Consumption


Details here and here.  Other states are also struggling to determine how long aging nuclear facilities can safely and efficiently provide prower.  See here.

(1) I just finished reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler.  (I plan to read River Town next.)  It is a wonderfully written book, and now one of my favorite books about China, along with China Road and China Wakes.  One item the book implicitly points out, and which I agree with (as do some the U.S. Embassy), is that China is a lot like the U.S. and those similarities pose the greatest challenges.   Writes Hessler:

My journeys between China and the United States came to feel the same way – a blurringof old boundaries and distinctions. When I first lived in China, I was mostly struck by differences, but over time the similarities became more obvious. Americans and Chinese shared a number of characteristics: they were pragmatic and informal, and they had an easy sense of humour. In both nations, people tended to be optimistic, sometimes to a fault. They worked hard – business success came naturally, and so did materialism. They were deeply patriotic, but it was a patriotism based on faith rather than experience: relatively few people had spent much time abroad, but they still loved their country deeply. When they did leave, they tended to be bad travellers – quick to complain, slow to adjust. Their first question about a foreign country was usually: What do they think of us? Both China and the United States were geographically isolated, and their cultures were so powerful that it was hard for people to imagine other perspectives.

But each nation held together remarkably well. They encompassed a huge range of territory, ethnic groups, and languages, and no strict military or political force could have achieved this for long. Instead, certain ideas brought people together. When the Han Chinese talked about culture and history, it reminded me of the way Americans talked about democracy and freedom. These were fundamental values, but they also had some quantity of faith, because if you actually investigated – if you poked around an archaeological site in Gansu or an election in Florida – they you saw the element of disorder that lay just beneath the surface. Some of the power of each nation was narrative: they smoothed over the irregularities, creating good stories about themselves.

That was one reason why each country coped so badly with failure.  When things went wrong, people were startled by the chaos–the outlandish impact of some boats carrying opium or a few men armed with box cutters.  For cultures accustomed to controlling and organizing their world, it was deeply traumatic.  And it was probably natural that in extreme crisis, the Americans took steps that undermined democracy and freedom, just as the Chinese had turned against their own history and culture. pp. 439-440 of Oracle Bones.

(2) And I think the above is related to American international politics, US-China relations, and also American domestic politics and culture.  I worry that the same traits that make the US and many Americans successful (entrepreneurial, optimism, good business sense), which the Chinese also uses in their economic success, has many potentially negative aspects as well such as the potential for poor labor conditions, a lack of government oversight as to food and drug safety, poor health care, etc.  These negative characteristics exist in China, where ground level capitalism is more laissez-faire than in the U.S. and public safety concerns are everywhere, and many now want to see more American consumption and materialism and far less federal regulation of business as it relates to public health and safety.

(3) And reasonable disgree about the appropriate role of government.  Some want ‘big’ government that provides many social services and public safety regulations, and others want ‘small’ government that promotes business and where the market corrects failures.  But one view is that Democracts ran away from their regulatory accomplishments in this election cycle.  Instead, perhaps as one blogger argues,  Obama should have said: “2 years ago I was elected by the American people in a landslide victory. I ran on universal healthcare, educational reform, repealing the Bush tax cuts, reforming the economic system, etc. In voting for me, the American people placed their trust in me to make good on my promises and I will stay faithful to their trust. The will of the people is my mandate and I will not compromise the vision of hope and change that the American people and I share.”  At least then there’s no “message confusion” there (as the Obama folks are now arguing).  Part of me really wants Palin v. Obama in 2012; at least everyone will be plenty clear about policy platforms. Unfortunately, that would lead to more polarizing politics rather than a thoughtful discussion about what constitutes good governance.

UPDATE: Slate offers a similar take to the one view discussed above.

For those readers interested and concerned about large scale commodity agriculture in the U.S., the reliance of the American diet upon corn and high fructose corn syrup (read Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma), obesity, and/or the carbon footprint of corn (see this article), this video may be of concern.

The NY Times has an article titled “Cleaner for the Environment, Not for the Dishes” about how green products, esepcially cleaning products, might be viewed by some consumers as not doing as well a job.  I think the article adequately points out the benefits of less toxic products like better public health and less freshwater pollution.  I think the article could go even further in exploring this statement: “Yet the new products can run up against longtime habits and even cultural concepts of cleanliness.”

