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     Volume 9 Issue 34| August 20, 2010 |


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Lusana Anika Masrur

In the clutter that is our lifestyle, a lot of work is done which really does not need doing. For starters… do we really need 10 (and this may be a modest number for many) different pairs of heels to go with a closet full of clothes, jewellery, accessories and cosmetics? And 10 more flats for days when those backbone-killing stilettos hurt way too much? Do we really need electric toothbrushes and razors and a shelf full of other insignificant gadgets that we remember to use once or twice a month, at most? Or perhaps more seriously, cars (a shiny new one every few years or so, for every member of the family)? Or pornography? Or nuclear weapons? …One might reason, “I can imagine it, therefore I want it. Because I want it, I should have it. As I should have it, I need it. Since I need it, I deserve it. And because I deserve it, I will do anything necessary to get it!”

Dhaka has 100,000 shopping centres, as opposed to less than 800 schools!

This may seem too dramatic a perspective for one that could apply to the local reader-base of this magazine. After all, 20% of the world's richest population consumes over 70% of its resources, and owns 80% of it. And this elite sector is typically found in the affluent countries of the world, mostly in the West in Europe and America, and others like Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Contrary to popular belief however, this elite class also consists of people in isolated pockets in poor countries nations that include our beloved motherland people that include me, and very possibly you …the world's consumer class.

Material things have had a seductive appeal since the beginning of time. And ever-increasingly, we are being won over by its charm. The process that led to our current consumption patterns though, began innocently enough. Following the industrial boom, and a sudden increase in American wealth after World War II, ever-growing conveniences were being made possible for its public. Homes in suburbs for the modern family, domestic appliances to make lives easier for homemakers, then a car for everyone with the measured deterioration of mass transit, then a listless number of things made technologically available that would have been impossible to imagine a decade earlier. Pretty soon, this 'American Dream' became the world's dream, and everybody everywhere was caught in a frenzy to be able to afford things, because surely, this improved standard of living was the answer to happiness. Capitalist, superficial, dog-eat-dog, irrational, status-oriented, commercial and momentary happiness. Happiness at the cost of millions; happiness at the profit of a handful.

This inevitably led to the availability of consumer credit and debt to make purchases possible. Alongside, it created the necessity for full time work and double-income households. Importing cheaper goods, the removal of manufacturing jobs, senseless mass advertising, commodification of labour, prioritising economic growth over social welfare and, maybe, some years down the line, the eventual death of our Middle Class? Unfortunately though, it is the general public in developing countries like our own, who will feel and have to pay for the toll of this culture of want before others. In a world of limited resources, a system that supports an infinite altitude of expenditure, and equates such consumption with personal well being, economic progress and social accomplishment, is a formula for ecological catastrophe. This unrealistic trend inevitably casts a shadow on nature and earth, and has a heavy price on society too.

One does not have to go far to see the effect of this growing concern. In our capital itself, there are more than 100,000 registered shopping centres, as opposed to which there are less than 800 schools! Dhaka's beauty parlours, shopping plazas, boutiques and restaurants always seem to be buzzing with customers and activity, regardless of times of inflation or economic depression. This does not, in any way, indicate the purchasing power of the average Bangladeshi. Rather, it represents a very small portion of our citizen population the upper class, the rich bourgeoisie cream of our society. Very quickly, we have developed the tendency to express ourselves with the brand of clothes we wear, the way we do our make-up, the cell phone(s) we use or the car(s) we drive. Consequently, as a society, we are isolating ourselves from our spiritual and intellectual identity, embracing the Western ideals of capitalist individualism over our collectivistic Asian heritage. A culture of things over people; a culture revolving around 'me' over 'us'.

Photos: Zahedul I Khan

What needs to be understood is that, on it's own, consumption does not need to be the curse that we have made it out to be. It can, in effect, boost a country's economy and society if done the right way, and be used to decrease the gap between its rich and poor, while addressing ecological issues simultaneously. For a change, what if mainstream trends dictated that clothes made by our local weavers were high-end fashion? What if we decorated our homes with crafts made by our local artisans? What if restaurants that offered items made from homegrown organic foodstuffs were the ones that people thronged to? What if the norm of the status and style-conscious homemaker were to buy earth-friendly products? Surely, that would make a fashion statement on a whole different league of its own, one that would say, “Spendthrifts are so last season!”

The above ideas may be nothing more than a utopian dream to many. But the money that is being spent on supplying for our otherwise infinite number of wants will unavoidably exhaust our society and environment. Considerate investment in sustainable businesses and infrastructure will still generate profit and provide employment at a higher rate than what presently exists. It will keep more people fed, and eliminate the risks imposed on our ecosystems as we move from an unsustainable to a sustainable economy. But for that to happen, it is we, the buyers who have to change our current attitudes and spending habits, because it is our demand that leads to the supply of commodities. Otherwise, this system of perpetual growth will lead to further destruction of the environment, more hunger and poverty among immense wealth for few, and many other social and ecological problems.

Often, we blame the affluent countries in the West for exploiting our resources and manpower. We blame them for still colonising us under the disguise of capitalism. But we seldom realise how we continue this cycle through our fellow Bangladeshis living within our own boundary. Profiting from underpaid and overworked labour, we too have followed their footsteps where the wealthy get rich at the expense of common people. Then that money is used to buy foreign products because local ones are considered sub-standard, as well as an endless list of luxury items that we have fooled ourselves to believe, are necessities.

Gandhi had once said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed.” The month of Ramadan brings a perfect opportunity for us to make the much-needed adjustments to control this unquenchable greed, because only then will we be able to help others in need. Fasting is meant to teach us self-control and make us realise their hunger and suffering. Surely this abstinence covers other aspects besides food, especially in restricting ourselves in the damaging lavishness of our lifestyles too.


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