How Much Should A Person Consume?Environmentalism in India & the United States

Ramachandra Guha
University of California Press
Chapter 9 Pages 220 to 239

The United States is presiding at a general reorganization of the ways of living throughout the world. - André Siegfried, 1932 (1)

Having surveyed and analyzed some of the key aspects of environmentalism in India and the USA, and having discussed some of the neglected founding fathers and exemplars of environmentalism in these two vast countries, let me now hone the thrust of this book down to a single, and singular, question: the one posed by the title of this final chapter (and of the book itself). To answer question, I take as my point of departure an old essay by John Kenneth Galbraith, an essay so ancient and obscure that it may very well been forgotten even by its prolific author. It was written in 1958, year in which Galbraith also published “The Affluent Society,” a book which wryly anatomized the social consequences of the mass consumption age. Galbraith highlighted the “preoccupation with productivity and production” in post-war America and Western Europe. The population in these societies had for the most part been adequately housed, clothed, and fed; now they expressed a desire for “more elegant cars, more exotic food, more erotic clothing, more elaborate entertainment.”

When Galbraith termed 1950s America the “affluent society” he meant not only that this was a society in which most people were hugely prosperous when reckoned against other societies and other times, but also that this was a society so dedicated to affluence that the possession and consumption of material goods was its exclusive standard of individual and collective achievement. He quoted the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer who had remarked that in modern America “any device or regulation which interfered, or can be conceived as interfering, with [the] supply of more and better things is resisted with unreasoning horror, as the religious resist blasphemy, or the warlike pacifism.” (2)

The essay I speak of was written months after the book which made Galbraith’s name and reputation. “How Much Should a Country Consume?” is its provocative title and it can be read as a reflective footnote to The Affluent Society. In the book Galbraith had noted the disjunction between “private affluence and public squalor,” how the single-minded pursuit of wealth had diverted attention and resources from nurturing true democracy, which he defined as the provision of public infrastructure, the creation of decent schools, parks, and hospitals. Now the economist turned his attention, all too fleetingly, to the long-term consequences of this collective promotion of consumption, the “gargantuan and growing appetite” for resources in the USA. The American conservation movement, he remarked, had certainly noted the massive exploitation of resources and materials in the post-war period. However, its response was to look for more efficient methods of extraction, for the substitution of one material for another through technological innovation. There was a noticeable “selectivity in the conservationist’s approach to materials consumption.” For, “if we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible to seek to increase the supply, or decrease waste, to make better use of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes. But what of the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem. If it continues its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? Yet in the literature of the resource problem this is the forbidden question. Over it hangs a nearly total silence. It is as though, in the discussion of the chance for avoiding automobile accidents, we agree not to make any mention of speed!” (3)…

Four years later Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and the modern American environmental movement gathered pace. Should not this new voice of civil society have spelled out what the market would not? But no: consumption continued the great unasked question of the conservation movement. The movement focused principally on two things: threats to human health posed by pollution, and threats to wild species and wild habitats posed by economic expansion. The latter concern became, in fact, as we have seen in earlier chapters, the defining motif of the movement. The dominance of wilderness protection in American environmentalism has from the start promoted an essentially negative agenda, namely the protection of parks and their animals by freeing them of human habitation and productive activities. As the historian Samuel Hays points out, “natural environments which formerly had been looked upon as ‘useless’ waiting only to be developed, now came to be thought of as ‘useful’ for filling human wants and needs. They played no less a significant role in the advanced consumer society than did such material goods as hi fi sets or indoor gardens.’” (6) While saving these islands of biodiversity, environmentalists paid scant attention to what was happening outside them. In the American economy as a whole the consumption of energy and materials continued to rise.

