About Race & American Crime

I have just completed watching two seasons of American Crime which premiered on ABC in 2014 and continued on in 2015. Told in the context of racial tensions in the present day United States, the series presents tales of crime juxtaposed with suffocating yet haunting realities of racial tensions in the modern day. Watching this series and based on my countless experiences while travelling across the border and while living in a country not so north of the US, there are some observations that I have to make:

  1. Nobody should deny that there aren’t any racial or religious tensions

It is indeed easy for the media to paint a rosy picture, but globalisation has polarised people like never before. There is too much unequal division of wealth happening across the world. The inherent biases that comes into the discussions regarding the immigrant or refugee crisis can bear a clear testament to this. Politicians love to bring in more immigrants or refugees because they are a lucrative vote bank. However, the new people who make their way to the Western world are ditched quickly without any conscious efforts being made to migrate them to the new culture and society.

Therefore, the cultural shock that inevitably follows causes many of these refugees to stray away from accepting the conditions imposed on them by the new host country. They then tend to look within themselves, become closed and more conservative and then try to impose on others what they consider to be right and wrong. These efforts cause tension because they will simply not work in the new setting. The tales of the Mexican father in Season 1 and how he ended up at the receiving end of his fellow Mexicans despite having done things correctly (apart from them) to migrate to the United States shows how one needs to assimilate eventually to the culture of its host country, however difficult it may be. His friends failed to do so and ended up stereotyping the entire community that they lived in causing great harm to the former and his son who was implicated.

Living only as an expatriate in the Middle East for a longer time than as an immigrant to Canada, I would say assimilation is not a choice but a necessity and it takes a long, long time.

  1. Racial feelings can be contradictory

Regina King plays the role of a person who tries to do what is morally right in terms of racial and religious divide that is being seen across the Western world, but gets trapped in her own contradictions. When her company decides to transfer her to a different place, partly due to the leaked emails showing her racial bias and the backlash it received because of her son, she plays the racial victim card to deaf ears.  Early in the season, she rebuked her assistant who played the racial card and terminated her employment for doing so-before the same episode could end, she played the same card at the police investigating the misdemeanour that involved her own son.

I had a similar experience once in Detroit, where there was a racial response to a simple request. I chose to ignore it because that’s all you can do in a time such as these. It is indeed about acceptance- accepting both sets of people- those who would like to play the victor or the victim card. We can talk hours and hours about doing the right thing-but often our judgement of what it is gets clouded due to our experiences. The recent shootings in US and the turmoil it has wrought on communities are a testament to it.

  1. Racial feelings can wreck havoc in a society

American Crime in both seasons showed a divided society which has deep fractures every time there is an issue with race. The backlash faced by the principal of the public school in season 2 when he expelled a Mexican student for beating up a black student, without doing proper follow-up. Later he himself admitted that he was provoked by his own bias when he heard a racial slur uttered at him. This shows how racial feelings made him even forget his own duty as a principal. In the first season, such racial feelings caused the society to take sides, subverting both truth and justice and eventually split the couple to their own tragic ends.

American Crime is a very difficult series to picturize. It only shows a fragment of the real racial tensions that plague America and the Western civilisation. The issues that the series shows arise from unacceptance of the differences among each other.

Summarizing, the series conveys a consistent message throughout that just because something is different, doesn’t mean that it is bad or wrong. It is simply the way it is. Acceptance is that which only matters.

Picture courtesy: http://atvfest.com/2016/screenings/american-crime

 

Ways of Life

Just as a star that gives out light till the day it burns out to be a black hole and then begin to absorb the light, the journey of life just like light swings between a dual nature of masculine and feminine.

They say we are all different.
They are right yet they may be also wrong.

Our nature is rich in its variety. Let us take the example of the food that we consume each day for our sustenance. Depending on the place where we live, we end up consuming a wide variety of food. Not one human race can claim that their cuisine is superior to the other. Through the different languages we speak or the different religious beliefs that we follow or the different professions that we follow, we may be different yet we are connected in many ways than we would like to believe. Our fates swing like a roller coaster between the masculine and feminine forms of life.

