Limits to consumption: Sustainable Biosphere and Human Living

A key note address delivered on April 8, 2011 at the Inaugural session of the National Conference on sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, the fourth round table meet at Kolkatta, organised by National Council on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change (NCCSD) and South Asian Forum for environment (SAFE) on April 8-9, 2011.


Good morning to all of you present here. I specially thank the organisers for giving me an opportunity to share some of my thoughts with all you in the presence of the distinguished persons on the Dias and off the Dias. I also thank the supporting organisations and Event Partners for supporting an important cause. Title of my talk is Limits to Consumption: Sustainable Biosphere and Human Living. There are some excellent talks planned for today and tomorrow on various facets of agriculture in the context of potential impacts of climate change, mitigation and adaptation strategies, as well as specific local and regional examples of agriculture, inland fisheries, mangroves and wetlands.

I therefore chose to address some broader but relevant issues raising some fundamental questions to reflect upon. These questions may not get all the right answers for actions or otherwise in a few years and perhaps even in a few decades. But, I feel, they are important.


To begin with I would ask a question:

We hear many catchy slogans promoting environmental issues or climate change issues.


Whom do we really save? Can we save? Can we SAVE the Earth? Does Earth need us?


What was earth doing for the 4.5 billion years? For almost that many years without any human being?


Life on Earth evolved much later. So many plants, animals, some mighty creatures came well before us!

Do you know that about the 95% of the species which evolved on this earth are extinct now?


This extinction was not because of human intervention! There were very many different reasons. We have tentative answers for a number of them. Also there are many researches going on about the paleoworld (world of the past) and many new startling findings are made even now. Newer biological researches like that of genetics, DNA mapping etc., are enriching our knowledge of the past.

Similarly, advances in space, earth and ocean sciences and new physical electronic and chemical instruments and computers give us better insights of the past.

Since I started my early professional life with space research and applications since 1964, I still vividly remember the beautiful blue pictures of the Earth- so beautiful, but which was only in the imaginations of earlier men and women. Space technology showed us the Photo of the Earth. Many men and a few women also went around the earth in artificial satellites and saw the awesome darkness in which Earth was hurtling around the sun. Some lucky persons have seen the Moon too. Coming back again to the question again: Can we save the Earth?

Earth is safe in its own way. If some of you learn about the awesome things inside the Earth in its thin upper crust as well as deep inside, we will be humbled. There are excellent books from Vigyan Prasar about various aspects of the earth and its evolution. One eruption anywhere; or one adjustment of some small portion of upper crust somewhere or a little bit of additional speed of moving continental layers or just a few fractions of a degree of change in its axis of rotation. We will all be drastically or cataclysmically affected.

So Earth does not need us. Its biosphere does not need us. We are a small part of those mighty systems. But we need them! The nearly lone planet which gave some right conditions for life to evolve. Though 95% of species which evolved earlier are extinct now, it has a wonderful biosphere nearly intact. Earth provides still enough resources and habitat for all of it. But most of the other things (excepting perhaps those 3000_odd species newly created by human beings by cross breeding and domestication) as well as Earth do not necessarily need the Human beings.

We should keep this mind. If there is a concern about the atmosphere, surface or biosphere of the Earth, it is for the SAFETY AND SURVIVAL OF THE HUMAN SPECIES.


Let us look at yet another set of scientific information. This is about the arrival of the human beings on earth. It has been very beautifully explained in simple terms to memorise. It is from a book GENETHICS: The Ethics of Engineering Life by David Suzuki and Peter Knutson, Stoddard Publishers Co. (1988). Instead of using the billions of years or hundreds of millions of years which are difficult to grasp especially for comparisons, they have used a CLOCK OF 24 HOURS as the Evolutionary Clock.

In that scale:

1 second = 52,000 years (about half a lakh)

1 minute = 3,125,000 years (about 31 lakhs)

1 hour = 187,500,000 years (about 18.7 crores)

Start Zero in this clock is 4.5 Billion years ago when the earth was formed or born.

See the arrivals in this clock:

  • Oldest known fossils of cells without nucleus appeared around 5:30 AM.
  • The first gene appeared around 5AM before cells.
  • First photosynthetic organism appeared after 6 AM
  • Oldest fossil of the cells with nucleus somewhere between 4 to 5 PM (Evening)
  • Oldest multi organism around 8 to 9 PM (almost night)
  • Plants invade land – the GREENING 9:15 to 10PM (night)

When do we Human beings appear?


11:59:30 PM (30 seconds before midnight)! We are late mid night gate crashers, just 30 seconds before the clock would strike 24 hours!

Still we were fine. It is almost after the latest 1/200 of the second we appear to be disturbing many things on the earth which were evolving in their own sweet leisurely pace.


That fine product of evolution on Earth, the Humans appears to have an enormous capability to understand the processes of Nature. The cognitive and conceptualising capabilities have led to many forms of arts, sciences and skills. One amongst many of these is the mathematical abstraction to understand varying multi-parameter systems in nature.