A perceptive home-grown critic of this selective environmentalism was the poet Wendell Berry. In an essay published in 1987 he rejected “an assumed division or divisibility between nature and humanity, or wildness and domesticity.” In his view, “conservation is going to prove increasingly futile and increasingly meaningless if its proscriptions and forbiddings are not positively answered by an economy that rewards and enforces good use.” He was convinced that “the wildernesses cannot survive if our economy does not change.” (7)

In the American context Berry was - the metaphor seems rather ironically apposite - a voice in the wild. The growing popular interest in the wild and the beautiful not merely accepted the parameters of the affluent society but tended to see nature itself as merely one more good to be consumed. The uncertain commitment of most nature lovers to a comprehensive environmental ideology is illustrated by the paradox that they were willing to drive thousands of miles, using up scarce oil and polluting the atmosphere, to visit national parks and sanctuaries, thereby pursuing anti-ecological means to marvel at the beauty of forests, swamps, and mountains protected as specimens of “pristine” nature.

The selectivity of the conservationist approach to consumption was underlined in the work of biologists obsessed with the “population problem.” Influential American scientists such as Paul Ehrlich and Garret Hardin identified human population growth as the single most important reason for environmental degradation. This is how Ehrlich began the first chapter of his bestselling book, “The Population Bomb”:

“I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a couple of years ago. My wife and daughter and I were returning to our hotel in an ancient taxi. The seats were hopping with fleas. The only functional gear was third. As we crawled through the city, we entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, people arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.” (8)

Here, exploding numbers seem at fault for increasing pollution, stinking hot air, and even technological obsolescence (that ancient taxi). Through the 1970s and 1980s, neo-Malthusian interpretations of this type gained wide currency. Countries such as India, and especially Bangladesh, were commonly blamed for causing an environmental crisis. Not surprisingly, activists in these countries were quick to take offence, pointing out that the USA consumes, per capita as well as in the aggregate, a far greater proportion of the world’s resources… .

On the world stage, America is not a pretty sight. Even in between its various wars of adventure its arrogance is on continuous display. It has disregarded strictures passed against it by the International Court of Justice and defaulted on its obligations to the United Nations. It has violated the global climate change treaty and the global biodiversity treaty. It has not signed the agreement to abolish the production of land mines. The only international treaties it signs and honors are those it can both draft and impose on other countries, such as the agreement on Intellectual Property Rights.

Liberals and libertarians, whether American or not, salute the USA’s robustly democratic traditions. Socialists and anti-imperialists, whether American or not, castigate its bullying and overbearing instincts. Neither side is willing to see the other side of the picture. The truth about America is that it is at once deeply democratic and instinctively imperialist. This curious coexistence of contrary values is certainly exceptional in the history of the world…

My view is that the clearest connection between democracy at home and imperialism abroad is provided by the American consumer economy, its apparently insatiable greed for the resources of other lands. Contrary to what Wendell Berry thought, wildernesses at home continued to be protected only because the ecological footprint of the American consumer grew, and grew, and grew. The freebooting instincts of the pioneer, which were once set loose on the lands of the Wild West that were formally part of the nation, now found play in lands and waters East, South, and North regardless of whether these belonged to America. To cite only the most obvious example, the USA imports well over 50 percent of the oil it consumes.

This link seems to have escaped American environmentalism and, more surprisingly and regrettably American scholarship as well. In the rich and growing field of environmental history, as’ I suggested in Chapter One, scholars in other parts of the world have drawn much inspiration from the work of American exemplars, from their methodological subtlety and fruitful crisscrossing of disciplinary boundaries. For all this, there is a studied insularity among the historians of North America. There were, at last count, more than 300 professional environmental historians in the USA, and yet few of these have seriously studied the global consequences of consumerism, the impact on land, soil, forests, and climate, of the American way of life. (10)

One example of this territorial blindness is the Gulf wars. In that prescient essay of 1958 Galbraith remarked that “it remains a canon of modern diplomacy that any preoccupation with oil should be concealed by calling on our still ample reserves of sanctimony.” (11)

There have been Americans such as Galbraith who have helped tear apart the veil of this hypocrisy, pointing out that it was the US government that backed and armed Saddam Hussain, the dictator it later overthrew. Yet the essentially imperial imperatives of America in the Middle East have remained unexamined within the dominant discourse. It was the left-wing British newspaper, “The Guardian,” which claimed that the first Gulf War was carried out to safeguard “The American Way of Driving.” No American historian has to my knowledge taken to heart the wisdom in that throwaway remark, to reveal in all its starkness the ecological imperialism of the world’s sole superpower…


