Development and Consumerism from Southern and Northern Perspectives

Discussion Triggered by the use of the term ‘Sustainable Lifestyles’ by India at COP 26 Climate Change Conference

Question to the listserv by Valerie Brachya (Oct-Nov 2021)


India burns coal which puts the country into the climate offenders category but their response is absolutely valid – they live far more sustainable lifestyles and the high energy consumption countries are not willing to accept that they have to change their wasteful and damaging lifestyles. COP 26 again focused on green technologies and avoided setting goals to reduce energy consumption through changing lifestyles. Could we lever India’s position without running into professional and diplomatic conflicts?


  • Lifestyle choices in India are changing to ones that are similar to the west, higher energy consuming choices. What is stated by India’s negotiators at COPs and similar meeting has nothing to do with what is done at home. During the last few days of COP26, the air quality in Delhi, the capital, was in the high 500s – above 300 is very unhealthy. No-one at COP seemed to notice. India not only burns coal, and proclaims a coal mining ‘target’ of +1 billion tons/year, it also makes plans to destroy forests to get at the coal seams. India’s response is not and never has been valid, the ‘historical responsibility’ argument, South’s needs versus North’s crimes.

Why do India and China and others insist on the right to continue using/building coal-fired plants?  About 500 GW of coal generation is currently being build or is planned including over 40 new plants in China.  

For countries like India and China there is the practical question of how they can reasonably (and reliably) meet the rapidly soaring energy demands of their populations. It’s not clear this can be met just with renewables.  

  • For more than a decade, India’s negotiators at the climate meetings have kept current their position that it is the ‘North’ which has been the historical polluter (that has contributed the majority of the change that is now called anthropogenic) and the ‘South’ that has a very low, relatively, per capita contribution to global pollution. India has also said, at times claiming to represent the view of developing countries, that developing countries/less developed countries have the right to development. This right is framed under what is called “common but differentiated responsibilities” for the ‘north’ and ‘south’. What this means is that common responsibility is controlling and reducing all the activities causing and contributing to climate change, but the ‘north’ must provide the finance and technology for the ‘south’ to ‘develop’ as is the right of the ‘south’. The ‘south’ is asking for exemptions while basing its country economies on exactly the same destructive model of ‘development’ that caused anthropogenic change. The ‘south’ has long been captured by the international multilateral development banks, which, using a variety of ways, dictate what ‘development’ in these countries (India included) in fact is.


  • India’s growth and ‘development’, especially in the past 30 years, has come largely at the expense of poor, marginalized, dalit and tribal communities; as opposed to helping those very communities improve their material conditions. Greenpeace has accused India’s elites of ‘hiding behind its poor’ at climate summits. Many environmental justice groups within India agree- the posturing at global climate summits has very little to do with what is really going on in the country. What is common across these ‘development’ models is a tendency to externalize costs, which is made possible by the creation and maintenance of social hierarchies- within India this functions across the urban-rural, but also lines of caste and gender.  


  • If all of India’s poor people had the bare minimum amount of renewable energy/electricity that they needed for a decent sustainable life, even if India’s upper middle class and rich used less energy due to lifestyle changes, India would still need far more energy than it now consumes. The Indian middle classes (usually defined by both income and consumption spending) have been growing in numbers for well over 20 years. They are added to not only by those who were poor, but also by those who were self-sufficient to some degree but who now, having become middle class, are not at all. It is much more a political transition than economic, although the economic benefits are closely tied to political ends – vote for us so that your consumerist lifestyle, which your family is now used to, can continue. This in a country where still, about a quarter of the electricity generated (coal burning) disappears through what are called transmission and distribution losses. 
  • Concerning where consumerism or consumerist behavior comes from, or what causes it: some of the replies indicate that the everyday realities of “developing” countries are not familiar territory to western/northern academics  eg. genetic disposition to accumulate surplus; cultural norms; and habits”.) In fact for the majority of Indians, it is none of these. The state of being in poverty, and then the passage away from poverty, has had a lot to do with what people consume and what they intend to.
    By around the mid-2000s, foreign MNCs and the world’s biggest consulting firms were very interested in the “Indian market” which, some of them said, was the sizeable middle class of about 300 million people, to whom they all wanted to sell products. What this meant is that by then, a sufficiently large number of Indian households were assessed at having travelled far enough in the direction away from the poverty line to become worthy of being persuaded, by the MNCs and their subsidiaries in
    India, to part with some of their rupees every month in exchange for the products made by these MNCs.