I read the entire works of the famous Indian author Amish Tripathy this year. His semi fictionalised take on Shiv and Ram takes the tales of the giants of Hinduism to a whole different level. Hidden in Amish’s books are his great hypothesis on the great masculine and the feminine versions of life. Though explained in the context of Devas and Asuras, Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis I believe his perspective on both these ways of life have a greater impact of our life as we know it. They exist ingeniously through the various stages of our life. Just as we are nothing but mere cosmic dust, we also follow one of the basic rules of the cosmos- the duality nature. What is this duality nature? In the context of light, another cosmic form that we are exposed to daily it is as follows- light can exist both as a particle or wave. If one understands the Heisenberg’s principle, it exists in both forms simultaneously though one cannot be certain which exists when.

What is this masculine and feminine versions of life? The masculine version is simply the macho version where strict laws are created and enforced. You live life according to pre-set rules, systems and processes. There is no space for error, you follow this pattern throughout your life-incessantly. The masculine version follows order. For example, if you look at your life once you are established, it is very difficult to change status quo and any change to an established pattern is generally frowned upon. You wake up when it is day and you sleep when it is night. Everything follows a set pattern with no or little space for error. If you look today at the giants of the world, they follow this pattern. They simply do not change and follow a rigid approach and pattern. This system of order and discipline provides great benefits and is generally favored. But there is also a bad side to this orderly masculine nature-intolerance for a different way of life or even an opinion. The masculine order abhors anarchy and mayhem.

On the other hand, the feminine way of life abhors order or even for that matter discipline. It is free, creative and do not generally like to be under a system or even a pattern. The feminine side is established on the bedrock of freedom and innovation. Creativity is a way of life. There are no set patterns and you do not wake up just because it is day neither do you sleep just because it is night. Life is unfastened and unattached. As the second law of thermodynamics literally signifies that the universe is expanding- change in entropy is always greater than zero, the feminine side is abound with waywardness and anarchy.

The human life simply follows the duality seen in nature in establishing itself around these two ways of life. Whether you know it or not, there are times in your life where you follow the masculine way of life: for e.g., the professional development that commences with you beginning to read and write till you make important decisions that involve millions of dollars and sometimes even the lives of many people around you. Or for that matter making critical decisions in one’s life. One simply cannot be wayward in these stages and most people follow the masculine way of life. But the feminine side also creeps up when one is forced to have creative streaks in cooking, travelling to even learning how to woo a girl!

From the Heisenberg’s principle, it is not clear which state (i.e., masculine or feminine exists among humans). For example, your boss can be really serious about meeting deadlines and chastise you for being disorderly or being imperfect at one time to shaking a leg with you later that day in the pub with no discernment to any system or order. Life consistently swings between the masculine and feminine ways of life.

Concluding, life is a journey traversing between creation to death. Like a star that gives out light till the day it burns out to be a black hole and then begin to absorb the light, the journey of life just like light swings between a dual nature of masculine and feminine. There are no absolutes in this cosmic journey, only the switch between the dual ways of the cosmos.

It is all about the culture

Our behaviours drive our habits; our habits are the building blocks of what we call as our culture.

One of the chief tasks associated with the profession of a Process Safety Engineer is to focus on what is often called as a process safety culture. Is the company culture one that encourages its employees to do the right thing, speak out fearlessly and make calculated risk based decisions or is the culture one that encourages the employees to be reckless, being scared of speaking up and a culture that promotes retribution? Process safety incidents that has happened throughout human history has always found one critical root cause- company culture.

What is culture? One simple definition of culture would be as follows: our behaviours drive our habits; our habits are the building blocks of what we call as our culture. Why is culture important? In our professional and personal lives, our culture symbolises our identity in an ever evolving world. Where does our culture come from? I would say, just as it takes years for a person to metamorphose physically from being a baby to a boy to a teenager to an adult, culture in a person originates as follows:

  • Culture from home: A home is the prime unit of a society. As we grow up we see and imbibe certain behaviours from our parents, siblings and everyone we are faced with at home.
  • Culture from our social interactions: As we interact with our society, in education institutions, we see certain behaviours that aim to challenge us to be accepted and be part of.
  • Culture from the media: Since the world is hyper connected than ever before since its history, the media plays an important role- internet etc. in shaping up the popular culture i.e., being a rebel, individualism etc.
  • Culture from our experiences: Our struggles and varied experiences in life also form an integral part of what we call as culture.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the sum of our habits both positive and negative forms what we call as culture. They are the building foundation of what we pass on to our future generations. It is what keeps the human race progressing forward in its march ahead.

