Being a consumer in the 21st Century

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The market economy wants us to buy products and services associated with our every subliminal need. If we wish to drink lemonade, we will be sold a powdered pre-mix of lemon extract and sugar to be downed with bottled mineral water. No need to have a lemon tree in your patio or to have access to clean ground water. The market economy has a solution to every problem even before you perceive it. But is this economy truly leading us into a world of self-reliance, preservation and actualization?

If you listen to the market mantras and their gurus, they will claim to have all the answers.

But do they really?

What about the price of Nature?

Consider first your personal equation with nature. In the concretized world of walls and floors, our first connection with living soil, its creatures and green carpet is severed without a second thought. What is the price of a hundred dewdrops felt between lush green grass and your naked feet? What is the market value of the fragrance of a raat-ki-raani tree as you return home late from a meeting? At what rate would you exchange the sound of crickets in the summer or the sound of frogs in the monsoon?

As soon as these elements of nature in our personal world find a “value” in the world of markets, they become scarce commodities. So milk that was once shared by human and calf alike is now sold by Mother Dairy in kiosks. We do not consider the plight of the calf which may have gone hungry for weeks and sacrificed its own health in favor of our palates. The meat and leather industry provide for us products that divorce the method of extraction and processing from the cosmetic appeal of the product.

Do we even know how or where our fruit and vegetables were grown? We do know that they were transported from afar because we pay more for them ever since the price of petrol went up. Does it matter whether these were grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides or that they were induced to ripen with ethylene gas? And do we care that these are the product of genetic engineering targeted toward making the corn uniformly larger and colorful, fetching a better price yet losing precious nutritional and biological diversity in the process?

What about the price of energy?

It is said that every new problem is the result of a solution to an earlier problem. We take it for granted that modern developments will solve all the problems they create. Take the energy crisis for instance. We are willing to produce nuclear waste that will pollute its storage site for tens of thousands of years just so that we can get 7% more electricity today. Why is wind power not as sought after as a nuclear reactor? Who will be held responsible if today’s nuclear waste disposal fails 3 generations from now? Why is it so difficult to cover all our barren deserts with parabolic reflectors and other solar energy harnessing devices? Do we really need two refrigerators in the home and four air-conditioners? If it is possible to construct green buildings that save huge amounts of energy then why do we see glass monstrosities that trap the sun’s heat and necessitate huge cooling towers requiring even more energy? Who is determining how we allocate our resources for generating and using energy? Are we in control or is someone else moving the strings of our puppet hands?

What about the price of wildlife?

Wild areas are just that— untouched by civilization. To save the tiger we do not need a zoo, nor genetic engineering, we need its natural habitat. This means less space for our highways and shopping malls and sprawling golf-courses. Yet we are content with watching the animals on TV, a luxury shared only by humans. However, the animals can smell our civilization every day as automobile exhaust comes down as rain into their water holes. Soon the tiger and the antelope, the rhino and the crocodile, the kiwi and the kangaroo, all will have just one natural enemy—homo sapiens. But it is still not too late to stoke the fires of change. And for responsible consumers of the 21st Century, change begins with awareness and exercising appropriate choices.

What price poverty?

How are rural consumers dealing with expanded choices in their supply chain? Does everyone buy into Colgate toothpaste and Super Rin detergent? Mechanisms that lead from poverty into empowerment are not always advertised on television. Further, the savvy CEO of a multi-national corporation has already found a way to target rural consumers whom he addresses as the bottom of the pyramid. Surely there is nothing wrong with powering a private jet with the sweat of the masses? It is far more difficult to empower the poor with human scale indigenous technologies that help them earn a better wage. Some organizations are already undertaking this noble work.

What price democracy?

Democracy was envisioned by Lincoln as a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Yet how effective are these mechanisms in the face of unpredictable terrorism, inflated prices of property, and unaffordable options for a good education? At the moment we may not envision a replacement for democracy in the foreseeable future. We are faced with political systems that value votes more than human lives, with short term image processing regarded more precious than long term survival of the group. As consumers we cannot afford to replace concern with apathy and we must actively resist such weaker posturing. Instead of taking arms as some Bollywood movie might suggest, we must use the power of the pen. And for those with greater means, resources that help mobilize people into a meaningful enterprise will do nicely.

Race, gender and religion

How will consumers of tomorrow perceive themselves in the light of a world globally savvy yet increasingly polarized by subtle discrimination based on race, gender or religion? Will these issues simply evaporate in the global marketplace or do we need to perform psychic surgery to remove them? Probably some form of restructuring of thought processes and finding new pathways of mind is necessary. The challenges are greater for those living as a minority in a new location and with fewer loved ones in their vicinity.

What do you envision in your future?

If you were a person born into the new generation of college aspirants, what would you want for your self and the world around you? Is it enough to own a slimmer phone or an Ipod with greater memory? Where will all those phone calls and songs lead you? Are these new technological teddy bears simply society’s small reparation for the trauma you have suffered from targeted advertising during your childhood? What do you want to achieve in the near term and in the long run? Do you feel alone in your views and in your capacities? Have the older generations helped you form your current opinions or have you grown up despite their attempted training?

Do write in if any of these words echo upon your heart strings or in your mindscape.

By Karan R. Aggarwala, Ph.D.
[email protected]
The author serves as a consultant in optometry, vision science and nutrition and teaches Wellness to undergraduates at Ansal Institute of Technology in Gurgaon.

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