    What helped the MNCs is some 30 years of heavy government programming of its work around the theme of ‘development’. This ‘development’, it said, would transport you away from the poverty line and more and better development would surely keep you and your family safe from poverty’s
    clutches throughout the remainder of your lives. The government also found, thanks to a great deal of pushing and prodding by economists, many of whom worked for and work for the multi-lateral development banks (WB, IMF, ADB etc) that making GDP a popular meme would help affix a number to “development”, which can be pretty hard for an ordinary formerly Third World family to grasp. This became a winning combination. Move away from poverty with the help of “development” that can be seen in the magical GDP number for which your contribution is to buy things that your better income allows you to.
  • The Indian government’s push to get its citizens to consume is a powerful one and its overall impact on the environment and resources is probably one of the least understood subjects. The question also is, what happened to and what happens to all those households that are not part of what has been described as the “great Indian middle class” and which still outnumbers the middle class by a big margin?
    They fall victim (not all, but enough so that we can see it clearly enough) to ” a kind of internal colonization”. When one of the biggest of the first group of big dams and reservoirs of India was built, that’s Hirakud in the state of Odisha, eastern India, in the 1950s, several thousand people were uprooted. Their struggle for compensatory land and livelihoods never stopped because it was never settled to their satisfaction. And that’s the story with all the big dams, coal power plants, mining leases, industrial townships, new highways and so on. Those who were either bypassed by the winning combination or who decided they wanted no part of it. As she said, their refusal to join (what today is) the mainstream of consumerist behavior serves both as the screen behind which India’s well-to-do conceal their spendthrift ways, and also the justification for the government to continue foisting its endless conveyor belt of “development” programmes upon them.
  • In the current “development” model we have a stark choice between unmet needs and ecological breakdown. We need to break free from that model and find ways to meet human needs within ecological limits. That is the greatest task of the coming decades. 

The following articles, based partly on the work of Narasimha Rao, chart a new way forward, based on universal human need satisfaction.


Decent Living Energy for India, South Africa and Brazil


Global Decent Living Energy model 1


model 2 focusing on decent living gaps


Article exploring socio-economic conditions which enable high need satisfaction at low energy use


And Conversation article summarizing well-being provision in Nepal, Vietnam and Zambia


  • Focusing on investment in universally available public services enables needs satisfaction to be achieved at lower energy use, something which has not yet permeated policy debates.


These contradictions are highlighted in this recently published paper: 

The social shortfall and ecological overshoot of nations


  • Development — understood as a project of transforming the other into one’s own image and often for one’s own advantage through a number clever devices and rhetoric (progress, modernization, national pride, etc.) — is fundamentally a homogenizing and colonizing instinct; and what we see in India today is a kind of internal colonization (coal mining in tribal lands, exploitation of its farmers’ and workers’ bodies, etc.) perhaps given the somewhat limited opportunities elsewhere for that enterprise these days.

  • We should consider the power that ‘Development’ promises and also delivers to the institutions that control it; specifically, the modern nation-state and its ancillary entities and social networks, classes and castes. Living in a world that is organized as nation-states seemingly locked in perpetual conflict and competition, how will any country willingly give up an opportunity to accrue more power. In other words, while renewable energy is all well and good, in the great power rivalries of the last century and the ones brewing very quickly in this one, it is the energy densities of fossil fuels and nuclear power (economic costs aside) that were/will be decisive. Or to put it another way, will the US and China now embarking on this destructive path, voluntarily forego nuclear power and fossil fuels? Similarly, will India and China, also now embarking on a more localized but yet similarly destructive path of competition and conflict do the same? 


  • Maybe the Anthropocene is forcing us to confront some primordial instinct, embedded in the reptilian vestiges of our cognitive apparatus to other and to dominate. It is perhaps also telling us that we are now too powerful not to overcome and subdue that instinct. If we don’t, then we will significantly undermine our ability to take onboard the many warnings about Development issued over the decades. Without problematizing  ‘Development’,  our treatment of production and consumption systems will struggle to get beyond the marginal and behavioral modifications and improvements. A systemic or structural transformation of production-consumption systems will remain commensurately unlikely.
  • With regard to the roots of consumerism as an ordinary activity  (whether we’re talking about wealthy western nations or as a trend on the rise in increasing numbers of nations around the world),  as a beginning of a general answer, I’d offer:  the mutually influential and co-creative relationship between human activities deemed “ordinary” and the biophysical [1] and figurational [2] conditions which make them possible, desirable, and/or necessary. 


[1] among other things, this includes human biological traits like dependence on social learning, neural plasticity, and cognitive biases, as well as the available energy, technologies, and other material resources and characteristics in a given place and time

[2] the dynamic pattern/s of bonds of social interdependence within which individuals are born, grow up, and develop a sense of “normal”

  • Should the word should be highlighted, or in fact avoided to create new languages that does not embrace consumerism but embraces other things that some forms of consumption support? What is the root cause of consumerism? Is it neoliberal capitalism and the related acceleration of society? An analysis of the past and present, i.e. root causes, should mention consumerism; not mentioning it in this very thorough and well-researched and referenced introduction is a real omission. We should emphasize other values like citizenship, community and sharing, prosumption, circularity etc. That is why sustainable consumption is such an unfit word and may be an oxymoron. Sustainable consumption is a combination of economic necessity after WW2; and before that a conscious attempt to create a market for all the products that industrialization could provide (think of the conveyor belt and Ford motor company, who realized that with higher wages their workers would be able to buy their cars). But it has also been developed as an ideology  in the early 20th century; a combination of the American dream and a bunch of other factors. Three nominations for consumerism could be genetic disposition to accumulate surplus; cultural norms; and habits. 