Today when we are faced with a problem and while we try to derive solutions to that problem, little do we ever understand that our approach to that problem is based on how we handle facts, assumptions and derivatives (based on both). Our method of thinking comes from the culture that we are accustomed to or that we are faced with.

When I came to Canada years ago, I was very fortunate to be in the company of some very successful and enterprising people. These were normal people like me who came to this great country years ago, went through all the struggles both in their professional and personal lives and fought their way through the system and made it. Sitting together sometimes in the cold winter months, stories were shared about various facets of life and how they made it overcoming all obstacles and odds. These stories were highly helpful to me in ensuring the culture I needed to have once I decide to call this great place home. In my previous company where I worked, to improve the company culture, I remember story telling was used as a tool. I do believe stories that we hear and listen create our culture. Sharing stories is one of the best ways to develop a culture.

Margaret Hefferman in a TED talk about productivity talks about William Muir who did some certain experiments with chickens. The only thing that a chicken does productively is to lay eggs. Hence, he setup the chickens into two flocks. One group contained only the super productive chickens, that is the highest egg producing chickens. In the other group he had an average set of chickens. He selected the productive ones among each flocks in each generation for breeding. After 6 generations he found out that the average group had dramatically increased production and was doing great. In the super productive group, all but 3 chickens survived. The super productive ones, pecked the rest to death. This finding is contrary to what we have seen in life. We have been told that we should have a culture of individualism that intensely competes with others to get the best job, the best car, the best house and so on. Companies have been told to hire superstars (super productive and super aggressive) to move ahead. In the above experiment and throughout her talk it was showcased that in all cases, aggression, dysfunction and waste ensured.

Does this mean that a culture of superstars is bad? Nope. Further on to her talk, through various anecdotes, Margaret mentions about how companies are trying to break the silos that can be created intentionally or unintentionally between employees, so as to foster a culture of inclusion, empathy and respect for each other. It is often said that there is no ‘I’ in the team and hence everyone in the team is a vital part of its overall success.

In Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs, I fondly remember Jobs’ reply when asked whether Apple would survive after his death. He clearly mentioned that he has left behind a culture that is a critically part of Apple’s DNA which would ensure continued success henceforth. He was right. Apple grew exponentially during the time when Jobs was not in charge.

This year, if you look at companies failing, political parties losing elections, there is one common thread that can be found- they did not fail because they did not have the right people (in fact they had the best people), money, political capital etc. They lost because they did not have the right mindset, the right culture or consistent and focused approach.

I believe that at the end of the day it boils down to one thing- culture. What was your team doing, when you looked away? If you can answer that simple question, there you have your culture.

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In the end, culture matters and it is all about the culture.

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The Art of Questioning

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Albert Einstein

Among the many traits that I was known for from childhood, one that stood out was the unstoppable trait from my vocal cords asking ‘Sir, one question, please’. Traditionally in a school environment, the teachers asks questions to students based on an information-seeking model which relies on a predetermined subject taught by them. In my growing up years, I remember subjects such as biology, geography etc., where I simply crammed text books to get good grades in exams. The right answers in these subjects were praised and the wrong ones were corrected. Most of the time we were discouraged from articulating our thoughts. These subjects never struck an emotional chord with me and I never meandered even near them once high school was completed. However in some rare classes we had teachers who provoked us to articulate what we thought about the subject and why we thought differently.  We were encouraged to elaborate on our previous answers and ideas, and thus the process helped us to have conceptual knowledge. I still remember subjects like maths, computer science, physics and chemistry to this day because of this approach taken by those teachers that taught them. The fact that I chose my profession as a Process Engineer bears strong testament to the questioning method permitted by the second approach.

