The Paradox of Indian Consumption

December 29, 2018 5:00 PM Chicago, IL

I recently spent two weeks in India; mostly in Goa, and a bit in Mumbai.

There was a conspicuous amount of visible garbage (litter, air pollution, debris, etc), and very little consumption!

I don't have any real statistics to back this up, but in comparison to the US, I'd estimate that the per capita consumption of disposable goods was 95% lower, but that the per capita visibility of the byproducts of disposable consumption was 20X higher. In other words, while each person was leaving far less of an impact on the environment, the local impact felt disproportionate, inescapable, and unnecessary.

The reasons are undoubtably many and complicated, but lack of trash processing infrastructure seemed high on the list. I'd never noticed just how efficient and pervasive the machine of waste management is in the US until I noticed its absence in India. There were few "dust bins" and infrequent trash pickup (if any at all). I asked around a bit and learned that many smaller towns still either don't have regular trash pickup, or have only recently added rudimentary capabilities.

Consumer packaged goods from global brands have certainly found their way to India — exhibit A being the canister of cheddar cheese Pringles™ that I ate on the way back from Calangute Beach when I was feeling less adventurous than usual and in "need" of some convenient energy. But the business of dealing with refuse is mostly local, and from what I saw, the infrastructure for handling remnants of cheap imported consumables is woefully inadequate, even at very low levels of consumption.

And so, the "solution" to this problem is probably to dramatically reduce the "cost" of consumption by making its byproducts literally less visible. On the plus side, this would almost certainly increase the "standard of living" and lessen the apparent impact of consumerism on the environment. However, the cost of this "advancement" would almost certainly be the erosion of Indian culture, and the long-term net per capita (global) increase of the environmental impact of the Indian economy.

In other words, the "problem" is a firewall against what may be the irreversible destruction of the invaluable. And in the context of globalization, perhaps the destruction is unavoidable anyhow, and so perhaps its best to engineer a "soft landing".

Swim in a kiddie pool of trash, or fill the oceans…