Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

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 implications.

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 tourists.

"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 ours."

"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."

Ten points

  1. 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."

  2. "Or, take Value Systems. In the industrialized scheme of things nature is valued only as an exploitable resource.

    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."

  3. "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.

  4. "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 approaches."

  5. 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."

  6. "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."

  7. "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 of everything."

    "The ESD system of economics is based not upon consumption and consumerism. but upon conservationism. It encourages less consumption, not more."

  8. "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.''

  9. "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 lifeblood."

    "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."

  10. "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."

Practical Test

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 development.

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.