Meeting Basic Needs of All While Avoiding Ecological Destruction

organic farmer
Two farmers with their preserved seeds, standing in their garden

          Keeping in view the perpetuation of large-scale poverty and the colossal ecological ruin wrought by the existing economic system, the creation of an alternative economic system has become one of the most urgent issues of our times.

          For all households a basic right and a basic duty should be emphasized –

l        Basic needs of all families should be met in a satisfactory way. In other words everyone should be able to get clean drinking water, adequate and healthy nutrition, basic health and education facilities as well as access to such clothing and housing as will at least protect them from weather extremes. Further, to meet these basic needs, any household or its members should not be forced to carry out work which is very harmful for health.

          Having met these basic needs, a household should further feel free to add such small and inexpensive items of consumption which will bring some comfort and colour in their life, and satisfy some strongly felt special needs.

l  Having reached this level of basic needs plus small comforts, however, it is equally important for a family or person to voluntarily and happily stop yearning for more. In particular a family should strive to avoid as much as possible the consumption of those goods whose adverse impact on (individual and social) health and the environment is well known.

          Any income and wealth that a family may have in excess of this basic requirement should be voluntarily and happily given up to more needy persons, or else (if it is possible to do this entirely honestly) held as a trusteeship to be used for weaker sections or for other equally worthy causes such as the protection of environment, preventing cruelty to animals et al.

          This is the value system that should be spread among as many people as possible to lay the foundations of a good economy. The emphasis on voluntary giving up of excess wealth and income does not mean that the government will not use various taxation as well as other means to obtain the excess resources of those who refuse to give it up on their own. However while conceding this right to the government we should nevertheless stress the voluntary aspect so that appropriate values can be created among the people on a large scale.

          The propagation of these values should be based on facts and logic, instead of rhetoric and dogma. It is necessary to keep our consumption within limits to save environment, and there is no better gift that we can leave for our children and grandchildren than to give them a clean and safe environment. Aspects such as these which are likely to touch a soft corner of ordinary people should be stressed.

          sIt is often believed that it will be difficult to convince people to consume less. Actually the desire of many people to lead a simpler, less consumerist life style is often grossly underrated. The Times of India reported on August 13, 1996 that even in that heartland of consumerism, the USA, a lot of people are questioning the values of consumerism- “Last summer, the Merck Family Fund commissioned a nationwide public opinion survey on consumption, materialism and the environment. It found Americans questioning such seemingly entrenched values as financial security and career success. Ninety-one per cent of those interviewed agreed that “the ‘buy now, pay later’ attitude causes many of us to consume more than we need.” More significantly, they were acting on their growing unease with overconsumption. Asked if during the last five years they had voluntarily taken steps to make less money, 28 per cent said yes. “We were shocked at this particular finding”, says the fund’s executive director, Betsy Taylor “In the focus groups people displayed a real hunger to simplify their lives. Once they started talking, many didn’t want to stop.” The No. 1 reason they gave was the desire for a more balanced life.”

          In a survey by the British Social Research Council (during the early 1970s), a good home life and contented outlook were rated as important by more people than the quantity of consumer goods they had.

          In fact for quite some time some social critics have been trying to articulate the growing unease of people at having too many consumer items which do not really add to their utility. William Morris, English artist and poet did this as early as 1876 – “Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of nature for his reasonable use… But think, I beseech you, of the produce of England, the workshop of the world, and will you not be bewildered, as I am, at the thought of the mass of things which no sane man could desire, but which our useless toil makes – and sells?”

          In an article in The Daily Telegraph Nicola Tyrer says,  “Among the sons and daughters of the war generation, there is a creeping suspicion that many of the inventions acclaimed as lightening life’s burdens may not be quite what they seem; that, paradoxically, they could be adding to our workload or subtly destroying things we hold dear. Take the washing machine, now a fixture in more than eight out of 10 British households. How many women find themselves filling and emptying it every day as fashion-conscious children change from one clean outfit into another on a whim? Emptying the dishwasher now falls solely on the woman in most households, while 50 years ago, washing up was a chore shared among the family. Meanwhile, television and the microwave have joined forces in many homes to drive out the family meal as each member eats when he or she likes. Children who have television sets and personal computers in their bedrooms may indeed fight less, but in their isolation are possibly forgoing vital lessons in tolerance and play.”

          Further this article in the Daily Telegraph gives the example of a six member British family which has nine TV sets and was asked to switch off all televisions for three days. The eldest 17-year old child was so appalled by the suggestion that she simply refused to join the experiment. However clear behaviour improvements were noticed in the three remaining children. Far from squabbling, they seemed to seek out and enjoy each other’s company – although they clearly believed they were suffering. Their mother Carol said, “All sorts of things we had kept putting off doing, got done. Bikes got mended, book shelves sorted, rooms tidied, hamsters cleaned out. Tanya and Ashley started to play things together, like scrabble and sevens, they even read stories.” Their father David was most impressed by the peace. He felt that having to plan their own entertainment did the children good. He said, “If it weren’t for the fact that I’d be lynched, I’d throw all the televisions away.”

          These examples indicate that if an adequate effort is made, it should be possible to convince many people to reduce their consumption voluntarily. Jeremy Seabrook writes, “Politicians in the West insist that the one thing that is sure to guarantee electoral defeat is to talk about radical change, about renunciation, about lowering the standard of living. This is, I believe a mistake.”