Interesting article in the NY Times about how champagne bottles are being modified in an effort to reduce the carbon foortprint in transit by reducing the weight of the bottle.

The subject of overpopulation has become taboo.  American public interest groups no longer discuss the issue as an environmental problem, the issue has been removed from policy platforms and websites of environmental groups, and, to the extent the issue of population has been mainstream, its focus is on human rights, gender equality, and the ability to have children.

Yet, population growth and the Earth’s carrying capacity are major issues.  China and India, each with over 1 billion people, view overpopulation as a major economic and national security issue.  China is often criticized for its one-child policy, mostly due to reports of its aribitrary and sometime brutal enforcement of the policy.  And now India is using cash bonuses to delay citizens from having more children.

When I was in China, the Chinese were (a) often upset that the West criticized their one-child policy, and (b) were surprised that I both recognized that population size was a legitimate concern and commended the Chinese government for recognizing overpopluation as a legitimate issue, even if I strongly disagreed with the arbitrary and capricious nature of its enforcement and admitted such a policy could not and would not work in the U.S.

Unfortunately, in America and globally, population growth is sort of a political hot potato.  Obviously for political and constitutional reasons, setting a child limit in the U.S. would never fly, but, even though I acknowledge American individualism and personal autonomy, it pains me that open policy discussions cannot be had about incentives to keep family sizes, and thus resource consumption, down at both the domestic and international level.  In the 1990s, phrases like ‘zero-population-growth’ (ZPG) and carrying capacity were big buzz words, but these debates/discussion seem to have been lost.

A fascinating article in the NY Times, entitled “But Will It Make You Happy?,” discusses the relationship between consumption and happiness.  A major finding of acdemic research is that “spending money for an experience… produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old stuff.”  So playing board games, having picnics, taking classes, and learning to play an instrument may make one happier than buying material goods, and this is likely far better for the environment.  I’m noticing a small cultural movement towards a simpler lifestyle that desires less stuff, local products, and less consumption.  Due to the existing American consumption patterns and the rise of American-style consumption patterns in China, any such movement would be a positive development.

With books from Michael and movies like Food Inc., there is increased awareness of the environmental costs of our industrial food system.  My local food co-op grocery store in Montpelier, Vermont, is considering expanding to have a second store in Waterbury, Vermont.  (See the article in the local paper here.)   An issue that has arisen is whether the new store should carry conventional products since many in the community (that walk to the existing grocery store space that would be taken over) are low-income, and conventional food is cheaper.  The problem is that the organic market is already resembling commodity-driven industrial agriculture (e.g., lots of food miles, factory processing, lots of packaging, etc.).  My suggestion is that the new co-op not carry conventional food, but instead consider creative programs so low-income individuals have access to better food products.  Ideas might include free memberships, sliding scale for membership dues based on income, and greater discounts for those already on government assistance.  The Co-Op should continue its committment to being a “member-owned, community-based natural market committed to building a dynamic community of healthy individuals, sustainable local food systems and thriving cooperative commerce,” therby shifting people’s food choices for the better.

In the last 6 months, China’s energy consumption far outstripped all predictions, causing great concern to the Chinese government as national energy efficiency goals may not be met.   Now look at the response according to the NY Times article “In Crackdown on Energy Use, China to Shut 2,000 Factories.”   My concern, however, is that no programs to close manufacturing and energy facilities will offset the increased energy demands of the Chinese consumer population.

I’ve started reading “Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should be Good, Clean, and Fair” by Carlo Pertrini.  In the Forward by Alice Waters, she writes, “We soon discovered that the best-tasting food came from local farmers, ranchers, and foragers, and fisherman who were committed to should in sustainable practices.”

More most be done to promote a local organic food system.  I am working on an article now discussing how law both impedes and can help facilitate such a market.  Not only does local chem-free food taste better, but it limits the environmental costs of food consumption.

Food choices can contribute to the climate crisis, cause species loss, impair water and air quality, and accelerate land use degradation.   For example, an estimated 25 percent of the emissions produced by people in industrialized nations can be traced to the food they eat.   The causes of these environmental costs are many—the livestock industry, a processed and meat-heavy diet, agricultural practices like pesticides and fertilization, and fossil-fuel intensive food transportation, factory processing, packaging and large-scale distribution systems.  These are traits of the dominant industrial food model.

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