Andersen: Clearing the air on China
Consumption is an archaic name for a disease that consumes the lungs. We know it as tuberculosis. Consumption is also a disease on a planetary scale because it affects all of our lungs. We know it as industrial development.
Last week, I wrote about the ills of China’s air quality, suggesting that prosperity at all costs is a zero-sum game when the environment becomes so fouled that it impairs the health of those who are supposed to benefit.
Two readers reminded me this week via email that consumption — the market kind — is at the heart of China’s consumption — the lung kind. In addition to upbraiding Chinese leaders for shortsighted environmental policies, they pointed out that responsibility must be cast at a wider audience, namely at global consumers whose demand for low prices pushes markets so hard that entire populations choke on foul air.
“The communist leadership of China,” wrote one reader, “lack the ability to see the dignity of their men and women. The political elite live differently and unaffected by the terrible air and water. But we in the USA are complicit in this disregard for the dignity of the Chinese.
“Our unions, our environmental laws, our OSHA department and our proclivity to sue … these are just a few of the ingredients that have moved our manufacturing to China and other sources of cheap products. Wal-Mart has 8,000+ factories producing stuff for them in China.
“Do we as Americans care? We want our products cheap and we want lots of them, and I don’t believe we care who produces them or under what conditions they are produced. We want, we want, we want! And who cares about the plight of the worker in China! The American public cannot cluck its tongue at the state of affairs in China. They provide for us what we ask.”
Another reader expanded the point by addressing the global overshoot of resource exploitation: “China’s pollution is a direct result of our demand and consumption. The 800-pound gorilla in the room is: Can we exist in a non-growth environment?
“Why do we need a minimum 3 percent growth rate to feel happy when that growth rate is consuming the environment and leading to the cliff? The image of kids in domes playing soccer and wearing gas masks is only a symptom of the consumption/growth paradigm that is leading us to utter Destruction … and everyone accepts it as sane and normal.”
This notion of a steady state economy deserves serious thought, and yet to most financial and political institutions, it is inconceivable. Predictably, there is no end game to perpetual growth other than the cornucopian myth of infinite resources spilling indefinitely from the fruitful earth into our factories and commercial markets — and finally to the landfills.
The Schumacher Center for a New Economics is holding a forum on this and other topics, providing a national stage to the transformative idea of curtailing growth and its impacts.
“This year, the forum is exploring ways that we can confront climate change and global economic crises by ‘mobilizing for economic and ecological transformation’ in order to create a more equitable and ecologically resilient world,” according to the center’s website.
Schumacher Society founders Bob Swann and Susan Witt wrote in their 1995 essay “People, Land, and Community” that such a transformation will require a reorganization of economic institutions that will be responsive to local and regional needs and conditions:
“These new institutions would decentralize the control of land, natural resources, industry, and financing to serve the people living in an area in an equitable way. We need to create an infrastructure that encourages local production for local needs. Community land trusts, worker-owned and worker-managed businesses, nonprofit local banks, and regional currencies are some of the tools for building strong regional economies.”
The Chinese needn’t choke on air pollution, nor do they need a frenzied approach to growth as their national identity. Based on the “Small Is Beautiful” model by E.L. Schumacher, a more sensitive and locally scaled way of life could clean China’s air and reduce the incessant demands for “more!” That could make the whole world breathe easier.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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