T K Arun
Focusing on the supply, instead of demand, is pure expedience in the case of both drugs and greenhouse gas emissions
CURBING demand is the solution to several key challenges that humanity faces, whether it’s environmental sustainability or drugs, but political expedience has focused attention, for the most part, on the supply side. This must change.
BBC has reported that the Taliban are waging a war on opium cultivation in Afghanistan, the world’s most prolific supplier of opium, morphine and heroin. Their gun-toting representatives are going around the land, destroying the poppy crop wherever they see it. Satellite images reportedly show an 80 per cent decline in the area under opium poppy in Afghanistan. The Taliban should be getting big congratulations from those waging a war on drugs and those running de-addiction and rehabilitation centres, right?
On the contrary, the people who are likely to chip in with congratulatory messages for the Taliban might be the cocaine cartels of South America, the fentanyl specialists in Mexico and the Chinese companies that ship fentanyl’s precursor chemicals to Latin America without a wrinkle on their conscience.
As long as the demand for mind-altering substances remains strong, the supply would be forthcoming. If there is a reduction in the supply of heroin, close substitutes would make up for the deficit — cocaine, derived from the coca plants of South America, or fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
The US has been waging a war on drugs since President Nixon’s time. The focus of the war has tended to be on the supply side, rather than on curbing demand. This is a choice that stems from political expedience.
Focusing on the supply lets America externalise the problem. Bad actors in other countries are the target, not the social malaise that drives young people to mind-altering highs with the help of drugs. Clamping down on supply can deliver telegenic footage of drug enforcement officers intercepting smugglers on the southern border, and highlight efforts in external assistance and diplomacy to induce foreign governments to curb the production and supply of drugs in their domains.
Focusing on the supply also helps the ‘get-tough-on-crime’ agenda, beloved of many politicians. Police departments get to act tough and conscientious, cracking down on criminal gangs that act as the last mile conduits of drugs smuggled into the country. All this helps the incumbent American administration convince voters that it has been doing its bit to fight the drug menace.
Clamping down on demand, however, is far more complex. It entails challenging comforting illusions of middle-class existence. It calls for scrutiny of popular culture and the conduct of its icons. It demands harsh examination of the relations between parents and children, of accountability and discipline, of the responsibilities of friendship and kinship, raises questions about trade-offs between short-term pleasure and long-term pain, of developing the right values and social sensibilities in the young. It raises questions about what is taught at school, what is learnt and what ought to be the school experience.
Worse, focusing on the demand side draws religion, its teaching and its practice into the mix. It calls for community leaders and elders, if not religious heads, to find and affirm the degrees of latitude acceptable around the totalising righteousness of prescriptive morality, for which the confusion of coming of age inevitably creates a need, to avoid pushing the adventurous to abandonment of morality altogether.
It calls for effective governance to enforce the law without fear or favour; it calls for sensible economic policies that create jobs and the space for young people to expand their horizons, and keep despair out of social life.
A similar logic is at work in the domain of the environment as well. Global warming is a real problem causing heatwaves, forest fires, droughts, downpours, ever stronger and unpredictable cyclones, cloudbursts, floods, crop failures, rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers and other damage. Remedial action is called for.
The most sustainable solution calls for, among other things, curbing consumption. Identification of happiness with ever-rising levels of consumption for the sake of consumption must be undone, and fulfilment must be found in matters other than material objects — at least after a minimum level of creature comfort has been achieved.
The world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed, said Gandhi. The boundary between need and greed cannot be constant, no doubt. A daily shower, running water and en suite toilets were a luxury till the turn of the 20th century, even for the world’s royalty. Norms have changed since then.
However, right now, the annual emission of greenhouse gases per capita is 17 tonnes for North Americans, less than 1.5 tonnes for South Asians and below one tonne for Africans, on a consumption basis. Yet, North Americans are asking South Asians to curb their emissions so as to save the planet! At the same time, North American cultural power feeds emulation of the North American lifestyle across the globe, including in the very same South Asia and Africa, where the local populace is expected to curb their emissions.
Fast fashion and the social media-driven conviction that no self-respecting young adult can afford to be seen in the same outfit on more than one major occasion — and every occasion is recorded for posterity — are just two of the most striking examples of the environment-negative trend that the rich nations’ popular culture has imposed on the world and which must be resisted stoutly.
Fighting climate change calls for technology that would remove carbon dioxide from the air for possible commercial use in creating new products. But technology alone does not offer a solution to climate change. Behavioural change and a deep shift in the value system underlying the behaviour are essential as well.
The article was first published in Substack as Demand Side Overlap in Solutions to Climate Change and Drugs on June 10, 2023.
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