    Although not the root cause, adding in technology, fossil fuels and hand-brain coordination have expedited consumption to frantic excess, so obvious that the vast majority of us can at least agree that we’ve gone overboard. Where do you draw the line concerning the necessities to live, and too much consumerism?  In human history and cultural development, it is perfectly legitimate to consume education, health care, cultural events like concerts, in addition to food, clothing and shelter.  Since we can’t start human history over from scratch, you need to say ‘starting today, what you mean by illegitimate consumerism, such as eating a meat diet vs. vegetarianism’.


  • Historian Benjamin Hunnicutt credits the rise of consumerism to a combination of the 1920s “new economic gospel of consumption,” which emphasized stimulating consumption through advertising (both direct and “cultural”) and the New Deal policies of stimulating economic growth through public spending. Kenneth Burke wrote a superb satirical essay in 1929 — before the stock market crash — but published in 1930 called “Waste — The Future of Prosperity,” obviously influenced by Stuart Chase’s book Tragedy of Waste and by Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of Business Enterprise.  


  • Burke was an early advocate of ecology, writing, in 1937: ‘Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention. He teaches us that the total economy of this planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone, but that the exploiting part must itself eventually suffer if it too greatly disturbs the balance of the whole (as big beasts would starve, if they succeeded in catching all the little beasts that are their prey their very lack of efficiency in the exploitation of their ability as hunters thus acting as efficiency on a higher level, where considerations of balance count for more than consideration of one tracked purposiveness).’

He wrote a follow-up essay in 1956 in which he apologized for having written what he thought at the time was a “burlesque” but was subsequently revealed to be a documentary. The 1956 article was titled “Borrow. Spend. Buy. Waste. Want…” 

  • Opinion surveys in Oregon and some national (US) surveys found that between 74-88% of the population agreed that “Our country would be a better place if we all consumed less”.  Testing the depth of this notion revealed that at least in attitude, if not behavior, the mean level of “how much” is too much was in the zone of 50%.  When checking with these respondents if we all meant the same thing about what “consumption is, we sufficiently determined that it was a commonly held view of just about everything: cars, big houses, plastic toy junk, packaging, redundancy possessions, etc. 
  • We need to go beyond the idea of consumerism as a social fad that somehow emerged accidentally out of nowhere, like in America in the 50s. It is a style of life, it is not accidental, even though once in a blue moon it goes out of style, like during the Great Depression. Consumerism does not have a single ‘root cause’.  The day that most people, especially the middle class, stop consuming (or being consumers or whatever the image of ‘consumerism’ is), will be the beginning of another wholesale international recession or depression. Whether anyone likes it or not, when people go to malls and buy jeans, shampoo, iPhones and the whole mountain of nonsense that people buy everyday, they keep the economy running, which is not an abstract concept. They keep themselves employed, they keep others employed, and even in an almost invisible way, they keep tenured professors employed.

    For all kinds of reasons, including assembly line production, the human wish to be ever more comfortable, and unstoppable human technological ingenuity, the great engine of the economy now runs on high production and high consumption. Dreamers can wax on forever about universal basic incomes and circular economies, etc., but for the time being the world has yet to figure out what to do if people across the globe stop buying crap that other people need to make to pay their rents.

    Chris Nowlin wrote an article several years ago in a Canadian philosophy journal “Understanding and Undermining the Growth Paradigm”.


This builds on the post-WWII mention and adds how our identities and life meanings need be wrapped up in our things:


“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. . . . We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.”


Habits are patterns of behavior. There is a tendency to think about the case for reducing consumption and then belabor what needs to be done in great detail, whereas the discussions could benefit from a better understanding how behavioral change occurs, both at the individual and cultural levels (also, societal).  There is a general assumption that culture shapes behavior but not much appreciation for how embodied behavioral change is.  Habits are treated as a black box. There are lots of perspectives to draw from in better grounding our understanding of how behavioral change occurs — indigenous and wisdom traditions, CBT, neuroscience, social psychology.  It all pretty much comes down to you can’t think your way into change.  


Is there any valid scalable voluntary neurological response concerning consumerism?

  • As for the term “culture”, it is often used as a kind of catch-all fixed object, rather than a dynamic, for instance MTI culture, where culture can be seen as emergent collective behavior, a fractal of our individual behaviors.  If understood in this way (not an exclusionary proposition by any means), there is an opportunity for focusing on different loci of change, for example, asking what capabilities are needed for change.

As a provocative real-world example, the tiny house movement has given rise to an explicit rejection of consumerism, not as its starting point, but because of the behavioral changes embedded in tiny house living.  In effect, the practice gives rise to the transformation.  The change theory that comes closest is some amalgamation of practice, capabilities and transition theories.  See the black queer activist Adrienne Maree Brown’s ‘Emergent Strategies’.  She writes: “Existence is fractal – the health of the cell is the health of the species and the planet … Emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical, deep, and authentic connections, a thread that can be tugged for support and resilience. The quality of the connection between the nodes in the patterns.”


  • For those interested in the corporate side of the history of consumerism, see the classic, New and Improved: The Story of Mass Marketing in America. By Richard S. Tedlow · New York: Basic Books

  • One original idea for combating consumerism was raised by an artist who, instead of buying the items she coveted, made paintings of them.