Questioning is rarely encouraged and generally frowned in organized communities including religious societies even though the religious texts do sometimes encourage questioning. Prior to Renaissance, the christian catholic church encouraged a credulous medieval spirit that accepted any picturesque tradition or marvellous tale without inquiry as to its source or credibility. However during Renaissance there was a new found questioning and critical spirit which first awoke Francesco Petrarca, also known as the father of Renaissance in Florence and then spread around the world. Renaissance had profound effects on humanism, arts, science, music and even religion. It actually propelled our civilization to the modern age that we currently live in. However even to this day, organized religion dissuades questioning and refuses to evolve causing incessant human grief and suffering.

“The key to wisdom is this – constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question and by questioning we arrive at the truth.” Peter Abelard.

How to question? Have you ever heard about the 5 Why method? Two years ago, I was introduced to this method by one of my mentors in the company I earlier worked for.  5 Why is an iterative questioning method which helps explain the cause and effect relationship to any particular problem or situation. It is very simple. Suppose you have a problem or an issue at hand and you want to know how fix it so that it doesn’t happen to you or anyone again. You ask 5 Why questions, iteratively based on the answer to the preceding questions. For example let’s consider an imaginary conversation between Bob and his son Sam.

Bob: Why is the car not clean, Sam?

Sam: I did not get time to clean the car.

Bob: Why did you not get the time to clean the car, Sam?

Sam: I was busy in the afternoon.

Bob: Why were you busy in the afternoon?

Sam: I was busy as I had friends over.

Bob: Why did you have friends over?

Sam: I had friends over as we had a game session.

Bob: Why did you have a game session with your friends and did not let me know?

Sam: ……I am sorry.

Without understanding the root cause, simply trying to resolve the effect may/ may not prevent the reoccurrence of the event. Sam in this story was clearly hiding the fact that he had friends over and he did not take cleaning the car as a priority. Note how within a span of 5 question, Bob was able to understand why the car was not cleaned by Sam. Thus by questioning, one is able to understand the root cause of any problem and then find the fix or solution. 5 Whys were first used by Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System in the 1950s who describes the method as “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach, i.e.,  by repeating ‘why’ five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.” It is a very simple process and can be used for a wide range of applications from problem solving to even questioning beliefs, assertions and even daily issues.

Summarizing the ability to question is a necessary skill one needs to have in this ever changing world. It is important to ask the right questions to obtain the right answers. I agree that sometimes it is hard to make sense of this world that we currently live in or the people that we meet each day. However by questioning and never conforming, one should be able to see his/ her world in a new light and carve a new path for themselves.

Image courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcobellucci/3534516458

All images follow Creative Commons license. Slightly cropped the source file.

How I found my first job and learnt from it

There is always a job prepared for you somewhere. It is for you to see it, believe in it, chase it with all you have and get it.

Like any graduate student I was at the top of my world, the day I completed my four year program in Chemical Engineering. After all the learnings and hardships from the years gone by and reaching the summit of achievement, I felt like a king and waited to take on my next big challenge-the world. I was mighty excited as I felt myself to be extremely skilled and qualified to do fantabulously well in the next big chapter of my life – a job.

Since my parents lived in Abu Dhabi, I didn’t bother to spend time looking for a job in India. Also apart from IT based jobs, there were very few jobs that came calling in my speciality-Chemical Engineering. Considering my engineering background it made sense for me to look for a job in Abu Dhabi as it is an oil rich province with several upstream and downstream processes. I thought it would be easy for me to find a job and I arrived in Abu Dhabi without much preparation just before the advent of summer.

In those days, Internet was just getting mainstream and hence most of the job postings appeared in the newspapers. I began earnestly applying for jobs that I found in the classified section of the local newspaper. Very quickly I found out that most of the plum chemical engineering jobs were in the national oil companies and they were ready to hire me on any given day provided I had ‘experience’. The word ‘experience’ is a dreadful word to any fresher looking for a job anywhere in this world. For the next six months I kept hearing this word again and again and came to the conclusion that I should have done a degree in ‘experience’ and not in Chemical Engineering.

