From being a citizen to a consumer

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Article Date: 
Nov 26 2012, 2156

Professor S Parasuraman, director, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, while addressing a group of philosophers at Pune said, “Today we need to move from consumers to citizens”. Referring to the Indian
economic and cultural situation, he asserted that the need of the hour is to discover a new Indian identity.
In general, consumption may be defined as “the processes by which consumer goods and services are created, bought, used and disposed.” It is a process through which economic resources are used up in the satisfaction of human wants. In most economic theories today, consumption is viewed as synonymous with “human welfare and hence, has become the prime objective of modern consumer societies; the goal of economies is to increase consumption leading to individual material happiness.”
Today there is a movement against excessive or negative consumption that has been labelled “anti-consumerism.” It is concerned with the sustainability of current levels and patterns of consumption. It is also concerned with the environmental, economic, political, labour, personal, societal and spiritual impact of excessive consumption. It understands excessive consumerism as a social and economic creed that encourages people to aspire to consume more than their share of the world’s resources, regardless of the consequences. In an excessive consumer society, one can never have enough and this mindset is not sustainable. So our goal today is a balanced, sustainable consumption. A consumer, usually the end result of production-distribution chain, is usually measured by profit and credibility of the brand.
A citizen, on the other hand, is a person owing loyalty to and entitled by birth or naturalisation to the protection of a state or nation. Citizens are natives or denizens of a particular place and are characterised by loyalty, freedom, responsibility and ownership. As pointed out by Sue McGregor, a well-known Canadian economist, citizenship involves the civil, the political and the social dimensions. The civil refers to community involvement, learning about and becoming helpfully involved in the life and concerns of one’s community, including learning through community involvement and service to the community. The political refers to learning about, and how to make oneself effective in public life. This learning encompasses realistic knowledge of, and preparation for, conflict resolution and decision-making, whether involving issues in local, regional, national, continental or international affairs. The social refers to social and moral responsibilities wherein people learn self-confidence and socially and morally responsible behaviour at work, play and at home — behaviour toward those in authority and toward each other.
Genuinely committed also to the welfare of others, a citizen is “a responsible consumer, a socially-aware consumer, a consumer who thinks ahead and tempers his or her desires by social awareness, a consumer whose actions must be morally defensible and who must occasionally be prepared to sacrifice personal pleasure to communal well-being”.
Not merely at the economic level, but also at the spiritual level, we need to move from a consumeristic to an ownership model. We need to become citizens of the spiritual realm. As spiritual citizens, we foster our belongingness to the larger world, deepen our commitment to one another and enhance our common destiny. Thus, we become free and creative owners of our collective destiny as cosmic citizen-consumers.

(The writer is a professor of science and religion)