An Alternative to Consumerism
Development and the future of Sri Lanka: An interview with Dr. Ranil Senanayake
"The the Newly Industrialized
Country (NIC) model of development demands centralized government for efficient management of big capital investments
and large technocratic systems. It wants to see people change from leisure-loving villagers
into tax-paying compenents of mass society."
"But government in the ESD model is decentralized into bio-regions with a neighborhood focus on social, cultural
and environmental issues. Here localized management takes full advantage of regional knowledge."
by Patrick Harrigan
A revolutionary proposal to realign the national
life back to holistic principles of village level self management has lately
emerged from the realm of theory to come to the attention of policymakers and
concerned specialists looking for a general solution to Sri Lanka's vexing
social and economic dilemmas. The emerging local tradition-oriented
alternative to international mass consumerism is so elegant in its simplicity
that Government and opposition alike are moving swiftly to gauge its far-reaching
Among the leading exponents of Ecologically
Sustainable Development (ESD) is environmental scientist Dr. Ranil Senanayake
who has also played a major role in articulating the uncanny yet impeccable
logic of ESD as it stacks up against the conventional logic of the Newly Industrialized
Country (NIC) model of development. Dr. Senanayake and others argue, for
instance, that it is wasteful and dangerous in the postindustrial era for a
traditional village society to yield to the temptation to industrialize and
thereby to accept implicitly the worldview, value system, social goals and lifestyle
of a monolithic industrial mentality of mass consumerism that is the antithesis
of the society's traditional orientation.
Earlier this week, before Dr. Senanayake's
departure to resume his duties as a Senior Research Scientist at Monash University
in Australia, I had the opportunity one day to hear him explain in his own
words the Ten Points of Comparison between the two models of national development
that have come up for consideration by national policymakers, aid donors, and
the pubic at large.
The tempest—while yet in the teapot—is
likely to change the course of Sri Lanka's future once its stunning advantages
come to national and international attention. And it may even sweep away the
basis for island wide conflict, among other things.
Dr. Senanayake speaks about the rise of a new
international monetary order and the urgent need for developing nations like
Sri Lanka to decide for themselves which kind of development is in their own
best interest. He also speaks of high value ‘niche marketing' for specialized
goods and services, of the need for local traditions such as Asana Deke Bana
to play a part in the evolution of a national consensus and of the
international interest that would be focused upon Sri Lanka for boldly charting
a new direction for other developing nations to follow.
The plan Dr. Senanayake and others have
envisioned amounts to no less than a national Declaration of Independence
from the whole international pecking order of "advanced societies'. Sri Lanka,
he argues need not allow itself to be used as a pool for cheap labour and cheap
goods when an optimal alternative exists for society to leap directly into the
post industrial stage that focuses on the quality of life rather
than no quantitative criteria like the Gross National Product or the number of
"Let's, put it like this," says Dr. Senanayake.
"It's a matter of what kind of ADB we want to be depending upon. Will it be the
Asian Development Bank (ADB) or Asana Deke Bana (ADB)! The choice is
"If we look at the Ten Points of comparison
between the two approaches to development, we find that they are diametric
opposites in many respects. We are saying, compare the two and the decision
will come by itself."
- First, in terms of Worldview. Agro-industrialization
says that everyone must hop aboard the world market system. Production and
sales are dependent on the ups and downs of foreign markets and anything that
can't be sold on the market' gets ignored by planners.
This leads to mono-cropping of single species
such as tea, rubber or coconut which degrades the soil and reduces biodiversity.
At heart it is a capitalistic risk venture, which means make a fast buck and
get out. It is heavily dependent upon external supports like commercial
fertilizers which get more and more expensive as time goes by. If world demand
for that product slackens or if there is a natural disaster, you have no
buffer between you and that disaster and you're in big trouble."
"By comparison the ESD approach relies on
internal inputs that are locally available such as compost and manure. You grow
a wide range of complementary crops so that biodiversity is maintained without
degrading the ecosystem. If one crop fails for some reason you still have
other crops as a buffer so you can get by. Your objective is not to get rich
quick, but to live in security."
- "Or, take Value Systems.
In the industrialized scheme of things nature is valued only as an exploitable
The air, the water, all the elements that are
really public property are seized and exploited without ever being entered into
the overall economic accounting. You pollute the air or water or human culture
and let someone else worry about the cleanup costs. So, in this model, the
more economic growth you have, the faster the environmental damage adds up."
"On the other hand, the ESD model recognizes a
more comprehensive and honest accounting system whereby pollution is a
liability that someone has to pay for. This way, the environment is valued and
protected so that it actually improves with economic growth."
