Confronting consumption: an interview with Mohan Munasinghe

You can actually be better off, healthier and happier with less consumption, says Munasinghe. And it’s not just rich countries that need to change, he told Noah Sachs – poor countries too must develop sustainably, or the Earth’s resources will simply run out.

Mohan Munasinghe shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Three years on, he advocated that governments commit to Millennial Consumption Goals (MCGs) – a set of targets he developed to curb over-consumption of scarce natural resources, particularly by the rich.

The MCGs aimed to meet the basic needs of the poor while reducing resource consumption in seven main areas: 1) greenhouse gas emissions 2) energy use 3) water use 4) land and biomass use 5) ores, metals and industrial minerals 6) construction materials and minerals and 7) pollution and waste.

Munasinghe is Founder and President of the Munasinghe Institute for Development in Colombo, Sri Lanka and visiting professor at several universities. He is the author of nearly 100 books and 350 papers on economics, ecology, and sustainable development.

Noah Sachs: What was the origin of your thinking on the Millennial Consumption Goals?

Mohan Munasinghe: I first presented the concept in New York at the United Nations in 2010. There, I simply laid out three facts. First, we are already consuming 50% more than the planet can sustain. Second, almost 85% of that consumption is done by the wealthiest 20% of people in the world. Third, we are promising the world’s poor, about 2 billion poor people, that we will raise them out of poverty.

Clearly, there is a contradiction here. If the rich are already consuming more than one planet’s worth of resources, how can we feed the poor? So, we have to focus on sustainable consumption of the earth’s resources, and the answers have to go beyond carbon dioxide emissions to other critical resources.

In sum, the existing over-consumption of the rich is crowding out the prospects of increasing the well-being and prosperity of the poorest on the planet.

I began to look at reducing global consumption of resources because we can’t rely solely on more efficiency in industrial production. Although you can produce more with less resources, and smart companies are doing this, as long as demand keeps growing, more and more production will be required, resulting in ever increasing resource use.

And after developing the concept, how did you try to get it on the international agenda?

After 2010 there were preparatory meetings for Rio+20 meeting in Brazil, and I began pushing the concept through various NGO networks. But no single government picked it up, and ultimately what gets on the Rio+20 agenda is what governments propose.

And the reason was very simple – nobody in an official governmental position wanted to touch the question of sustainable consumption. I kept saying that the Millennial Consumption Goals do not require consumption police – there are other ways of doing this.

But governments were really scared of any discussion that could lead to limiting the consumption of their citizens. Plus I believe the US and some other countries were especially nervous about this concept. If you remember, back in the 1990s, President Clinton tried to put a few cents of tax on gasoline – and look at the storm of protest he had!

In early discussions of sustainable development in the 1990s, limiting consumption of resources was seen as essential. The Rio Declaration, adopted by over 180 nations in 1992, said that we need to end over-consumption, and the theme was repeated in Agenda 21, adopted by most of the world’s governments in 1992. So how did limiting consumption fall off the international agenda?

It fell off the agenda basically because Agenda 21 itself fell off the table, so to speak. In Agenda 21, people only paid lip service to the need to reduce consumption of resources. The overall bill for the program of poverty alleviation and environmental protection in Agenda 21 was so high that rich countries simply baulked and said, “Let’s forget it.”

But since 1992, we have engaged in an unsustainable model of development that is based mainly on over-consumption by rich elites, and it is driven by greed and over-reliance on debt.

Actually, people are consuming more than is healthy for themselves in a broad sense. We are pushing economic policies that depend heavily on debt, so that you borrow as much as you can so that you can gorge yourself, literally and metaphorically.

Our grandparents saved and were a thrifty lot, and it is the fruits of their investment that’s allowing us to enjoy a good level of quality of life.

But we have discovered a new trick: it is better to borrow rather than save. So we are borrowing from our children and our grandchildren. So young people have to pay off all of this in the future, so we can live high off the hog today.