Fifty years before the founding of the German Green Party, and thirty years before the article by Galbraith with which this chapter began, an Indian visionary had pointed to the global unsustainability of the Western model of economic development. “God forbid,” he wrote, “that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” (16)

So said Mahatma Gandhi in December 1928. Two years earlier he had claimed that to “make India like England and America is to find some other races and places of the earth for exploitation.” Because Western nations had already “divided all the known races outside Europe for exploitation and there are no new worlds to discover,” he pointedly asked: “What can be the fate of India trying to ape the West?” (17)

Gandhi’s critique of Western industrialization has of course profound implications for the way we live and relate to the environment today. For him “the distinguishing characteristic of modern civilization is an indefinite multiplicity of wants,” whereas ancient civilizations were marked by an “imperative restriction upon, and a strict regulating of, these wants.” (18) He also spoke in uncharacteristically intemperate tones of his “wholeheartedly detest [ing] this mad desire to destroy distance and time, to increase animal appetites, and go to the ends of the earth in search of their satisfaction. If modern civilization stands for all this, and I have understood it to do so, I call it satanic.” (19)

For the individual willing to heed his advice, Gandhi’s code of voluntary simplicity offered a sustainable alternative to modern lifestyles. One of his best-known aphorisms - the world has enough for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed - is in effect an exquisitely phrased one-line environmental ethic. This was an ethic he himself practiced; resource recycling and the minimization of wants were integral to his life.

Gandhi’s arguments have been revived and elaborated by the present generation of Indian environmentalists. As explained in Chapter Two, India is in many ways an ecological disaster zone, marked by high rates of deforestation, species loss, land degradation, and air and water pollution. The consequences of this abuse of nature have been chiefly borne by the poor in the countryside-peasants, tribals, fisherfolk, and pastoralists who have seen their resources snatched away or depleted by powerful economic interests. For, over the last few decades, the men who rule India have attempted precisely to “make India like England and America.” Without access to resources and markets enjoyed by those two nations when they began to industrialize, India has perforce had to rely on exploiting its own people and environment.

The natural resources of its countryside have been increasingly channelized to meet the needs of the urban-industrial sector; the diversion of forests, water, minerals, and so on to the elite has accelerated the processes of environmental degradation even as these processes have deprived rural and tribal communities of their traditional rights of access and use. Meanwhile, the modern sector has moved aggressively into the remaining resource frontiers of India-the North-East, and the Andaman and Nicobar islands.This biased “development” has proved Gandhi’s contention that “the blood of the villages is the cement with which the edifice of the cities is built.” (20)

The preceding paragraph brutally summarizes arguments and evidence provided in a whole array of Indian environmentalist tracts. (21) Simplifying still further, one could say that the key contribution of the Indian environmental movement has been to point to inequalities of consumption within a society or nation. India’s North-East has been for metropolitan India what Iraq and other such countries have been for imperialist America. By implicitly pointing out such analogies, Indian environmentalists have complemented the work of their German counterparts, who have most effectively highlighted the inequalities of consumption between societies and nations…

The criticisms of these environmentalists are strongly flavored by morality, by the sheer injustice of one group or country consuming more than its fair share of the earth’s resources, and by the political imperative of restoring some semblance of equality in global and national consumption. I now present an analytic framework that more dispassionately explains these asymmetries in patterns of consumption. (22) Derived in the first instance from the Indian experience, this model rests on a fundamental opposition between two groups, termed omnivores and ecosystem people. We met these two groups via Madhav Gadgil in Chapter Eight; now we can look at them more closely. Both groups are distinguished above all by the size of their “resource catchment.” Thus omnivores, who include industrialists, rich farmers, state officials, and the growing middle class based in cities (estimated at in excess of 100 million), have the capability of drawing upon the natural resources of the whole of India to maintain their lifestyles. Ecosystem people, on the other hand, who include roughly two-thirds of the rural population or about 400 million people-rely for the most part on the resources of their own vicinity, from a catchment of a few dozen square miles at best. These are small and marginal farmers in rain-fed tracts, landless laborers, and miscellaneous resource-dependent communities of hunter-gatherers, swidden agriculturists, animal herders, and wood-working artisans, all stubborn pre-modern survivals in an increasingly post-modern landscape.