The private sector of Abu Dhabi that worked in oil and gas were service providers with a majority of employees as hardcore salesmen. I was able to land a few interviews in many of these sales companies but I had to turn them down as had I taken the offer, I would have to bid adieu to all the technical knowledge that I painstakingly acquired in the past four years.

As months passed by, I began to grow desperate. I wasn’t able to land any good job. adding insult to injury it was the year when the oil price touched record highs and there were expansion or maintenance projects in the entire oil and gas sector of the Middle East. I realized that my resume which was basically an achievement based resume did not make any sense since I did not have the requisite experience for the position that I was applying. I then decided to redraft my entire resume to one where my skills gained prominence.

Next I decided to knock on doorsteps of as many oil services companies with print copies of my modified resume. With a keen attention to my presentation, I tirelessly walked towards many companies and did the honours. Incidentally it was in one of those companies that I landed my first job months later due to other reasons as will be explained later in this post. The next strategy was to ‘fax bomb’ all the companies with my resumes and some of the prestigious ones with both my resume and cover letter attached. Both the endeavours failed miserably. I did feel desperate, but I was not willing to give up.

Networking was the next thing I employed. In my community church, among our family friends, I made it a point to discuss about employment options in their companies. Many of them helped me with timely advice and forwarded my resume within their companies and to their contacts working in other companies. Most of the efforts were unsuccessful, but I kept hope and did my follow-ups.

Eight months later I received the call that would finally launch my career. It was for an oilfield services company that was looking for a Chemical Engineer to work both in onshore and offshore projects for their oil recovery equipments. One of the senior managers in that company on his visit to a subsidiary of my dad’s company remarked during a casual talk  that his company was looking for a chemical engineer. One of my dad’s friend with whom I conversed about my job search, quickly reminisced  and provided him with my resume. He took the resume to his company and I secured my interview.

During my first interview I realized how my education was so inadequate to the job that I was embarking upon and the only thing that helped me ace that interview was the skills that I cultivated during my education and job search period. I resolved to work hard even for a very low paycheque because I needed experience. As I made my way out following a successful interview, I noticed a person standing in the reception and dropping his resume to receptionist asking for a job. As he turned around, the receptionist threw it into the bin.

Some of the main lessons that I learnt from my experience is as follows:

  1. Finding a job is like trying to catch a butterfly. You need to be tenacious, focussed and remember never to give up.
  2. Education is good as long as you can show it as a skill and not as an accreditation. More the skills, the merrier your job search would be.
  3. Timing is very important. One of the main reasons why I had to wait 8 months to get a break was that I started searching for a job just when half of the city was planning to go on summer holidays!!
  4. Networking is very important in landing a job. If you can network far and wide and sell yourself extensively, you will be able to find your opening. However never forget any of your networking contacts or colleagues. They are your life-long friends.
  5. Always keep applying to jobs near and far. Be tenacious, focussed and aggressive. Remember all you need is that foot through the door.
  6. Presentation of your resume and even yourself matters. In today’s world, you do need a vibrant social media profile to complement yourselves. Remember that you are selling a product which coincidentally is you, your life and your dreams.

Image courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jips/3579763940/

All images follow Creative Commons license. No changes were made with source file.

The Hydrocarbon Conundrum

Hydrocarbons have always been a blessing and a curse. Their utility remains a conundrum of the 21st century.

Since 2003, one of the main events in world history would be the astronomical surge of the oil prices. In 1999, the oil price was at $20 and the forecast for the next ten years was that it would hit $10. But everything changed from 2001 when the Bush administration allowed a trillion dollar tax cut that favored the upper income groups so as to increase spending and another trillion dollars to wage two never ending wars. This depressed the dollar causing the investors to buy oil futures as an asset play and as a surrogate currency to protect against a weakening dollar. The oil prices surged to $147 in 2008 before plunging again in 2009. It did increase for following four years as the American economy began recovering and the Chinese economy grew at a rapid pace. During this time, there was a marked increase in conflicts across the world, creating economic boom and opportunities for many countries with higher costs of oil production like Iran, Canada, and Russia etc. With a strong dollar and slowed growth in China it has decreased significantly this year causing economic stagnation in many places that enjoyed the fruits of the boom earlier.