Understanding about the possibility of climate change processes becoming an issue of serious concern to the human being is one such capability. Many protagonists of “climate change” as a slogan or bandwagon almost attribute every calamity or uneasy or uncomfortable weather conditions in a day or another, or even a catastrophic accidents to “climate change”. Such an approach is dangerously unscientific. I found an excellent definition by Dr. R R Navalgund, Director, Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad in an ISRO publication “Space Technology applications for Climate Change”. (2008)

It is appropriate to quote it here:

I quote:

Climate Change refers to a statistically significant variation in either the mean state of the climate or in its variability, persisting for an extended period. Recognition of ‘climate change’ as a significant global environmental challenge has a recent origin. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, various anthropogenic activities like fossil fuel combustion, agricultural systems, changing land use patterns etc., have resulted in altering the chemical composition of earth’s atmosphere through increased concentrations of Greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides etc., This ‘anthropogenic induced climate change’ has become a cause of serious concern due to its impact on the earth’s radiation budget and related implications for food production, water supply, health, energy, etc., In the present global context, climate change is probably among the most challenging issues ever to be addressed by the scientific community and humanity as a whole.


There are many observational programmes around the world. Cause-effect nexus is NOT simple, to be projected as a rule of thumb calculation as are done in many “popular” articles, be it of meltdown of Himalayas or disappearance of islands. Mathematical simulations with limited parameters do not represent the true reality of the nature. It is true that humanity has moved fast from the early cognitions of the flat earth to a global earth, to heliocentric planetary system etc., We understand earth-sea-atmosphere relations much better. But there are many unknown features. We have to be looking for the many more observational information and scientific studies.

But this statement is purely from the point of view of the state of scientific knowledge and a caution not to get carried away by gory extrapolations of limited knowledge of casual connections.

But does it mean “business as usual”? Let scientists arrive at clear conclusions and then we can act – is it a right approach?

At any stage in history, at an aggregated level or at an individual level, for which scientific knowledge or other forms of knowledge are sought to tackle some new situations, they will invariably be found inadequate in one or other aspect. That is the nature of human understanding of the processes of nature. Lots of knowledge opens up new areas but they also open up lots of ignorance! Search for newer knowledge continues...

Be that as it may, can human beings continue to pursue their lives as they have done in the past – especially the past 1/200 to 1/500 of second of the earth’s Evolutionary Clock? In simpler terms as we do now during the past 200 years of human history? More narrowly during the past 100 years? Two major things have happened during this period:

  1. Human understanding and capacity to utilise natural resources well below the earth’s surface in very large quantities and use them to mass manufacture many new products for human consumptions, all over the globe.
  2. As a result of many advances in various sciences and engineering, many dangers to human lives have been reduced to a level such that human population has grown in a scale unprecedented in its earlier history of evolution.


Given these two major factors, human consumption from nature has grown many thousand fold. Trends are that the human population may grow to about 12 billion in about four to five decades: reduced infant mortality and ever increasing longevity are seen in most countries of the world – even in those countries where there is a poor governance and slow economic growth. This is primarily due to much better availability of medicines and food, in some form or another within countries and between countries, Famines are avoided by rushing of food materials.

But the story does not end there. If one were to calculate the CONSUMPTION of about 2 billion people out of the current total about 7 billion people, there is wide gap and ever increasing gaps. But the goals announced by the world leaders, economists, world bodies, public persons etc., - all the powers – that- be- are to achieve narrowing of this gap very soon: A must better EQUITY if not EQUALITY. This is an important humanitarian goal, we all cherish, at least for public statements.

In India about 100 million Indians can be considered to be superrich consuming at a level equal to the best of the developed world. Another 400 million, middle class of various sorts, aspiring to reach the status of 100 million in the ever speeding race for consumption of goods and services. Then come the struggling 700 million who aspire to consume due to high pressure advertisements and the constant attempts to dip into the incomes of the “bottoms of the pyramid” But usually their incomes are so low – most of their activities are normal. They use very less of other energy forms as they are scarce or unavailable to them. 600 million Indians still do not have access to electricity.

Currently consumption by human beings is still kept under control due to such gross inequities WITHIN countries and BETWEEN countries.

Countries are trying to compete to reach a better CONSUMING status. People within countries struggle to demand reduction the CONSUMPTION gap.

Can the current rate of consumption by peoples of the developed world and the developing world along with growing population, continue? Is it sustainable for the biosphere? My question is not about limits to growth, but limits to consumption.

Can human societies be sustained with gross inequalities in consumption levels especially when high pressure audio – visual and multi media continue to bombard most human beings even from the infant stage to consume newer things? More things? To throw away things to acquire newer things?

I had elaborated on these issues in one of my book “Empowering Indians: with economic, business and technology strength for the twenty first century” under the section V, Sustaining the World: In Search of Values. I have quoted extensively from Venerable Payutto, then the Chief Buddhist monk of Thailand and Murray Gell Mann, a Nobel Laureate in Physics. I quote a brief part of Murray Gell Mann:

I quote:

“Natural science would seem to be particularly relevant when changes are contemplated that are irreversible or nearly so. Does economics as presently formulated pay sufficient attention to irreversibility? In physics, the first law of thermodynamics is the conservation of total energy, and keeping track of energy in physics somewhat resembles the process of keeping track of money in economics. But where is the analogue in economics’ of the second law of thermodynamics, the tendency of entropy to increase (or remain the same) in a closed system? In both theory and practice, then there seems to be some room for improvement in the way economics addresses questions of fragile values, especially in cases where those values are in danger of disappearing irreversibly. Any improvements that are made can be particularly valuable in connection with the preservation of biological and cultural diversity”.