The process of development in independent India has been characterized by this basic and massive asymmetry between omnivores and ecosystem people. A one-sentence definition of such economic development over the last sixty years would read: “Development is the channelizing of an ever-increasing volume of natural resources, via the state apparatus and at the cost of the exchequer, to serve the interests of rural and urban omnivores.” The central features of this process have been:

  • The concentration of political power/decisionmaking in the hands of omnivores.
  • The use of state machinery to divert natural resources to islands of omnivore prosperity, especially through the use of subsidies. Wood for paper mills, fertilizers for rich farmers, and water and power for urban dwellers have all been supplied by the state to omnivores at well below market prices.
  • The culture of subsidies has fostered indifference among omnivores to the environmental degradation caused by them. This has been compounded by their ability to pass on most costs to ecosystem people and to society at large.
  • Projects based on the capture of wood, water, and minerals-such as eucalyptus plantations, large dams, and open-cast mining-have tended to dispossess ecosystem people who previously enjoyed ready access to such resources. This has led to a rising tide of protests by the victims of development: to Chipko, Narmada, and the dozens of other protests that we know collectively as the Indian environmental movement.
  • “Development” has also permanently displaced large numbers of ecosytem people from their homes. Some 20 million Indians have been uprooted by steel mills, dams, and the like; countless others have been forced to move to cities in search of a legitimate livelihood denied them in the countryside, sometimes as a direct consequence of environmental degradation. This has created a third class of people, namely, ecological refugees, who live in slums and temporary shelters in the towns and cities of India.

    This framework, which divides the Indian population into three socio-ecological classes - omnivores, ecosystem people, and ecological refugees - can help us understand why economic development has destroyed nature while failing to remove poverty. It distinguishes social classes by their respective resource catchments, by their cultures and styles of consumption, and by their widely varying power to influence state policy.

    Our “social ecology” framework is analytic as well as value-laden, descriptive and prescriptive. It helps us understand and interpret nature-based conflicts at various spatial scales: from the village community upward through district and region to nation. Originating in the study of the history of modern India, it throws light on the dynamics of socio-ecological change in other large and rapidly industrializing countries such as Brazil and Malaysia, where too conflicts have erupted between omnivores and ecosystem people, and where the cities are likewise marked by a growing population of ecological refugees. At a pinch, this framework explains asymmetries and inequalities globally too. It was in the middle of the nineteenth century that a German radical proclaimed: “Workers of the World, Unite!” Another German radical recently reminded me that the reality of our times is very nearly the reverse - a process of globalization whose motto might very well be “Omnivores of the World, Unite!” (23)

    What, then, is the prospect for the future?

    There are, at present, two alternative answers to this question. One answer is the one that guides the institutions that constitute the so-called “Washington Consensus.” It also informs the economic policies of most national governments. The other answer animates the activism of the environmental and anti-globalization movements.

    The first alternative is what I’d like to call “the fallacy of the romantic economist.” The fallacy here is that everyone can become an omnivore if only we allow the market full play. When, back in 1972, resource scientists had raised the question of “limits to growth,” the economist Wilfrid Beckerman claimed there was “no reason to suppose that economic growth cannot continue for another 2500 years.” (24) The optimism was wholly characteristic of a profession mistakenly dubbed the dismal science, unless of course we see things from the viewpoint of ecosystem people and recognize how dismal such optimism really is for the bulk of the world’s population. With the fall of the Berlin Wall the romantic economist’s optimism has been reinforced and renewed. Economists everywhere are now the cheerleaders for processes of globalization, processes which, in their view, promise the universalization of American styles of consumption.

