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Keep consuming!

Paul Andersen
Aspen, CO Colorado

I have long assumed that people of the developing world have judged America harshly for consuming the lion’s share of global natural resources. Wouldn’t you be a bit peeved if someone hogged more than their fair share of the global commons?

Now I discover that resentment of America for our material appetites might not be an issue at all, despite the implications of climate change, species extinctions,

deforestation, cultural dilution and a litany of other complaints.

Stephen Roach, the Asia chairman for Morgan Stanley and a speaker at the recent world forum in Davos, revealed a different take on America’s consumer culture, one that not only abrogates our consumer guilt but projects a message encouraging yet more consumption.

He said that most of America does not want to stop excessive consumption, enjoying as we do our creature pleasures. Much of the developing world agrees, saying, “We want you to keep consuming to excess so that we can sell you things you do not need.”

Since America desires to continue its unfettered consumption habits, and since the developing world values us as an enormous block of customers that eventually will enrich them, we have achieved a strange kind of multicultural homeostasis.

What’s most fascinating is the mistaken assumption that the developing world is righteously indignant about America’s unimpeachable lifestyle. The reality is that most global citizens want to be like Americans, with all the luxury, excess and environmental impacts that go with it.

If the only route these people have to the Promised Land is to sell their resources, goods and labor to America (for things we don’t need), then any move toward voluntary limits among American consumers ” including resource and energy efficiency ” is an impediment to advancing our fellow human beings to a higher level of material comfort.

There are two things needed to change this picture:

1. Americans should stop buying things we don’t need.

2. People in the developing world must grasp the unsustainable nature of heedless consumption.

Point 1: Consider the last five things you bought and honestly assess whether they were necessities. Could you have lived without them? Are insoluble environmental problems the price you are willing to pay ” or willing for others to pay ” for your luxury?

Point 2: If educated, privileged Americans mostly are ignorant and/or complacent about the environmental impacts of their consumer choices, how can the developing world be expected to leap ahead to recognize the implications of the consumerism they desire for themselves?

A recent news item speaks clearly to Point 2: “India’s Tata Motors Ltd. unveiled the world’s cheapest new car, bringing car ownership closer for millions of poorer consumers in emerging markets. The 4-seater Nano will have a dealer price of about $2,500, which puts it within reach of the developing world.”

The dollar cost for the Nano in no way factors in social or environmental costs, which most economists simply choose to ignore. The limits of the biosphere take a backseat to commercial productivity ” a backseat, you might say, in the Nano.

People in the developing world cheer on American consumers whose expenditures allow them to become the same kind of consumers. They, too, can share in the oil economy and burn their fair share just in time for peak oil. They, too, can add to the carbon footprint of the industrialized world just in time for tipping points in climate change.

How incredibly absurd that flagrant American consumers are being cheered for our excess so that new consumers can flagrantly, by their sheer numerical force, push the margins of environmental tolerance beyond the point of recovery. Within this self-destructive cultural equilibrium, everyone loses.


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