Monday, December 14, 2009


It isn’t just the superwealthy who tend to be mindless about their impact on the environment. It’s also the comparatively wealthy. The one billion people who live in the developed world or enjoy that lifestyle in the developing world are rich enough to not have to think about how much they are spending on energy. They don’t need to conserve to save money but are free to use as much as they want.

A few years back an expat friend held a house warming for a new place he’d bought in Phnom Penh. He was close to 50, recently married with a one-year-old kid, his first. Home tours are practically required under the circumstances, so he took me to check it out. When he opened the door to the kid’s room I was hit with a blast of cold air.

Gee, why do you have the air-con on full blast, I inquire. It’s on just in case the baby gets hot and needs to cool off, he replies. The kid is Cambodian and as long as she lives in Cambodia she’s going to have to get used to heat. Besides, I would think, the kid might get pneumonia from bouncing back and forth between sweltering and chilly. Besides, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes for an air-conditioner to cool down a hot room.

His thoughts are on providing the best for his child but his actions are wasting the Earth for no good reason. It’s one thing to use energy for things that have value but to waste it mindlessly is just being clueless.

In a similar experience, also here in Cambodia, I was being shown around nice remodeled colonial house in Kampot, when my friend opened a door, announcing this was the bedroom, to a very cold room. What’s with the air-con full-on, I ask. I think my girlfriend might be up for a little nookie today, he answered, so I want the room to be ready, just in case. Hours of costly air-conditioning for an empty room. Why couldn’t he wait until he was sure the great event was going to happen to turn on the air-con and then wait another 3 or 4 minutes for the room to cool down before getting all hot and bothered?

It’s thoughtless consumption that contains no positives for the Earth, although it does have one (sort of) benefit, it adds to Cambodia’s GDP, Gross Domestic Product. So actually they’re doing their part to boost Cambodia’s economy. Hmm, that doesn’t sound right, does it? Can we really think of waste as a good thing? In this case, evidently, yes.

Everybody knows people in America who leave all their lights on or maybe leave the TV on all day even when nobody is watching it. No one could begrudge the use of electricity to provide light in the dark, but at least it should have a purpose. If that light is going to add to the planet’s CO2, it should be used for something. Light to read by? 100% good. Lighting rooms for hours when no one is there? Totally negative.

Back in 1994 I stayed at a small hotel in Amsterdam. As I headed up the stairs for the first time I turned on the light at ground level. As I got near the second floor the light automatically turned on, meanwhile the first floor light had gone out. Wow, it was almost like a revelation. Nobody’s present, the light goes off, what could be more simple?

Energy in America is so cheap that most people can’t be bothered conserving or even thinking about it. The reason why it’s so cheap is that most of the costs have been externalized. Coal makes cheap electricity but its extraction and use also results in pollution that causes many health problems; the cost, however, of treating those maladies is not part of the electricity bill.

People in the Pacific Northwest have very cheap power, the bulk of which comes from the many dams on the Columbia River, but it came at a high cost. There once were between 10 million and 16 million salmon, weighing up to 40 kilos, that returned annually to spawn in the Columbia or its tributaries. Today there are about 50,000 to 100,000 wild salmon spawning in that area. (There are also farmed salmon, but I’ll tell you a secret: they have to add orange coloring to those hatchery fish to make them look like salmon.) Well, what are ten million salmon worth? Shouldn’t that be part of the cost of the power?

There was hand-wringing and consternation in the financial community recently at the news that Japan didn’t grow as fast as predicted. Japan has an aging population; the oldest in the world, I believe. Oldsters generally have accumulated what they want of the material world, and don’t need to buy much. In addition, Japan’s population as a whole is declining, so there are fewer people every year to consume things. So then why do they need to grow? They are already rich. And why is it looked at as such a tragedy when they don’t?

Well, because we are locked into a mindset that promotes, even extols waste. Not everything is purely waste, of course, but the whole idea of contemporary economic thinking is to encourage people to consume. Marketing pervades all aspects of life in the modern world. It’s designed to get people to buy things whether they need them or not. Even sometimes whether they can afford them or not; as in purchasing non-essentials with credit cards and then paying usurious interest on the credit.

You can’t think about tackling climate change without thinking of sustainability first; without redesigning modern lifestyles to reflect values other than material possessions. However, as long as corporations have such a stranglehold over contemporary life, there is no possibility of even discussing sustainability. On the periphery, of course, there are a lot of people looking for more from life than mindless consumption, but sustainability can never replace the mania for growth as long as the corporations hold sway.

In addition to the problem of the waste inherent in developed country lifestyles there’s the desire, on the part of the newly flush in previously poor countries, to catch up with the rich world. Car sales in China this year rose 44% and have now surpassed the US. Chinese have the same rights to the convenience of private vehicles as Americans. As in the US their airwaves are jammed with car ads.

The ads, of course, never show those shiny new wheels stuck in traffic, where, in fact, they’re likely to spend most of their time. There’s no mention of the pollution and congestion they’ll bring to Chinese cities or the drain on the planet’s fossil fuel supplies. As in the US, the Chinese government has provided incentives to purchase new cars.

I totally understand the desire to own a car. I have one here in Cambodia and would feel really burdened not to have it. In Portland I’d feel positively deprived without a car. On the other hand, when I’m in Kampot, the small town, I always ride my bicycle. I always felt uncomfortable riding a bike in Portland and Phnom Penh is much worse, I’d never ride there. However, if you make biking convenient and comfortable, as in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, a much greater percentage of people will opt for that healthiest of transport.

China, in fact, was once a model of sustainability. When I first got to Kunming, in Southwest China, in 1992, private cars were banned and more than 80% of all movement was on bicycle. Every major street had a very wide bike path, as much as 3 to 4 meters wide. You could be out on the street with hundreds of people going by and it was so quiet the loudest sound would be conversations between people. Many of those boulevards had very wide sidewalks that were graced with one, two, sometimes even three rows of stately trees. It was heavenly, especially for an urban planner type.

However, even before I left at the end of 1996 the city, in order to provide more space for motor vehicles, had felled thousands of those great old trees and narrowed both the sidewalks and bike paths. On one main thoroughfare, after they contracted the bikelane, it was so crowded at times I would have to wait for two green lights to get through.

All to make room for the small number of elite who could afford to own private vehicles. Today, of course, lots of Chinese can afford cars and the country wants nothing more than to emulate the US and its car culture. And bordering on the absurd: some streets in Beijing have been made off-limits to bicycles to make them more convenient for cars.

So how do you promote sustainability and voluntary simplicity for the sake of the world when the masses are inundated with slick advertising encouraging them to buy what they really don’t need? Where are the ads to encourage people to ride bicycles?

Well, you don’t, at least not with any chance of actually making a difference. As long as the world is focused on endless growth and the manic pursuit of wealth, the relatively small number of people who consciously reject the push to consume cannot possibly save the planet.

If the mindset doesn’t change, the world cannot meet its challenges.

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