          He explains, “The truth is that human resources are as vital a component of our growth and development as monetary ones; and it is this simple lesson which needs to be relearned by a West which can price everything and know the true value of nothing. If the people of the West were to be awakened to this – to obvious – truth, just imagine how they might become freed from their addictive devotion to the marketed compensations and consolations which they must buy to alleviate their value-added unhappiness! And once this happened, how much more generous they would become in their desire to share with the poor of the earth!”

          “They will rediscover all the things that human beings can make and do and create and invent and give freely to each other – things that have been enclosed, marketed and sold back to us in the West. They will learn, not how little you can do without a lot of money, but how much you can do with very little, which is the valuable instruction which the poor of the world can offer them. This does not mean impoverishment in any way: it means a lesser reliance on the market place for the satisfaction of need, thereby releasing material resources for those whose absolute most basic needs go unanswered each day. What a life-giving act of generosity that would be.”

          Well-to-do households need to have no fears that a less profligate perception of basic needs will reduce their happiness. Instead it offers them a real chance to increase their happiness as the pretentious, transient happiness of more and more material acquisitions is replaced with the real and lasting happiness of deeply affectionate and caring human relationships.

          A reduction of material acquisitions is hence not a time of mortification but instead an opportunity for a more meaningful life of diverse interests. As we move away from the greed for more material acquisitions, we’ve time, resources and opportunities for more meaningful pursuits – creative work of various kinds and above all improvement of human relationships, with special emphasis on reducing distress all around us.

          The role of the government is to extend a helping hand in spreading this value system, ensuring the availability of basic needs to all people and then using its various powers to restrain individuals from excessive consumption as well as wealth accumulation.

          To meet the needs and small comforts of all people, the private and public sector should be combined together in a creative way, providing as much creative space for small scale private entrepreneurs as possible while also maintaining a significant government presence in heavy industries, public health, transport and communication and a few other areas.

          However both public and private sector industry have to be responsible towards strong public interest groups representing the interests of consumers and the interests of environment protection. In addition their labour policy should be based on meeting the basic needs and social security of workers and protecting their health.

          Agriculture should be in the hands of small farmers cultivating small plots of land If they voluntarily choose to work as a cooperative or collective, they should be free to do so. Or while retaining their individual identity, they can take up cooperative and collective action at various levels.

          A creativity competition among farming and industrial units should be encouraged regarding energy use efficiency, renewable energy environmental protection methods, quality of products etc., and rewards given to those who achieve good results.

          Growth should cease to be an objective of the economy. The objective is to meet the basic needs (and if possible the small comforts) of all people and also the materials needed for repairing some environmental damage already done. Economic activity beyond this should be regarded as not only unnecessary but also undesirable.

          In particular it should be possible to avoid a lot of unnecessary activity relating to transport and advertising. The base of the economy should be villages which are self-sufficient to a large extent in meeting many of their basic needs. In addition these villages should be able to meet most of the food needs of nearby towns and cities. Hence the transport expenses of basic needs can be reduced very substantially.

          William Morris wrote about the prevailing method of distribution that it “is full of waste, for it employs whole armies of clerks, travellers, shop-men, advertisers and what not, merely for the sake of shifting money from one person’s pocket to another’s; …”  This waste has been noted by many observers, but it has been difficult to curb it. However in an economy where most of the production is confined to basic needs, and most of the basic needs are locally produced, it is clearly possible to make this saving. Let me hasten to add that both large-scale heavy industry and trade across longer distances, including international trade, will continue to exist even in this system but to a much smaller extent.

          Similarly advertising will not be needed for a lot of goods, as in a largely self-reliant local economy, consumers and producers know each other. In any case there is a clear need for redefining the role of advertising and sales tactics.

          It is important to reconsider what is good salesmanship. Ability to sell even the products of most dubious utility has come to be regarded as good salesmanship. This should be replaced by a different definition – good salesmanship means taking a good product wherever it is really needed. The present-day distorted definition of efficient salesmanship and advertising pushes too many low utility products on consumers who do not really need them. This is bad for environment, equally bad for the objective of meeting the basic needs of all. Advertising has a legitimate role to play in giving easy to read, nice to hear, fun to watch but at the same time also accurate and proper information about products which fulfil real needs. When it crosses this limit and particularly when it uses life-style images to sell a lot of low utility, sometimes even harmful goods as being part of a desirable life-style, then the very success of this advertising is damaging for society as it promotes wasteful affluence.

          As far as possible the scale of production should be decided in favour of small scale production and cottage scale production, even though as I’ve said earlier, the need for large-scale production in a few areas is conceded. For meeting many basic needs small-scale production is capable of providing more colourful diversity, more creativity, more flexibility, more employment, meeting more specific needs, providing more job satisfaction, reducing waste and ecological ruin, strengthening community ties, better utilising existing skills. However small-scale producers will also be required to remain responsible to the consumer and environment concerns, and abide by the laws of labour welfare.

          In other words our vision of an alternative economy is based on largely self-sufficient villages which have small-scale farmers and crafts-persons supported by a few small industries in nearby small towns and mixed rural-urban areas. Almost all villagers have at least some resource-base, and there is a great deal of equality. Probably the ratio of the income of the lowest 20% to the highest 20% is not more than 1:2 or even less. This is supported by heavy industry and long-distance trade but their role is much smaller than today. The main emphasis is on meeting the basic needs of all people, and perhaps a few small comforts as well. This economy is much more capable of providing creative and satisfactory employment compared to the existing economy. In addition it is also capable of checking ecological ruin, including meeting the requirement of reducing GHG emissions.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children, Man over Machine and A Day in 2071.

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