The first President Bush went to the Rio conference in 1992 and famously said, “the American way of life is not negotiable.” Has that changed at all?

It’s very popular to accuse the US for all kinds of environmental wrongdoing, and some of those accusations are correct. But many countries and many groups are also doing the wrong thing. And we don’t convince people to behave sustainably by just pointing the finger. Guilt is actually a very poor tool to motivate people.

What is a better approach to engage the United States? First, the US is probably the most resistant country to discussions on curbing consumption. We have a much greater success in Europe and limited success in emerging and developing countries.

But in the US people claim that we are faceless UN bureaucrats who are telling them whether they can eat butter or not – so we have to work around these widely held but misleading views in the US.

The second point that makes limiting consumption in the United States difficult is the idea of abundance. Historically, the US was built on the idea that you can always expand West, and there are always more resources – so where is the shortage that people are talking about? That history of abundance is still in people’s psyche in the United States.

Now to work around these attitudes in the United States, we make it very clear that we do not intend to become consumption police. Nobody is going to come to your house every week and monitor what you have eaten. That’s not the goal. There are market-based tools that can be used instead. For example, pricing and taxes.

Revenue neutral taxes are particularly effective so that the overall tax burden does not go up, and you can shift the burden of taxes away from labor because you want people to work more, and shift it more to pollution and to consumption of scarce natural resources.

But even revenue-neutral taxes are fought tooth and nail by the multinational resource companies – not the least of which is the fossil fuel lobby.

If we’re going to limit consumption of certain natural resources, how should we allocate them? Do you think that everyone has a right to some portion of the world’s supply of food, water, timber, minerals, and other resources?

Well, I don’t believe that everyone is entitled to an equal share of all of the earth’s resources, but I also don’t believe we can leave these decisions solely to the market. What I have argued is that the minimum needs of everybody have to be met.

So you can calculate that minimum budget with respect to food, say 2,000 calories per day, and water, say 10 liters per day. These are well within the resource capacity limit. Every one of the 7 billion people in the world should have their basic needs met: food, water, energy, shelter, education, health. The millennium consumption goals put that as the number one priority.

My second MCG is the more difficult one. We need to start putting limits on the over-consumption of the rich, and you have to start with the obvious things within communities that are really grossly over consuming. Volunteerism is my preferred approach, but also peer pressure within a community is important.

So if you work in a company and have a huge gas guzzling car, and the company ethos and policy says it doesn’t matter the size of the car as long as you come to work, you may decide to come in a small car, or use public transport. The company should give you an allowance or bonus for that, to create a culture of conservation within the company.

Or suppose a city mayor says look, we are going to reduce our water footprint by X percent in the next five years and then you find that people are watering their lawns and wasting water. Then, neighbors need to say, “hey, that’s not right.”

So you have to develop some kind of community ethos, and I believe that can be done. Unfortunately, the approach particularly in the US is very much based on consumer sovereignty and individualism: “Hey, don’t tell me what I can do in my own house!”

Let’s say that consumers voluntarily halve their oil burn, cut back their paper use, cut back their meat consumption, and live within the environmental carrying capacity of the earth. Wouldn’t that lead to mass unemployment of all the people who used to make these products?

Cutting back has to be done gradually. But against that concern, you have the environmental tipping points problem. We are rapidly approaching resource limits. I think for carbon, the next ten years are going to be very critical, and for other resources as well.

I think water and food will affect us even before that. You’ll see that instead of thousands dying in poverty, you’ll have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. The numbers will keep growing, and it will spread instability throughout the globe. So there is that pressure of time, but we still have to make this transition – and it can be done voluntarily through the mid-level decision-makers.

So wherever I travel to advocate for the millennium consumption goals, I speak to mayors, community leaders, CEOs of companies, and a few are willing to say, yes I’m in touch with my people and I think I can sell this.

