Monday October 23rd 2017

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The Siren call

In Greek mythology Sirens would call out from their island to passing sailors with music and song.  Heeding the irresistible calls the seamen would sail to their death as they became shipwrecked on the rocky coast.

The tradition of the Siren is alive and well in our modern world. With each day we are bombarded with the enchanting sounds of fantasy — that our economy can continue to grow forever.  This intoxicating delusion of an infinite world where we expect our every expectation and desire to be fulfilled runs through every facet of our popular culture.  It is broadcast endlessly across our media.  It permeates our value system and is part of our belief system.  It is taught at the highest levels of our education system.  It is espoused as dogma in our political system.

It is the defining fiber that makes up the fabric of our society.

As more and more societies around the world heed the siren call towards capitalism and consumerism humanity veers closer and closer to the metaphorical cliffs and true disaster.  The allure is so strong that, like the sailors of old, we seem oblivious to the clear signs of danger.

  • The climate is reeling out of control and within a lifetime may be unlivable for much of humanity.
  • Other forms of life are disappearing from the planet 1000 times faster than normal
  • Alienation, depression, and other emotional maladies are chronic, and growing more severe in consumer societies
  • The earth is reaching its limit in absorbing the pollution and toxic waste produced by  exponentially growing consumer societies.  The level and number of toxins in our bodies grows with each new day

So, I have to confess that my heart sank when i saw these two headlines in the New York Times Magazine:

In China, Cultivating the Urge to Splurge (November 24, 2010)

Shop, China, Shop (November 30, 2010)

In these stories the writers continue the suicidal mantra — if we are to prosper the world must encourage China to continue to grow and create millions, many, many more millions of people who consume like we do in America.

As soon as I saw the headlines I knew that I would have to write a blog posting on this.  I was heartened to see that even Joe Romm, who normally focuses on climate issues (Blog: Climate Progress), felt compelled to attack this lunacy.

I will close with a copy of his post here:

Killed by the NY Times magazine.

November 30, 2010

The larger idea is to build a more sustainable economy, or what Chinese leaders have called a balanced and harmonious society. In that economy, families would not have to save 20 percent of their income in order to pay for schooling and medical care, as many do now. They would instead be able to afford more of the comforts of modern life — better housing, clothing, transportation and communication. In time, China would become the world’s next great consumer society.

Maybe you thought that the word ’sustainable’ was already dead, but really it was only ill — ill-defined by overuse.  But thanks to the NYT magazine and economics columnist David Leonhardt, it has now been officially defined out of existence.

Maybe you thought ’sustainable’ meant something like “capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment.”  How wrong you were.  Apparently, to the Times, ’sustainable’ means being the biggest consumers in the world.  George Orwell would be proud.

Special props to the NYT and Leonhardt for running a piece that uses the words sustainable, sustain, and sustainability six times — without once mentioning global warming or China’s unsustainable contribution to it  — on the day before the big international climate conference in Cancun, a day their op-ed page ran three pieces on global warming, including one explaining the dangers of our unsustainable path (see Farmer in the Times: “Climate change, I believe, may eventually pose an existential threat to my way of life”).

And extra bonus credit to the Times for this head-exploding cover:

Shop china

Yes, the “health of the world economy depends on” China learning to spend “more like Americans.”  As if (see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?“)

The article is a masterpiece of tortured logic and magical thinking.  Here’s the paragraph that follows the one quoted above:

That term may have negative connotations in the United States, particularly after the last decade of debt excess. But the term means something very different for China. A Chinese consumer society would improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The benefits of the industrial boom that began in the 1980s would spread more rapidly beyond the country’s eastern coast. The service sector would grow, and the economy would no longer be quite so dependent on smoke-spewing factories.

So the only negative connotation the NYT is aware of for the phrase “world’s next great consumer society” is debt excess.  No treehuggers at the Times magazine.

And somehow the benefits of the industrial boom would spread rapidly beyond the country’s east coast, but smoke-spewing factories wouldn’t?  How exactly are all those mass consumer goods bought by all those new Chinese shopaholics going to be manufactured?  By magic?

Note to NYT:  If you make a bunch of stuff for hundreds of millions of people, you’re gonna have to build a lot of smoke-spewing factories.

Finally, I’m all for improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people — but somehow I imagine it can be done without “cultivating the urge to splurge” of Americans.  Indeed, I am reminded of a piece I wrote two years ago — Chinese Premier: Rich nations should ditch ‘unsustainable’ lifestyles … and stop buying all the crap we make.  I cited an AFP story:

BEIJING (AFP) — Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Friday that rich nations should alter their lifestyles to help tackle global warming, at the start of a two-day meeting on climate change, state media reported.
“The developed countries have a responsibility and an obligation to respond to global climate change by altering their unsustainable way of life,” Wen was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.