    My opinion is that aspects of economic globalization are welcome. These include the free flow of information, inducements to innovation, and encouragement to entrepreneurship. In countries like China and India the retreat of the state from the economy has led to much faster rates of economic growth. All this has greatly augmented human welfare in the short term. The long-term prospects are more worrying. One problem, foregrounded by left-wing critics, is that the fruits of economic growth have been very unevenly distributed. Although aggregate poverty has substantially reduced in both India and China, there remain large and possibly growing pockets of deprivation.

    The problem of equity can perhaps be mitigated by purposive social policies: by spreading education and health across the board, by nurturing opportunities for growth among communities and regions which appear to be falling behind. Less tractable is the problem of ecology. Consider the spread of personalized transport in China where - as once in America - the possession of a car is the one true sign that a human being has become properly modern. As “The Economist” magazine approvingly reports, the car is seen by middle-class Chinese as the “symbol of freedom and status.” In 2002 the demand for cars in China increased by 56 percent, in 2003 by 75 percent. In 2004 the Chinese state news agency Xinhua proclaimed that “China has begun to enter the age of mass car consumption. This is a great and historic advance.” Shanghai has a Formula One racetrack now, costing $320 million. The city will soon have a $50 million car museum. (25)

    There has been, as this chapter’s epigraph suggests, a general reorganization of ways of life in the past century, which the Americans have led, the rest of the world panting behind them. The Chinese, relative latecomers to this race, are striving hard to catch up with the leaders. In Beijing one in six residents now has cars. But for the country as a whole the proportion is 1 in 125, way below the USAS average, 6 in 10. But we know from Xinhua that the popular desire is for China to become in this respect exactly like America. And in the cities of mod- ern India the feelings are the same. The motorcar has multiplied at the rate of bacteria and the sentiment among young professionals is that not to possess at least one is to be left out in the cold.

    Consider the impact on the environment of the spectacular recent growth in the economy of my own home town, Bangalore. Within a generation a once sleepy cantonment has been transformed into a city of 8 million, an industrial and commercial hub. Although the growth has been led by a relatively dematerialized industry, information technology, the income generated and the desires spawned have had strikingly material effects. Bangalore now has an estimated 2 million motor vehicles. A little over half of these run on two wheels: scooters and motorcycles. About a quarter are cars; the rest are buses, trucks, and utility vehicles. These take metals to build and oil to run and roads to drive on, and-difficult to forget if you live and breathe there - emit toxic chemicals into the air. The massive influx of population has also caused a building boom. Large offices made of cement and glass and larger apartment buildings all consume vast amounts of energy and materials.

    A question never asked by economists, or by “The Economist,” is this - can the world as a whole achieve American levels of car ownership? Can there be a world with four billion cars, a China with 700 million cars, an India with 600 million cars? Where will the oil and gas to run them come from? The metals to build them with? The tar to drive them on? I take the car here as merely indexical of a certain style of consumption. For with its use also come demands for other resources, for other goods. In China and India now, as in the America of the 1950s, with the wish to possess more elegant cars has come the desire for more exotic food, more erotic clothing, more elaborate entertainment.

    In a recent series of articles “The New York Times” columnist Thomas Friedman writes with alarm about threats to the global environment posed by Chinese economic development. The billion-strong population of China, he says, uses 45 billion pairs of chopsticks every year. These account for 25 million full-grown trees. Should they not move to eating with their fingers or with steel utensils instead? Speaking of the increasing energy consumption in China, he notes that a single shop in the city of Shenzen sold 1000 air conditioners over a single hot weekend. “There is a limit to how long you can do that,” Friedman warns.

    “What we don’t want,” writes “The New York Times” columnist, “is for China to protect its own environment and then strip everyone else’s in the developing world by importing their forests and minerals.” He points out that “Chinas appetite for imported wood had led to the stripping of forests in Russia, Africa, Burma, and Brazil. China has just outsourced its environmental degradation.” This, says Friedman, “is why the most important strategy the US and China need to pursue, in concert, is one that brings business, government, and NGOs together to produce a more sustainable form of development - so China can create a model for itself and others on how to do more things with less stuff and fewer emissions.” (26)

    Friedman might have added that China has only been doing for the past decade what his own country has done for the past century: that is, protect its woods and forests while devastating environments in other countries. Even now, it would help if the original sinner confessed and promoted a more sustainable form of development within its own borders. We know the USA still does more things with more stuff causing massive emissions, facts which make American preaching to other countries hard to swallow. That said, the industrialization of India and China does pose special problems caused by the weight of sheer numbers. Gandhi understood as early as 1928 that if the most populous nations sought to emulate the ecologically wasteful ways of the most powerful, they put in peril the very conditions of human survival. So, by the time the Indians and the Chinese reach American levels of consumption, will they have stripped the world bare, like locusts?

