"Consumerism" by Anjana Aravind

Co-Winner, High School Category, Student/Teacher Essay Contest, “Ethics for a Connected World,” 2012

February 21, 2013

Anjana Aravind

Anjana Aravind. "I'm 18 years old and I will be graduating from high school in April this year. I study at The Village International School, Kerala, India and I love painting, reading and playing the piano. I'm also a bit of a nerd when it comes to gadgets."

Essay Topic: In your opinion, what is the greatest ethical challenge or dilemma facing the planet?

Consumerism

"Out with the old and in with the new." Consumerism is one of the biggest challenges the world faces today. It may seem like a way of life to many but the consequences of this culture are innumerable. Social customs put pressure on people to keep up with the latest trends. Do what your neighbours do, buy cars, have babies, dump your garbage somewhere no one’s looking, then go to church and pray for your sins. It is ingrained in our minds that what everyone thinks is right must be right, but an entire society may actually be unethical, like Nazi Germany. Consumerist societies are unethical. Fuel hikes, pollution, food shortages are all consequences of consumerist mentalities. Americans throw away around 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour and people in developing countries like mine are aping that culture without thinking about the consequences. No one cares. "Our waste is the government's problem," is the popular thinking.

I live in a small town in India. People have a notion that consumerism is a "first-world" problem but it is not. Wherever you come from, people measure wealth by how big your cars are and how many things you own. The richer you are, the more waste you generate. But in countries like mine, recycling is a term that is rarely used because there is no infrastructure for that. Environmental concerns come secondary to economic development but the means to achieve economic development require destruction of forests, crops, rivers and other assets we take for granted. The River Ganga, once famous for its purity, is now one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Around 2 billion litres of human and industrial wastes are dumped into it each day. That is the custom and it is not going to change even if the people know it is unethical behaviour because that is what their society prompts them to do. The lingering question of ethics continues.

Nobody worries about the consequences of their actions but just about the momentary satisfaction they get. MNCs upgrade their products, wrap them up in more plastic and create advertisements to make the people think that they couldn't live without them. When it comes to unnecessary products, the supply-demand cycle is like riding the tiger. The average educated person could come up with several reasons how the 'use and throw' system is destroying the earth but they themselves are prey to this culture. It is not because people are unaware but because their definition of what is ethical has changed. Take my society for example—people here think it is immoral for women to wear western clothes but flaunt their wealth and status by buying all the western products they can lay their hands on and burning as much petrol as their gas guzzlers can handle. There are garbage dumps in the middle of housing colonies. Cars in all sizes stop in front of them and people haul bags full of waste into the stinking open pile. Is it ethical to dictate the right to someone else’s freedom but consciously damage the environment for one’s own pleasures? I think not. It is undermining our very existence.

There are news reports every day of forest fires, land mafia, toxic rivers, and children born mutated due to consumption of supposedly banned pesticides. Farmers would not be forced to use toxic pesticides if people were willing to pay as much for their food as they do for their fashion. Consumerism has made us believe that it is normal to pay less for basic necessities such as food, water and fuel than the amount we pay for materialistic objects. Our 'ethics' have turned us into magpies. We collect shiny objects and display them in our 'nests.'

People have unethical justifications for all their actions, be it terrorism, warfare, environmental destruction et cetera. "The end justifies the means" has become a mantra for many. But they think only of the immediate end and how it affects them personally and not about the effect it has on their surroundings or society. Consequentialism has no role. As a result of this we are witnessing one of the most disastrous events that our civilization has caused—climate change. The fact that no species that ever existed on the earth for billions of years have caused as much destruction as the human race has, seems almost like a feat for those with a sense of humour. The root cause of climate change is the fact that majority of the people around us turn a blind eye to the problem they know they are causing. The gulf countries export oil, a gallon of which costs only as much as a gallon of milk. Cows can breed. Fossil fuel can't. Any Tom, Dick and Harry would know this but nobody is willing to pay more for fuel. Finding alternate fuel sources is always someone else's problem, not something people would concern themselves with.

Mahatma Gandhi once said "You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the whole ocean does not become dirty." The voyage of Plastiki has shown us how dirty our oceans have become. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and a similar one in the Atlantic and several smaller ones have accumulated on the ocean floors. Garbage is irrespective of countries or cultures. Where should we dump the garbage? It can be used to make reclaimed land but these sites will be more prone to natural disasters and flooding as was evident from the effect of Hurricane Sandy on Lower Manhattan. It should begin with changing people's attitudes and mindsets. Being a good citizen or having a good reputation should not just stand for being morally right and showing respect to fellow humans; it should stand for respecting our environment as well. How can a society call itself ethical and civilised when its people dump their waste in water bodies? Obviously this requires efforts from policy makers and the media. Instead of holding annual conferences where ministers turn up in private jets for 'the sake of the environment,' why not build recycling plants, water purifying systems and technology to provide renewable energy?

If those who just preach turned their attention to practice, we would not be asking ourselves these questions. The power of interconnectedness can, and should, be used to humanity’s advantage by helping to spread awareness of these issues in more parts of the world. Organisations should look at long-term benefits and not at short-term profits. Business ethics should focus on making profits sustainably. MNCs that manufacture consumer goods should try to find solutions for the disposal of their items. After all, as the world gets polluted they would have to suffer too. They could build centres where people would throw the plastic packaging or bottles and the packaging could be cleaned and reused instead of manufacturing new plastic. Let us envision a future where plastic is not a synonym for disposable.

Our way of thinking must be changed to focus more on the environmental and societal consequences of our actions rather than on instant pleasure. This has to be done gradually through ways that influence people the most like digital media and social networking. Quoting the Mahatma, "There is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed."

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