I’ve no illusions that my words or actions will wholesale save or destroy the world. Despite the “single-handed hero” concept promoted in our literature and film, I doubt that any one person can have such power. No one person, no matter how great their goodness or malevolence, can move the mechanism of Earth and society in such a grand manner. However, there are people who have great power and influence over many; their actions and ideas will, as a consequence of the authority we afford them, form the course for a certain future. I am pessimistic concerning the health of our world and society. It’s not that there are too many people for the world to support; thought that is a concern. It’s not that we may have irreparably damaged the environment; though that is also a concern. There are a litany of recognisable and evident “problems” we can list that will “end life as we know it.” My concern is that, “life as we know it” may not be such a good thing to promote.
Recently, at a trade summit in Asia, President Bush (addressing President Hu Jintao of China) made this statement:
“I strongly support your vision, Mr. President, of encouraging your country to become a nation of consumers and not savers.”
Ostensibly, President Bush is promoting the economic good of his country. No doubt, the success of such summits will be measured in increased exports to expanding markets. If the several billion Chinese people begin consuming US goods and services, our economy and the economies of those intertwined with ours will grow exponentially. But, considering the glaringly evident environmental consequences of equipping those several billion consumers with new cars and washing machines, at what cost will we enrich ourselves? What happens if the largest country in the world decides to end a mindset of conserving and become a consumer culture?
China is mostly rural and has sustained itself (with varied results) as such for thousands of years. It could take the accumulated knowledge of history and become the first environmental superpower. Sadly, by most accounts, this is not the direction it is heading; consumer demand for electricity, products, and services drives increased industrialisation. Industrialisation (and the concurrent mechanisation of agriculture) draws people to cities. We’ve witnessed the devaluation of small-scale farming in the US; what will China experience with an agrarian population far in excess of ours? What does a country do with several hundred million people whose skills and method of life are no longer considered necessary?
I hope someone is considering this—that the government of China is aware of such things and takes them seriously. But, the president of my country seems oblivious (either that or something more heinous). The economic impetus for growth is apparently the measure of what is good. As a lifelong consumer myself, whenever I try to sit down and think this through, a fog comes over my mind. It’s as if there is a shroud covering what should be clear ideas and actions I might take. I can only think this whole issue will become more complex, that I will inexorably become more entrenched in the cycle of dependency on goods that are not of my own making (and, consequently, over which I will have no control concerning supply, cost, or quality). Or, I fear more likely, after a wild and reckless ride of world consumption, it will all come to a sudden and terrible halt.