Welcome to the hydrocarbon economy. As the name suggests, organically hydrocarbon is comprised of hydrogen and carbon with a majority off them naturally occurring in crude oil. They are the primary energy source for the 21st century mankind, contributing to most of our human progress since the late 18th century. One of the earliest mentions about hydrocarbons were in the usage of asphalt during the construction of the wall of Babylon (as per Herodotus) and during the time of Moses’ birth, where he was placed in a papyrus basket coated with tar and pitch. There have been documented uses of oil at various times since then across the world in Persia, China, Burma and in places that constitute the current Middle East. Since 1847 when James Young first discovered the process to distill kerosene, hydrocarbons have changed the course of human progress for the better by their uses in lighting (kerosene), lubrication (heavy ends that remained from distilling kerosene) during the early stages to wars (most of the conflicts since Second World War) and modern transportation (till date 90% of the transportation needs are met by hydrocarbons). Between 80-90 million barrels of oil are being produced daily (this figure was in 2014, in January 2015 it stood at 94 million barrels) and the consumption rate slightly north of 90 million barrels. The margin between consumption and production is around 5-10 million barrels and the main consumers were US (19%) followed by China (12%). Technological, political and economic developments in these countries play a major factor in determining oil prices, till such a day when the Indian economy should take off.

The greatest uses of hydrocarbons are as fuel of combustion, particularly in motor fuel and heating application. When hydrocarbons are burned, they release carbon di-oxide which is a greenhouse gas that causes ocean acidification and increase in world temperatures by one degree Celsius contributing to global warming and climate change. As explained in an earlier post, many of the commodities, which are created to feed the urge to consume, are derived from an increased use of hydrocarbons. If materialism can be a cause for climate change, the effects from an increased consumption of hydrocarbons cannot be denied.

Conundrum in its simple definition by Merriam Webster means a confusing or difficult problem. A majority of the hydrocarbons being consumed today are being used to feed the world’s surging population because the whole concept of Green Revolution has been built on the availability of cheap oil. One startling estimate by world renowned Michael Pollan puts its as follows:- 10 calories of fossil fuel energy is needed to produce one calorie of food energy. The major consumers in this wasteful equation are the industrial practices on which the food system is built- inefficient growing practices, food processing & storage and the food transportation system that stretches for kilometers between the producer and consumer. 40% of the energy used in the food system goes towards the production of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, 23% percent is being used in processing and packaging and another 32% is used in home refrigeration and cooking.

Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo once said, “Oil is the Devil’s excrement”. Most of the conflicts in today’s world can be traced to petroleum politics a fact highlighted by movies like Syriana including others. Much as today’s evangelists on climate change and global warming doesn’t want to confess, hydrocarbon economy remains a conundrum till date. Whether you like it or not, the course of modern human history will continue to be determined by hydrocarbons.

Image Courtesy: BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2014

Materialism & Climate change

I wouldn’t say that it is bad to be rich or prosperous, but with increasing wealth, we have to be cognizant of the fact that we need to have a balance with respect to our consumption patterns.

Have you guys ever heard about the Little Ice Age? After Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1491, there was a surge in exploration activity, resulting in one of the earliest intercontinental human migrations from Europe to the Americas. The natives, who used to clear the forest regularly with fire and agriculture, were destroyed in swaths not by weapon but by 20 lethal diseases that accompanied the explorers. These diseases are now believed to have resulted in the death of about 95% of the natives that lived in North America, in what is now known as the ‘greatest demographic catastrophe in human history’.  This resulted in a huge reforesting exercise that drew down the atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting in the Little Ice Age (1550-1800).

2015 has been a very hard year. Plunging oil prices has resulted in a brutal economic slowdown especially in my home province of Alberta, Canada, which is also home to one of the largest oil deposits outside Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The Canadian dollar has fallen and so has the purchasing power of many common people including myself. These days I get inundated with emails from various retailers trying to sell merchandise at basically rock bottom prices. Target has already closed shop and many stores including Future Shop has been dismantled. Shopping malls are literally empty with a sombre mood everywhere.