World cannot afford to annihilate a large mass of poor people to sustain the life styles of its elite members, because the current methods of economic, social and governance structure sustain the quality and standards of a small percentage of population that is, that of the elites through the deprivation of consumption of a large sections of populations. Their presence is necessary to do low level jobs which will earn little.

I leave these questions here to address a few examples of what we can do in India irrespective of what happens elsewhere in the world.


For brevity I am giving a few illustrative glimpses of real possibilities, proven in many small pockets of India. I have a direct experience with a number of them.

  • Indian agricultural production needs to grow more to feed the poor men and women on a regular basis. They need reliable water to bathe, to drink, to give to the animals, to wash etc.,
  • The high end agriculture in India consumes almost 80 to 85% of available water. The water used is NOT recycled. Result is water scarcity for bulk of other users. About two thirds of Indian agriculture is unirrigated. (You find many solutions discussed by other speakers in this round table).
  • By a series of measures ranging from high tech to improved traditional practices, from use of the biotechnology to bio pesticides, etc., the upper end agriculture which has saved Indians from famine over the past half a century, needs transformation to low water consuming, diversity nurturing, low polluting, yet higher productivity agriculture. (This applies to diary, poultry practices too).
  • Similarly rain fed (arid and semiarid) agricultural areas have to transform to middle productivity zones with range of new to traditional technologies including drip systems, to biotechnology.
  • It is good to note that some of the bigger and medium industries in India have started waste water recycling and reuse to a level of 80% to 100%. This has to be spread across all MSME’s and all industries, municipalities, parks, railway stations, etc.,
  • Similarly safe drinking, bathing water should be available in taps at home or nearby or in ponds. The lifestyle and culture of plastic bottles to store and sell safe water should go. Plastic is a wonder material but it should be used only for the right and unavoidable purposes, as it is a product of precious petroleum crude.
  • Domestic water consumption in urban areas should also be largely based on recycled water.
  • I have addressed other examples in my recent CC Shroff Memorial Lecture. (See my website
  • Dress styles of Indians should change to suit our climates. A rough back of envelope calculation will show that ironing of clothes alone will need a dedicated 250 MW electricity plant. Imagine its growth. Heavy clothes and resultant air conditioning etc., mean more energy consumption. Can we not change these?
  • Many life styles inherited from the western world be it quality standards such as light levels in room, water purity standards etc.,) need a revisit to reduce consumption of critical resources of nature, keeping mind that all of our population needs coverage and not just a elite few
  • Architectural standards, new aesthetics can all be generated with a major goal of consuming less of fossil fuel, and reducing disturbance to atmosphere, soils, seas and biosphere.
  • Better quality of life with lesser consumption, should be the motto for the rich and middle. Poor will be happy to follow.
  • It is not carbon foot print. But it is the CONSUMPTION HAND PRINT that we should tackle.

All these changes do not mean running away from science, technology, trade, commerce, entrepreneurship, markets, innovation, new learning, newer entertainments, arts, and above all enjoyment. And of course, the active concern for human equity.

Such an equity does not mean excessive security either. Historical and empirical evidence shows excess of any thing defeats the very purpose.

  • Too much food/water security = Rampant wastage
  • Too much job security = loss of productivity and increase of sloth
  • Too much of system enabled internal security = loss of civil society alertness
  • Too much of economic security = loss of creativity and entrepreneurship.

One important ingredient of evolutionary adaptation and therefore success is to be able to struggle – for oneself, for the group and to be able to explore more.

Amidst all of them one can and should take care of the current necessary evils of national and internal security, with the surpluses created. It is possible, again if excesses are not done.

Also it need not be brand new forms of uniformity:

  • Single standard: One-chappal-fit-all!

ONE CAN HAVE CONSUMPTION- AND-LIFE STYLE-DIVERSITY, with full respect for bio diversity and cultural diversity.

If we can set examples on large enough scales, I am sure many others in the world will follow. We can set the global agenda and put intellectual and moral pressures on the civilised societies in the developed world. They need to learn to CONSUME less not just talk of energy efficiency or renewable energies or carbon emissions.

Then the Earth is safe for us. Some amongst us may think of escaping into space to perpetuate the human race. But most of us have to live here, procreate here and our many generations will live for many more hours of the Earth Evolutionary clock to enjoy full lives.

There is no deliverance for us from this earth – beautiful or ugly, kind or cruel, as you may like to see it.

I will end the talk with a small poem from Rabindranath Tagore:

Where is this deliverance to be found?
Our Master himself has joyfully 
Taken upon him the bonds of creation; 
He is bound with us forever”.

Thank you.