. The difficult constraint would come from big business and big politics. Their arguments would be somewhat like this: economic growth would be adversely affected if people started using fewer goods; unemployment would increase by leaps and bounds; technological innovations would stagnate since no one would be courageous enough to invest and so on. The nation’s political and economic clout in the international arena would be eroded. The media, usually very close to business and political parties, would raise a shrill voice to announce that a great lie was being perpetrated in the name of environmental disaster and climate change.

The transition to a more environmentally-friendly society can be triggered by government policies too. For instance, a serious attempt at reducing economic inequalities in wealth and income would reduce environmental stress immediately. The super-rich waste resources, while the very poor squeeze resources by overharvesting them. Hence a more equal distribution is not only fairer but also environmentally friendly. The government could introduce taxes on pollution and the production of environmentally harmful ‘bads’ (as opposed to goods) rather than on incomes and essential expenditures. The government might direct legislation on clean air, clean water, preservation of natural resources and biodiversity. If effectively implemented, these could go a long way in minimising the damage to nature.

Environmental laws are everywhere — their teeth, and how effectively they are implemented, vary from government to government and from society to society. Take our own country, for instance. In India, so rich in natural resources, environmental legislations abound. But they are not effectively implemented. The current government, in its haste to take the economy to a higher rank in terms of gross domestic product, has been amending laws to loosen environmental constraints. Forests are being opened up; coastal regions are less protected from the onslaughts of business growth. Little wonder then that India is at the very bottom of nations ranked according to environmental friendliness. The natural environment is up for grabs for private profitability. Poor people living in forests and on coasts are systematically stressed and forced to relocate. Meanwhile, economic inequality grows unabated. Taxes on pollutants are missing, while taxes on essential spending grow by the day. India remains a quintessential example of capitalist growth where environmental damage and unbridled exploitation of natural resources are considered the only ways to material prosperity and well-being. Citizens are being fed a narrative of India’s glorious growth towards a five-trillion-dollar economy.

Business maturity, political sagacity, and the ability to look beyond the bend are traits that come from civilisational values which, in turn, guide environmental policies. They are not perfect anywhere in the world. But being at the bottom of the environmentally-friendly heap reflects poorly on contemporary India; it does not bode well for the future of the nation either. The more we grow without aim, the more the environmental base weakens beyond repair.

Anup Sinha is former Professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta

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