Controlling the consumption

| Updated: July 31, 2022 21:26:06

Controlling the consumption

Elected largely to deliver 'goods' (campaign promises), policy-makers in democracies often have to go beyond to strengthen their 'footprint': anticipating problems (which common citizens rarely have time to analyse after struggling to satisfy concurrent needs), often helps, particularly if they open profitable frontiers.

How Franklin D. Roosevelt cheered his downcast people with his 'fireside chats' from March 1933 slowly paved the way for the breathtaking New Deal transformation to exit the Depression. So too was John F. Kennedy's pledge in May 1961 to put "a man on the moon" (Neil Armstrong became that man in July 1969). Today's grim global circumstances demand breakthrough moments like these.

Three crises have crashed, banged, and walloped us since 2020: the pandemic, Ukrainian war, and the scorching 2022 summer. They did not come in conjunction, but one message was common: wanton consumption from rampant production. This created a materialist thirst in too many people, leaving behind an irreversible materialist instinct.        

The pandemic reminded us our health is not only at stake, but also that turning back to prior lifestyles will be costlier, especially in what we consume, and thereby how we produce our needs. Without checks and balances in a free-wheeling neo-liberal mindset, we carry the seeds of self-destruction. Without diverting ample resources to protect our health (meaning vegetation and animal husbandry too, since human life begins with them), we could lose it all, as pandemic casualties (of about 575 million cases and 6.5 million deaths by mid-July) somberly remind us.

The ample qualification is pivotal: our diversion must be from the production processes. Net planetary prosperity in this century has up-scaled our menu, so much so that as the upper middle-class expands, automobile demands spiral and forests diminish so we can consume 'elite'-quality food: beef. As we stocked our own possessions, no environmental concern behooved the rational mind, until the SDG crusade and climate-change pressure altered that.

Indulging exotic diets, for example, is not criminal, but without assessing the food-chain or health-standards awaiting that new item only invites the unknown. Bird flu, which crept in, can never be completely contained, but without raising health standards to face the new diet's challenges in entering the food-chain, we paid a high price: nearly 150 million jobs were lost globally since 2020. Not nearly enough had returned to work, some do not want to work for as long as they might have before, but the hard lesson was learned:  with the Ukraine war worsening food prices, forcing reluctant workers to return to work, the work landscape had changed. There is now more software tools not many have skills to handle. Returning to face-to-face classes from online education is exposing how a significant student proportion has become too disjointed or dissatisfied to build a steady career. Automation, too, now threatens those without those skills. Then there are mandatory climate-change measures impacting production.

Paying attention to particularly distant wars fetches personal, local, and ultimately global dividends, if done stringently. When the war began, Ukraine was the world's second largest barley exporter, fourth largest in corn, and fifth in wheat, thus becoming the world's second largest grain exporter after the United States. At the outset of war, Ukraine also supplied one-third of Germany's oil, half its coal, and up to two-thirds of its gas, leaving the world's fifth largest economy under strain, to say the least, but so dependent upon ill-winds that one Russian sneeze (invading Ukraine) has left not just Germany coughing, but also provoked the world through unfair pricing, drawing another 'Iron Curtain' in the same area.

Main Street populi barely have time for such thinking: they must put breakfast on the table, take children to school, and sweat to earn. Yet, if the policy-makers' think-tanks do not have that information in their domain, nor extrapolated what war-time shortages might imply, then policy responses cannot set an example. Importers of Ukrainian wheat, such as the largest two, Egypt and Indonesia (which together feed nearly 300 million mouths), slip suddenly into dire straits.

If we add to this how Russian gas price-hikes prompted Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters to also hike prices, then we can only sit and watch already sinking economies (because of other causes) like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or Panama shifting more to the brink.  Bangladesh must carefully calibrate. It stands on the verge of asking for its largest IMF loan, as its foreign exchange reserves plunged below 40 billion USD (capable of paying no more than six months of imports, instead of the recommended nine in reserves). More than policies, behaviour must change to correct this slide.

It is not too late to do the learning now, by chopping off particularly luxury imports and minimising travel until order returns (or ticket-prices normalise). Bangladesh should use this prompter to explore solar fuel, hydro-power, and nuclear energy uses, and seriously seek RMG alternatives to export (clothing consumption is an instant victim of tight times). The twin advantages include a reduction of carbon-saturating coal and oil imports, thus beefing up the SDG crusade; and diversifying RMG exports to augment our 'graduation' into the 'less-developed country' bracket by 2026. Another could be culinary: cutting back on beef, if not to preserve our forests, then to soften the spiraling health problems we face gastronomically. Without steps like these, summer's stunning scorching summer heat will devour our spirit.

Shifting from how we have been responding to this heat-wave (from cutting energy consumption, reducing travel, purchasing less, and so forth), to more dramatic measures to preserve landscape, resources, and people, our clarion calls should be loud and heard the world over? even if this means production cutback. As Dr. Debapriya Bhattarcharya has urgently alerted us, even postponing our megaproject pursuits for now fits in. Infrastructures underpin 'graduation', but so too healthy people to utilise them. By creating more service jobs (healthcare workers, such as sending nurses abroad rather than low-wage or menial workers, expand software needs to absorb talent in this area, and so forth), we could substitute for the production jobs lost without necessarily slashing income. But the cards must be played correctly.

When all is said and done, and we have salvaged our health, adjusted for inflated food-prices, and refrained from chopping more trees, thus foregoing possible profit-making for now, will we be able to reset our lives? According to the World Economic Forum, a serious 'learning poverty' incurred during the pandemic could affect three out of every four children in the 10-11 age-group whose education was rocked by the pandemic.

This could inflict a net loss of 21 trillion USD of expected life-income. Pumping production will not compensate for that: consumption will climb again. By slashing expenditures, though, today's paisa-wise consumers may be pressing the right button: instead of emphasising production for growth, building healthcare to repair physical disabilities and regenerate mental capacities, reigniting education, and creating new service sector outlets might be the silver linings to exiting this triple-thrashing moment.


Professor Imtiaz A Hussain, Department of Global Studies & Governance, Independent University, Bangladesh.

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