- "Now look at Social Goals.
The goal of industrialization is technological superiority, which also doubles
as a mask for sophisticated forms of imperialism, such as cultural imperialism.
"According to this view, the stock market and
high technology are the reliable measures of a society's successfulness. The
individual citizen is little more than a taxpayer or tax consumer abstracted
into a shadow."
"In terms of ESD, however, the individual is
regarded as the fundamental component of society, a biological and spiritual
entity dependent for its health on the health of the environment. There is
recognition that economic indicators alone cannot guarantee social equity.
- "What about Life Style? In ‘advanced'
countries, ambition and competitiveness are demanded as the social norm and measure
of evaluation. Personal advantage is the most important asset and a higher
scale of consumption is the reward for success. This is also the case in NIC's."
"But in the ESD model, life styles are
cooperative, not competitive. And there is respect for vocations, including
hereditary vocations or caste as it is misunderstood by exponents of other
- In terms of Development Goals,
NIC gains are conceptual: stock market gains, paper profits, paper money, big
bank accounts. Finally, it all comes down to paper promises based upon trust.
But trust in what! Trust in each other, or the system! Small wonder that gains
are so fleeting."
"But in the ESD approach, development is
measured in terms of tangible benefits to the total environment, of improvement
in the quality of life."
- "Then there is Resource Evaluation.
The NIC view has scarcely changed from the time of Adam Smith, who treated
resources as though they were unlimited and only waiting to be exploited."
"The ESD approach,
treats resources as having definite limits. Each generation is entitled to its
measure, but no one generation is entitled to take the share of another. No
room here for Adam Smith."
- "The Economic Systems
underlying the two approaches are also opposite to each other. The NIC model is
based on ever increasing rates of personal consumption of resources and goods.
Here, the ideal is to have a whole society of happy consumers of more and more
"The ESD system of economics is based not upon
consumption and consumerism. but upon conservationism. It encourages less
consumption, not more."
- "Government is another big
point of difference. The NIC system demands centralized government for
efficient management of big capital investments and large technocratic
systems. It wants to see people change from leisure loving villagers into taxpaying
components of mass society."
"But government in the ESD model is decentralized
into bioregions with a neighborhood focus on social, cultural, and environmental
issue? Here localized management takes full advantage of regional knowledge.''
- "Now look at Technology. The
NIC model says we need high technology to keep up with the pack. It is capital-intensive,
meaning we have to, borrow a lot of money from somewhere or else market even
more of our limited resources to pay for it. It calls for enormous amounts of
energy and other resources that have to be siphoned off from the national
"The ecologically, sustainable development
option, on the' other hand, says we, need appropriate, technology
designed to provide optimal benefit for each particular area of application. External
dependence is minimized."
- "Finally, we come to the end, the Product.
The NIC model measures success in statistics and in larger and larger
quantities of all products, whether it be carved elephants for sale or the
number of tourists filling up our' beaches and hotels or the number of locally unemployable
graduates passing out of our schools and universities.
"The ESD approach, by contrast, takes pride in
the quality of its products. It is coupled with forethought and
research into ‘smart' marketing that creates upper ‘niches' in the market for
high quality goods and services that are distinctly local. For instance, it
attracts high class tourists who give large voluntary contributions without harming."
The novelty of this proposal is matched by its importance
worldwide to other developing nation and international aid agencies anxious to
fund environmentally sound approaches to development. Apart from the need for
international cooperation, the first need is for national discussion—along
Asana Deke Bana lines—of the pros and cons of both models for national
According to Dr. Senanayake, the next logical
step would be to identify a rain catchment area whose inhabitants endorse a
proposal to declare their region as an ESD test area for a stipulated period
with government blessings and support, like the Mahaweli's denuded upper catchment.
Among the communities that may qualify for
initial pilot projects are the Veddas of eastern Sri Lanka, who have already
expressed their collective interest in continuing to manage their forest
hunting grounds according to their own traditions and detailed local knowledge.
Since 1974 they have been hearing official assurances that they would be given
their own sanctuary to maintain their traditional lifestyle and livelihood.
Indeed, it may be that all Sri Lankans—and not
Veddas only—may be standing on the threshold of a startling new ‘Return to
the Future' that incorporates the wisdom of both worlds past and yet to
come?' And that would be a welcome new development for the entire planet.
This article first appeared in The Island (Colombo) of Monday 3 February 1992.
Patrick Harrigan is a volunteer consultant to Living Heritage of Sri Lanka.