Not exactly a view that the NYT felt needed to be part of its piece.

That said, the first thing that popped into my head when I read Wen Jiabao’s admonition was this Onion story: (Note from Sustainable Thoughts:  If you are not familiar with the Onion, this “article” is a spoof/parody)

Chinese Factory Worker Can’t Believe The Shit He Makes For Americans
FENGHUA, CHINA–Chen Hsien, an employee of Fenghua Ningbo Plastic Works Ltd., a plastics factory that manufactures lightweight household items for Western markets, expressed his disbelief Monday over the “sheer amount of shit Americans will buy.”

“Often, when we’re assigned a new order for, say, ’salad shooters,’ I will say to myself, ‘There’s no way that anyone will ever buy these,’ …. One month later, we will receive an order for the same product, but three times the quantity. How can anyone have a need for such useless shit?”

… “I hear that Americans can buy anything they want, and I believe it, judging from the things I’ve made for them,” Chen said….

Among the items that Chen has helped create are plastic-bag dispensers, microwave omelet cookers, glow-in-the-dark page magnifiers, Christmas-themed file baskets, animal-shaped contact-lens cases, and adhesive-backed wall hooks.
“Sometimes, an item the factory produces resembles nothing I’ve ever seen,” Chen said. “One time, we made something that looked like a ladle, but it had holes in its cup and a handle that bent down 90 degrees. The foreman told us that it was a soda-can holder for an automobile. If you are lucky enough to own a car, sit back and enjoy the journey. Save the soda beverage for later.”

… Chen expressed similar confusion over the tens of thousands of pineapple corers, plastic eyeshades, toothpick dispensers, and dog pull-toys that he has helped manufacture.

“Why the demand for so many kitchen gadgets?” Chen said. “I can understand having a good wok, a rice cooker, a tea kettle, a hot plate, some utensils, good china, a teapot with a strainer, and maybe a thermos. But all these extra things–where do the Americans put them? How many times will you use a taco-shell holder? ‘Oh, I really need this silverware-drawer sorter or I will have fits.’ Shut up, stupid American.”

Chen added that many of the items break after only a few uses.

“None are built to last very long,” Chen said. “That is probably so the Americans can return to buy more. Not even the badly translated assembly instructions deter them. If I bought a kitchen item that came with such poor Mandarin instructions, I would return the item immediately.”

May Gao of the Hong Kong-based labor-advocacy group China Labour Bulletin said complaints like Chen’s are common among workers in China’s bustling industrial cities.

“Last week, I took testimony from several young female workers from Shenzhen who said they were locked in a work room for 18 straight hours making inflatable Frisbees,” Gao said. “Finally, the girls joined hands on the factory floor and began to chant, ‘No more insane flying toys for Western pigs!’ They quickly lost their jobs and were ostracized by their families, but the incident was a testament to China’s growing disillusionment with producing needless crap for fat-ass foreigners.”

Continued Gao: “As Chinese manufacturing and foreign investment continue to grow, and more silly novelty products are invented, we can expect to see more of these protests.”

And if the NYT magazine has their way, the Chinese can look forward to making their own crap too!

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One Comment for “The Siren call”

  • Josh says:

    It would seem to put us in a kind of Catch 22–sort of like too big to fail–no one can afford to stop consuming or the world economy collapses–and then people will actually suffer and die–first at the bottom, as with the corn-biofuel problem a few years ago, but slowly it would rise up the chain. I think managed collapse may be our best option…I like a thought experiment I believe I have proposed to you: How many people producing actual physical wealth (grounded in food, fiber, water, energy, shelter, etc.) does it take to support how many people producing symbolic wealth (e.g. working at their computers)? For example, could we have 1 billion people producing the means for existence while the other 10 billion move symbols around on a computer screen–and daily, do not produce anything they personally need to exist–but still can get rich working in this way such that they can consume extravagantly? I am curious what the ratio is? It might a path to sustainability allowing many more people to survive with as minimum an impact on the environment as possible–because high-tech is less directly environmental destructive–except for energy demand…or as it seems to be, furthering our doom by making us ever more efficient at consuming at ever larger and faster scales…I just finished reading the biography of Aldo Leopold–one of the leading conservationists of the 20th Century–who help to found the field of wildlife management–and whose Sand County Almanac birth the idea of a 'land ethic'. He asserted early in the 20th Century that the entirety of human existence is rooted in the land…and for the most part humans have forgotten how to live on it…

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