Reflections

Classroom reflections #1

Some courses require us to write a “reflection sheet” after each lecture. And what better way to make it bearable than blogging about it?

The documentary Story of Stuff, shown to us during the first lecture of Socio-cultural Environment of Business, describes the negative effects and unsustainability of the modern culture of consumerism. It drew a mixed reaction from the class of 88 PGP students. There seemed to be two significantly opposing opinions:

  1. Some claimed that the documentary was one-sided; it talks about the cons of the system without really going into details about why it was built in the first place. Case in point, the documentary complained about the use of pesticides and chemicals in commodities without factoring in how they have significantly increased yield and allowed us to meet the basic needs of the huge human population. Points were also raised that there is no “cure” to consumerism as it is the main driver of the world economy today and any attempt to thwart it would end up harming the poor working class in third world countries instead of helping them. Therefore, the current state of affairs is inevitable and has good reason to exist.
  2. Others stressed the importance of sustainability. The reasons that lead us here and the economic benefits of the current system are irrelevant, they argued, if it cannot be sustained. The merits of consuming sustainably are already recognized in our culture and this can be leveraged further to move the world towards a better future. References were brought from the Gandhian idea of self-reliant village economies (as opposed to interdependent national economies) and from popular film quotes, such as Fight Club’s “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

I disagree with both these opinions to some extent.

“Change is impossible” is a weak argument and to it, I say (in the words of philosopher Cooper) “No, it’s necessary”. Consumerism is not an inevitable outcome of human evolution, but a marketing gimmick. It may have had considerable value in the past but is a major liability now. Any man-made system can be undone or modified through focused efforts.

However, rolling back in scale (village economy) isn’t the answer either. That would be too restrictive for modern life and would take away the livelihoods of millions of people with highly specialized skill sets that are only useful in the current vast economies.

We should instead address the root of the problem: externalized costs.

Externalized costs are costs that a company doesn’t pay for. For example, if producing an item uses some volume of water, the company should ideally pay the cost of purifying the same volume of water and putting it back into the ecosystem. Without government interference, a company has no incentive pay the extra amount. This is one of the major issues of an unregulated free market.

To address this, the government can impose fines and taxes on unsustainable activities and the money raised can go towards restoring the environmental and social damage. The solution is as simple as that, but it cannot be exercised due to the significant hold that corporations have on the government.

Which brings us to the question: how do we create a truly independent government? But that’s a discussion for another day.

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