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“What do people mean when they say ‘Think globally, act locally’? It’s utter nonsense. They create nothing but confusion in the public’s mind,” said University of Vermont Professor Saleem Ali at a recent workshop on campus.

Also the author of recently released Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future, Ali comes across as definitely informed, deeply academic, a bit eccentric, and somewhat at odds with the developed world. His advice: “Life is complicated, the world is complicated, get used to multi-tasking.

Desires vs. Needs

Surprisingly, I found myself nodding my head in agreement as he discussed the premise of his book and why he wrote it. “Linear narratives have destroyed us. It’s not about choice or constraint. The dialogue is about infinite desires as well as needs. Glossing over either is wrong,” he said.

Citing Gandhi who said, “The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed,” Ali, a Pakistan-born, American-educated scholar, asked the room full of students, professionals and faculty to free their minds and connect need with greed. “At one level I agree [with Gandhi]. If you have infinite desires, you won’t have sustainability. But the fact that there is a connection between need and greed is glossed over in this argument.”

How are the two connected? “Because geology hasn’t given us all a fair share of resources.” And so the premise of his book: Would the world be a better place if we curbed our desires for material goods?

The answer, at least for Ali: No.

How Do You Consume Less When You’re Already Surviving on the Bare Minimum?

His analogy: What social workers, have for decades, advised the developing world: Consume less to be more sustainable.

For decades, nonprofits have visited the rural areas of India, for example, and offered this apparently simple piece of advice to millions who continue to live below the poverty line and remain bereft of the simplest technological gadgets. According to Ali, this approach doesn’t work because “you cannot simplify the desire to want more.”

In a community where bare necessities are a struggle, continued Ali, consuming less doesn’t stick, let alone make sense. “People want to innovate so that they can have more, not so that they can reduce their consumption,” he said.

“We need more pluralism to come out with a sub-optimal solution. Take a look at what happened at the U.S. economy for example. In 1790, 90 percent of the U.S. economy was farming and extractive in nature. Today, our largest industries are technology and information enterprises.”

“We have more teachers, more bloggers, more artists today because its easier! Because we don’t need as many farmers and producers,” he continued.

His mantra: We have to look at livelihoods more holistically. We have to think of resources in a cyclical way.

Creating Shared Value: Constructive Consumerism

Before you leap to conclusions about Ali’s sermon, understanding his entire argument on what he calls “constructive consumerism” is important.

For the everyday consumer, who has more choices today than ever before, not to mention picking between green, organic, fair trade, socially responsible, etc., Ali’s dictum is clear — and mind numbingly simple.

“Think about what you buy. Don’t buy less. Boycotting luxury goods isn’t necessarily helping the problem,” he explained. For example,he continued, “ Botswana’s economy is primarily dependent on one single product: Diamonds.” It is because of this one export that everyone in Botswana can enjoy health care and free education till the PhD level, he said. Of course, how this is implemented on the ground in a traditionally male-dominated society is a question many continue to struggle with.

“The same thing with roses. I find people being all self-congratulatory by deciding not to buy roses. Save it, because you are being myopic,” he commented. Kenya’s primary export is roses.

So, what is the academician’s advice?

  • Don’t think local is necessarily better;
  • Don’t carbonize everything;
  • Resurrect ecological efficiency;
  • Choose responsible consumption over unfettered consumerism; and
  • Don’t do away with foreign aid; insist on fair and targeted trade.

Ali ended with one final thought on the role of culture in our lives and decisions.

Responding to a question from the audience on what he thought about the erosion of culture in the Amazon and other places in favor of modernization, he said, “Culture isn’t always a good thing. It has given us female infanticide and child abuse. Culture is not by nature a positive. Destroying culture then isn’t always a bad thing.”

Comments? Thoughts? Perspective? Leave a comment, email me or connect with me @AmanSinghCSR.

*Originally published on Forbes CSR blog.

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