More or less equal

IT is time humans learnt to manage their consumption patterns in an equitable manner. Growing inequity in the consumption of the world's resources is becoming one of the most pressing problems of the 20th Century. The United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report released this year attempts to highlight this problem. Ever-increasing consumption is putting a strain on the environment, polluting the Earth, destroying the ecosystem and is also undermining lifestyles. Thus, the report reveals the deadly side-effects of the development model the North follows. Unfortunately, this is the same model which the South wants to follow.

The Human Development Report reveals that the much-flaunted dream of "one world" cannot be built upon human greed. Globalisation will have to be a process that strengthens the interdependence of the nations in healthy, moral, and just ways and not by the methods being employed today which result in the marginalisation and deprivation of a large segment of society.

According to the report, poverty and deprivation are increasing at an alarming pace. The level of unemployment has reached staggering proportions in developed countries. In France, for instance, 32 per cent of young women and 22 per cent of their male counterparts are unemployed. Italy is no better: Thirty-nine per cent of women and 30 per cent of men are unemployed. In fact, almost one-fifth of the adults in North America and in over 12 European nations have extremely low skill levels while an equal proportion lack the prerequisite qualifications for pursuing professional careers.

This means almost half the population of these developed countries are deprived of adequate income and experience social exclusion due to this, in a society created solely for the rich. At the same time at least 500 million of the world's poorest people live in ecologically marginal areas, the report estimates. Nearly two billion hectares in Asia and Africa - more than a sixth of the world's productive land - has been degraded. Therefore, it hardly comes as a surprise that these two continents have two-thirds of the world's poorest people.

Disparity in lifestyle is no longer limited to the North-South financial divide, even nation states are witnessing increasing inequities within themselves. In 1995, one-fifth of the world's people in the very high income countries accounted for 86 per cent of the total global consumption expenditure, worth us $21.7 trillion.

The world continues to shrink as global warming shows. Some 60 per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions come from developed countries, but they endanger the climate of developing countries as well. Trade and policy decisions can have a tremendous impact upon the lifestyles and dietary habits of people globally. A steep increase in the export of sea food from the developing to the developed world, for example, has resulted in the decline of the overall fish stock. This threatens to empty the larders of billions of poor folk in over 40 developing countries, as fish is the primary diet of these poor people living along coastal areas. The average daily calorie intake of a citizen in the industrialised countries is 3,157 while it is only 2,237 - well below the minimum level for an individual in sub-Saharan Africa.

Given these huge inequities in consumption patterns, The Human Development Report warns all nation states to adopt environmentally and socially sustainable patterns of consumption. However, this is possible only if all the people in the world accept some drastic changes in their lifestyle. The report, for instance, suggests that countries of the North should go in for a reduction in the use of resources. This also involves a change in attitude so that less attention is paid to materialistic consumption. This must be followed by enhancing human development in the poorer countries and improving equitable income distribution within all nations. However, this is easier said than done.

What can prompt a person to change his/her lifestyle or limit his/her consumption? Only the political leaders of the world can recognise and translate these principles of equity into concrete political decisions. Equitable terms of trade will have to be the key issue on the agenda: one of the principle causes of environmental destruction in the developing world is the low prices that primary commodities of the South fetch. If ecological costs involved in producing the commodities are calculated, then Southern commodities would fetch higher - not to mention the right - prices. Further, if the equal rights to the atmosphere is recognised, the South would be able to sell their entitlements to carbon emissions to those exceeding their pollution quota. The income thus generated could then be used to pay off their debts to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Today, debts incurred by heavily indebted developing nations is several times their gross domestic product, crippling their economy and pushing their populations to the brink of poverty. Unless steps are taken today itself to rectify the situation it may be too late tomorrow.

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