How much of a Consumerist are you?

Some people still believe that, to be happy, we need to accumulate things. Shopping malls have become the destination of choice for human entertainment, in turn making our regions economically dependent on department stores.

Have you ever wondered where so Coltan from DRCmuch of what we buy, mostly needlessly, comes from and goes? The system of production and consumption on our planet begins with extraction. You get the necessary natural resources (minerals, water, wood, etc.) from all over the world taken to manufacturing centres. There they are combined with synthetic products, and energy is invested to produce anything from clothing to appliances. So far, so clear.

Yet there are two basic problems with this system. First, there are not enough natural resources in the world to meet the current demand of Western consumption. The USA, with only 5 per cent of the global population, uses about 30 per cent of the world’s resources. Clearly, if other countries follow these rates of consumption – and there are several that threaten to do so including India and China – our resources will run out much sooner than we think.

Second, the world’s largest corporations have amassed so much power that they’re increasingly difficult to regulate. According to the consultancy Global Trends, of the world’s 150 largest economies only 41 per cent are countries; the rest are corporations.

There are various drawbacks to this situation, from the terrible working conditions for employees in developing countries, to the destruction of valuable  natural resources without compensation. All this to produce shoes, watches and tablets as quickly and cheaply as possible to satisfy the  demand of global consumers.

Although consumption trends are high in many countries (Germany leads in  Europe, while the growth in some Persian Gulf countries is astounding), the USA has topped the list since the times of Victor Lebow. This analyst theorized that for the large US economy to maintain its robustness, it would need to make consumption a permanent part of the US lifestyle.

It is seriously difficult to understand prices in US malls. How  can a buyer know how much was earned by the Chinese boy who assembled the product by hand? If he was offered social security and health benefits? How much did the fuel cost to bring it from China to Rotterdam to Florida? If it is an electronic device, where did the Coltan come from? And how much was paid to farmers who extracted it? If this mineral – vital for cell phones and games consoles – came from D.R. Congo, did it come stained with blood?

We do not have sufficient space to address the last link in this consumer system: the inevitably gigantic quantities of waste generated. But the message is clear, responsible citizenship requires us, at the very least, to ask ourselves again and again if we really need that new item that we are about to buy.

Although modern advertising may suggest the opposite, and those who call us  ‘ecocentric’ are everywhere, it is worth pursuing sustainable lifestyles. Ultimately, parks and fellow humans are worth more than shopping malls and corporations. Because our quality of life doesn’t depend on our level of consumption!

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 9 April 2012. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson. Image: Flickr / Enoughproject

Toilets Save Lives: Call for Teaching Tools

Remember that scene from Slumdog Millionaire? That’s what most people in developing country slums have as toilets. Yet at the same time there are thousands of abandoned or barely used household toilets in India and in Africa. Abandoned because they are poorly built, because of a lack of water, or for a lack of maintenance or demand.

Many low-cost toilets become deadly points of environmental contamination. So there is a real need to make sure we build QUALITY toilets – which will be used and appreciated en masse – while working towards the MDG of improving access to safe sanitation.

So what’s the problem? There are plenty of books on sanitation in the market. There’s plenty of information on the internet on sanitation. There are costly workshops that policy makers can attend to learn about this subject, as well as simpler workshops given to masons and field supervisors under less glamorous settings.

There are plenty of training programmes, but what is retained of such programmes? We simply don’t know! The problem is there are no tools to assess people’s knowledge of sanitation.

Representing UNU-MERIT (NL) and FIN (India), I aim to create a tool that will help people who are driving sanitation efforts work out what their team members know or don’t know – and how to rectify this.

In partnership with Gita Balakrishnan of ETHOS (India) and Valentin Post of WASTE (NL), I’m organizing a call for contributions to a ‘Sanitation Question-Answer Bank’ under the aegis of the FINISH programme for sanitation coverage in India.

What does this call for contributions to Sanitation Question-Answer Bank mean? It means if you can think of an interesting question (along with a photo) on how to promote safe sanitation – and can also explain the answer – we want to hear from you!

Expert judges will select 1000 winning entries, each of which will be awarded Rs 75 each (or you can contribute this to repair of toilets!). The concept paper giving detailed explanations about the contest and the answer sheet format is available at Ethos India.

All interesting entries will be acknowledged with the name of the contributor clearly mentioned. These will be compiled into an e-book and put in the creative commons – to be used by any agency teaching about sanitation or anyone who wants to test and improve their knowledge on this subject.

by Shyama Ramani, Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT. Image: Flickr / Waterdotorg (Tamil Nadu, India)