Trócaire’s Eoghan Rice reflects on key issues raised at our hugely successful 40th Anniversary Conference ‘New Global Policy, Same Local Reality?: Making the Post-2015 Framework Accountable to the World’s Poor’.
Look at the television listings and you will see a seemingly endless supply of programmes dedicated to off-loading the excesses of over-consumption. From losing weight to binning unnecessary clutter, dealing with consumption levels is a hot topic.
But while current levels may have a negative impact on our waistlines and storage space, what is their effect on the world?
At Trócaire’s 40th anniversary conference last week, Professor Mohan Munasinghe painted a stark picture. Put simply: the world’s wealthiest people are consuming too much, and in a world of finite resources are ‘crowding out’ the world’s poorest people, who are consuming too little.
Caption: Professor Mohan Munasinghe meeting Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and speaking at Trócaire’s 40th anniversary conference
Balancing this problem will be at the heart of development policy over the coming years. Professor Munasinghe, who was a joint recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work on sustainable development, believes that tackling unequal consumption patterns is not merely a matter of equality – it is now an issue for the very future of humanity.
Climate change, said the Professor, is “the ultimate threat amplifier” to the current environmental, economic and social crises we are currently facing.
We would need one and a half planet earths to sustain current global consumption levels. In fact, if everybody in the world consumed as we do in Ireland, we would need three and a half planets. This is clearly unsustainable but the fact that 85 per cent of current consumption is done by the world’s richest 1.4 billion people indicates that it may be possible to change this.
According to Professor Munashinghe, as well as trying to improve the lives of the poorest people, we also need to focus on how to reduce the consumption of the wealthy without negatively impacting on their quality of life.
In other words, we need to find sustainable ways for people to live. That means firstly ensuring that the basic consumption needs of over two billion poor people are met, and secondly benchmarking the consumption of the rich in order to reduce the burden on the world’s natural resources.
The economic development model followed by developed countries, and increasingly pursued by governments in the developing world, has reached its limit. Progressing along the current path is unsustainable. Speaker after speaker at Trócaire’s conference spoke of the risks facing the people of this planet – poverty, inequality, hunger, flooding, drought, conflict, diminishing resources – many of which stem from the fact that the world’s richest people consume 60 times what the world’s poorest people do.
Instead of merely trying to increase consumption levels from the bottom, there is an urgent need to reduce unsustainable consumption levels, particularly regarding fossil fuels, at the top.
Professor Munasinghe invited conference participants to join his Millenium Consumption Goals initiative, either as individuals, communities or organisations, and urged people to “define meaningful consumption rather than letting meaningless consumption define you”.
Among the attendees at the conference was Trócaire campaigner Aoife Spengeman from Cork who reflected that: “A change in societal values is necessary as well as individuals learning that happiness does not derive from materialism, but I believe the shift in the developed world’s mindset from one of entitlement and individualism will be difficult.”