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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Cultures of Consumption/Consuming Cultures (SPECIAL GUEST DISCUSSION)

The modern/westernized/industrial/post-industrial way of life is not sustainable. Even the crunchiest of the green folk who ride their bikes to work and buy their food from the farmer’s market are leading a gluttonous unsustainable lifestyle. How? The cost of living (in terms of natural resources) in this modern world is simply too high to last long. As India and China also follow the industrial model of development, and their per capita rates of consumption of natural resources rise we are in for some serious scarcities and price increases in commodities such as wheat, petroleum, fish, and even water. We are currently in a race to develop efficient technology that can sustain our way of life before scarcity of natural resources and abundance of natural disasters makes it impossible to continue.

The above may be a gross generalization, but I think it gets at an important trend. As I noted in my previous post, The United States’ 5% of the world population consumes 30% of its resources, and as other societies (especially the billion-member ones) “develop” towards our standard of living and consumption-we’re all in for some tight times unless the pace of technology fueled by this mass consumption can outstrip the dual threats of increased consumption by an increased population of mass consumers. If modern science can pull this off then Hooray! The whole world can eat and live like Americans, and once a few economic and political kinks are worked out, the current goals of global development will be achieved. But if not…(more in expanded post)

Before I go any further I feel the need to clarify some things. My first post essentially attempted to question the widely-held belief that the middle-class Euro-American way of life is what the world should aspire to. I was not saying that it’s fun to be poor in the Third World. I’ve been poor in urban Africa and its no joyride. However, my relatives in the village who were significantly “poorer” and “underdeveloped” than my family had a much higher quality of life (in my and their opinion). So the first post was mainly about exposing and questioning the way we think about poverty and development. In this post I hope to give (and hope I have already given) a few reasons why (barring amazing scientific innovation) progressing along the commonly-held paradigm of development would not be a good idea.

One goal of development that is currently gaining a lot of currency is sustainability. Like all seals of discourse “sustainability” has been used and misused in a number of different ways. For this post I’ll say that sustainable ways of life are those that can continue indefinitely within the constraints of their natural environments. I say ways of life, and not way of life for 2 reasons:
1)there is no one sustainable way of life and 2) all ways of life influence each other, as globalization is showing us.

One example of point 2, is the so-called “genocide” of indigenous people described by Wade Davis and numerous other anthropologists. The United States and Europe do not have within their borders the natural resources to maintain current levels of consumption and so they must look elsewhere for these resources, goods, and now, services. These resource extraction operations often destroy or deplete the natural environments of people leading seemingly sustainable ways of life (Shell in Niger delta, Forestry operations in Southeast Asia, Fisheries in Lake Victoria, and the sugar plantations of the Carribbean). This disruption of natural environment makes the traditional ways of life of the people inhabiting these regions impossible forcing them to migrate or assimilate (often at the lowest levels) into the modern society that made theirs extinct. Now I’m not saying that I’m against trade at all, but I don’t think that “fair trade” in any sense of the term is possible given our current consumption rates.

Our current culture of consumption has to consume other cultures to survive. One interesting side-effect of this is the creation of the global culture market: members of endangered cultures commodify their culture, making World Music CD’s, giving tours for foreigners, opeining ethnic restaurants, teaching dance classes, etc. Our culture of consumption turns cultures into commodities to be consumed. But I digress…

The natural resource demands of current Euro-American lifestyles necessitate the removal of resources necessary for other ways of life to sustain themselves. The reason I privilege many so-called “indigenous” and “primitive” ways of life is that, to me, they appear to be sustainable. That is, they do not have to consume other ways of life in order to survive (however, this is not true of all “indigenous” or “primitive” cultures by any means). So if sustainability is to be one of the goals of development, perhaps we should look to learn from existing sustainable cultures instead of trying to “develop” them into our non-sustainable image.


At 8:14 PM, Blogger 357martini said...

Welcome to the machine.......amazing how many stupid educated folk there are.....

At 8:18 PM, Blogger O said...

sorry about the incoherence of this post
i didn't have time to organize and edit it due to midterms, but I hope what I'm saying is still understandable. Please make as charitable a reading as possible, it makes understanding so much easier.

I thought I'd add this story that i think my Dad told me as a kid:

"Back in the days of your great-great grandfather, there were two kings in Yorubaland. The first chief was ruler over a populous city and he had 399 wives, lavish robes, a beautiful throne, and a magnificent palace. The second king ruled over a small village about the size of the king's harem that was famous for the size and flavor of its yams.

The two kings had been childhood friends, the village king having grown up in the royal court of the first king's father. So one day, he went to visit his old friend in his palace. Carrying a few yams, the village king walked into the city and was shocked to see someone begging. A few streets later, he saw a mother with emaciated twins to whom he gave the largest yam in his bag. Near the entrance to his friend's palace he was accosted by thieves who stole his remaining yams.

Shaken, he entered the palace and greeted his old friend who, overjoyed to see him rushed about showing off his ivory throne, bronze doors, new bodyguards, and his treaureholds of grain, gold, spices, and cowries.

"Am I not wealthy?" asked the city king?

"Do you even need to ask?" the village king replied, "I came with some yams from my village to offer you, but they were taken from me on the way. Please, be my guest tomorrow in my village and we will prepare the feast I had planned to give you in your own palace."

So to cut an already too long story short...

The city king accompanies his friend back to his small village-where the people are weating clothes that look as if they were made in previous generatons, but whose skin glows and stomachs' bulge like newborns. Upon entering the village king's hut, which did not even have a door, the city king shook his head and offered to build his friend a palace befitting his status.

the village king looked at his friend and shook his head, saying, "Am I not rich?" Poiting out of his hut at the beautiful men chopping wood for the feast and the handsome women pounding yam with plump children on their backs, he said, "See wealth. Hunger does not enter any of our bellies. Theft is a stranger here. My friend, someone has gotten the better of you at the market! Whoever it was that took the wealth of your father's city and gave you that throne of elephant nails and that pile of shells must have been a shrewd bargainer. But do not dismay, perhaps you can sell your palace back, and I will build you a hut befitting your status in its place."

At 8:20 PM, Blogger O said...

Was what I said stupid?

If it was, can you let me know how and why so I stop saying stupid things and taking up webspace and people's time?


At 10:34 PM, Anonymous rob said...

Hey O,

I see your response here as to what would be so bad if countries tried to emulate ours. You're right in that the Western world's model of consumption is not sustainable with fossil fuels and natural resources.

And I agree with your emphasis on COMMUNITY. That's where real wealth comes from, real progress and development.

At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't this outlook a return to malthusian ideas of growth?

At 4:46 PM, Blogger O said...

not really becasue this outlook takes into account increased production capacities. The point is that if increased consumption outstrips increased production, we're in trouble. And every model of consumption vs. production of renewable and nonrenewable natural resources that I 've read tat hasn't been sponsored by Shell or BP draws the conclusion that our current rates of consumption far outpace those of production.

The only way to escape this quasi-malthusian outcome is to responsibly use resources such that they are replenishable-and the only socieities that I've seen that do this on a large scale are the ones that get labeled "primitive"

At 6:47 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

Nah, O. You're not stupid. 357martin is just mad because they're gonna put it to their head when they realize the scarcity of reasources that the West has utilized to maintain their way of life and people from China and India that make up nearly half of the world's population follow U.S. middle-class suit and have two cars, insured pension plans, and no regard for people outside their borders.

Great story, btw.


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