When I look back to those booming days, I could remember that there was a time when we simply brought stuff incessantly. Sometimes I get this lingering thought in the back of my mind as to why this consumerism that causes the subsequent materialism. Yes, these are indeed the fruits of capitalism. Advertising and marketing has reached an advanced level where it coerces us to queue in front of stores for hours, just to get hold of the latest electronic device; we are also ready to part with our personal information to software companies who makes windfall profits from them. One has to just look at the craze that accompanies Black Friday, Boxing Day or those flash sales that happen every now and then. Every day of the year is being commemorated for something and we just buy, buy and buy to gift someone or even ourselves. I still remember an old acquaintance that actually had to buy a bigger house because his small house became filled with stuff as he was simply addicted to shopping. Do you remember those home renovation series on HGTV where the presenters plead with the people to get rid of what they do not need before purchasing anything, most of the time to deaf ears ?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its fifth assessment report (AR5) released in 2014 reported that the scientists were more than 95% certain that most of the global warming is caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and other human activities. The United Nations framework of climate change mentions that deep cuts in emissions are required and future global warming must be limited to below 2C, relative to pre-industrial level. In a paper written by the Worldwatch Institute in its annual report, State of the World 2004, unsustainable over-consumption which till recently was associated with developed countries is now widely prevalent in developing countries. The report had these words to talk about the rising ‘consumer class’ of the world which is at least 30% of the world’s population and are mostly concentrated in the developing countries:

“Consumer class”—the group of people characterized by diets of highly processed food, desire for bigger houses, more and bigger cars, higher levels of debt, and lifestyles devoted to the accumulation of non-essential goods.

Is consumption bad? No. It had helped initially to meet the basic demands for proper living standards and creating jobs. But the over consumption due to an aggressive consumerism has resulted in challenging the basic natural systems that we depend on such as air, water and not to mention its devastating toll on ecosystems, natural resources etc. It has also made it harder for the world’s poor to even meet their basic needs. Rapid globalisation has ensured that what was once considered, as a luxury is now a necessity in many of the developing countries. The whole debate on climate change has been cleverly manipulated by the western powers to poke the developing countries to reduce their emissions, slow down economic progress and subsequent consumption. Little do they realise that all these are a consequence of their lifestyle and subsequent materialism. William Rees a professor at the University of British Columbia mentions that the current economic paradigm, which is based on increasing human population, economic development and standard of living, is no longer compatible with the biophysical limits of the finite earth.

Materialism is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “way of thinking that gives too much importance to material possessions rather than to spiritual or intellectual things. In North America, it is widely believed that materialism is important to pursue the good life. It has been documented that from 1970-1990s, the percentage of people who actually believed that attending college or further education to obtain financial gain increased from 40-75%. Today that number may be higher.

I wouldn’t say that it is bad to be rich or prosperous, but with increasing wealth, we have to be cognizant of the fact that we need to have a balance with respect to our consumption patterns. We cannot keep buying clothes that we do not wear, food that we do not eat and throw away, electronic items with incremental changes without recycling what we already have, incessant shopping of materials that we do not need. We need to understand that every commodity that we purchase has a human value to it and also an environmental value to it. An iPhone uses all sorts of materials from glass, silicon (semiconductors), lithium (batteries) etc. most of which are sourced from mining. These do have an adverse effect on the environment.

I do not want to sound as a hypocrite here. I am a big consumer of electronics and am equally responsible for many of the cardinal sins that are mentioned in this post. In the beginning of this post I mentioned how we had a Little Ice Age when diseases killed millions of American natives. Today the debate on climate change centers on reducing the warming temperatures to less than 2C. With an increasing global population tipped to be 9 billion by 2040, the only leverage that you and me has in our hands today is adjust our consumption accordingly to what we actually need and not what we want. Only then can we leave an earth for our future generation to call as home.

“I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest, to make money they don’t want, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like.” Emile Gauvreau

Image Courtesy:

  1. http://pixabay.com/static/uploads/photo/2013/11/24/10/18/earth-216834_640.jpg
  2. http://coldfusion3.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/polar_square.jpg
  3. http://www.redorbit.com/media/uploads/2013/05/Materialism_050213-617×416.jpg