The mayor of one city told me, yes, we will reduce our carbon footprint and the energy and water footprint by 50% by 2020 and we will put it on our website. Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, the big British supermarket chain, pledged that they will be carbon neutral by 2050, and here is our path during 2015, 2020, and so on.

The point is that at the intermediate level of leadership, it is possible to have volunteerism. And so gradually you can move the yardstick, so to speak.

Whether it’s fast enough is something to be seen, but my point is it is better to do that than to fall off the cliff. Either way, you have to adjust. If you fall off the cliff, probably millions will die. I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, but it won’t be in the rich countries where people will suffer, it will be in the poor countries.

If we adjust in a smoother way there will be discomfort, but discomfort is acceptable compared to catastrophe.

Let me use a different word other than discomfort: sacrifice. What is the role of sacrifice in your plan? Is it important that people sacrifice or can we reduce the strain on natural resources without sacrifice?

I think it falls primarily on the rich countries, including the United States, to make some sacrifices in how they consume and how they use resources.

But developing countries also have a role to play – their rich have now overshot the consumption mark too. They need to come down in their consumption, but they can do it without sacrificing their lifestyle because there are technologies and methods where you can have a very good life without excess.

You can actually be better off, healthier and happier with less consumption. The developing countries also have a special obligation because they cannot afford to ride the same curves toward development as the richer countries.

If they follow the same curve as the rich, then there are not enough resources on the planet to provide everyone with the American lifestyle. We cannot have the billionaires in Asia and South America acting exactly like the billionaires and Europe and the US, because there aren’t enough resources on the planet.

What you are saying directly challenges the concept of consumer sovereignty, one of the foundations of economics. What’s your message for the way that traditional economics works?

Well I would turn the question around and ask you a question because you are a lawyer – if in fact the main basis for law is individuals and individual rights, then what happens to community rights? What happens to concepts like stewardship of nature?

So we have to broaden the approach. I think that neoclassical economics, which claims to be all embracing, has really gone too far in one direction. I don’t condemn all of economics because I trained as an economist and a physicist among other things, but I would say there exist schools of economic thought that are much broader than the traditional focus on consumer sovereignty, and it’s time to broaden.

Unfortunately, economics is hostage to a narrow interpretation, and that’s the way it’s taught. I would argue that what we need is a trans-disciplinary approach, which is one of the principles of ‘sustainomics’. It’s not just economics or engineering or environment, it’s all of those and more.

That is the dilemma of economics with this quantitative approach and its narrowness. You read some of the recent journal articles and realize that they really have not thought outside the box at all.

I’d love to hear more about your Nobel Prize …

The most valuable part of it is that it gives you a platform and mandate. You gain prestige and a have greater profile to be able to preach your message. So now when I can get up and lecture, they advertise me as a Nobel Prize winner, although I always point out that I shared the prize with others.

The other personal thing is that prizes like that put more pressure on you – people expect a higher standard. And you have to spend more time talking to people which means less time for your own research. There are times when people would call me at three in the morning from the US without knowing the time difference! That’s the price you pay but it’s okay.

Now that I have shared a Nobel Prize, I still seek to have balance in my life, and in fact, I have my own personal version of the sustainable development triangle, which I live by. The personal equivalent of the environment is my health. I have to keep my internal ecology in balance so not to overdo things. The social side means that I have to have time for others – especially family and friends.

Invariably, it is the ego that inflates and gets in the way – I try to practice ‘ego-management’ through daily meditation. One can’t become too conceited and wrapped up in oneself. I believe that humility trumps hubris, always.

And just being famous doesn’t absolve one of maintaining the highest standards. That’s extremely important – the pursuit of excellence continues.

Noah M. Sachs is Professor of Law at University of Richmond, Virginia, USA, and Director of the Robert R. Merhige Jr. Center for Environmental Studies.

In March 2014, Professor Sachs met with Professor Munasinghe at his office in Sri Lanka to discuss the challenges of reducing consumption and the proposal for Millennial Consumption Goals.