    I once posed this question in a seminar at the University of California at Berkeley. A biology professor answered that the solution lay within developments in modern genetics. It would soon be possible, he said, to engineer adult human beings who were two feet tall and weighed, on the average, a mere twenty kilograms, but who had the brains and techniques to outwit and dominate the rest of creation. This new race of Super (Small) Men would drive smaller cars on narrower roads to tiny offices from tiny homes. In other words, they would live more or less like the average American today while consuming a fraction of the resources he did.

    That prospect is, for the moment and perhaps for a long while yet, in the realm of fantasy. In the world we know and live in, what we see is India and China simply trying to become like England and America, and thus, as Gandhi predicted, trying to “find some other races and places of the earth for exploitation.” Chinese interest in the Sudan and Indian interest in Central Asia exactly parallel America’s interest in the Middle East. We see the leaders of these “emerging” economies emulate the leaders of the already emerged, traveling to obscure parts of the world, sniffing the air for oil. Both countries are also, like America, expanding their military. And both are, like America again, refusing to endorse international agreements that would bind them to the more responsible use of natural resources.

    Forget the rest of the world, then. All the Chinese and all Indians cannot become omnivores. The attempt to chase this fallacy will lead only to bitter social conflict and greater environmental degradation.

Copyright © Ramachandra Guha, 2006.


I love your essay. Everything about it. Particularly I love your discussion of Gandhi as environmentalist.

That given, I want to point out what appears to me an enormous but universal error about the purpose of our war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I wrote a four-part essay on that which was published in Countercurrents, and you should be able to get it by Googling ["Nicholas C. Arguimbau" Countercurrents.] It's also in the editor's "editors's favorites" collection, I believe. If you have dificuties I'll get the URL, but I'm pretty old and feeble and poor.. "American imperialism" is an odd duck because its policies pare dictated by a number of large corporations which have no loyalty to place, so that neither does "American imperialism." The war took place at a time when those corporations were largely discarding their loyalty to the US and moving to East Asia, so the war if looked at with fresh scrutiny was a war for serving the needs of East Asia and "Aerican" corporations that have resettled there. Ask yourself why if when you look at Iraq's oil exports, almost exclusively to China and its its Asian neighbors (that took place at a 2009 auction where the participants (all Asian, no American), apparently fixed by the "regime change"), nothing to the US, whether you can rely on the Guardian's view that the war was intended to give Iraq the wish to give all its oil to the US? The answer is that the "American" companies Apple, HP, Samsjung, GM etc. were moving their industrial centers to China and no longer needed or wanted oil to go to the US. The 4-part piece in Countercurrents is thoroughly documented (including the similar connection of the war in Afghanistan, which had pipeline routes the east needed but the taliban didn't want to give them - the final words of our negotiator with the Taliban: "You can choose between a carpet of gold or a carpet of bombs" depending on whether you grant a right-of-way for a pipeline sending Caspian oil east ) and needs to be read with an open mind and also with a little foregiveness to me because I started my research and writing with a bias simlar to the Guardian.No one has shown concretely how the two wars were intended to secure supplies for the US or why both wars accomplished the opposite.

It is amusing that my father was the victim of a terrible clearance of MIT's faculty by JoeMcCarthy which I used as a "lure" to get Noam Chmoskey to look at my essay. He initially said he would read it, then backed off on the basis that what I was saying was contrary to various theories as to the behavior of imperialists. I repeatedly asked him to just read the evidence, and he wouldn't. He put more effort into explaining why he wouldn't read it than it would have taken to read it. Well, how could one not respect Noam Chomskey?