Taming the Dragon: Consumption in Western Society
Taming the Dragon
Earth Day, April 22, 2008
On Earth Day I contemplated a defense of the consumer.
There once was a cruise ship powered by a nasty dragon. While providing steam to drive the ship, he also demanded a daily sacrifice of a passenger. He preferred young women.
The people on the ship were entirely dependent upon the dragon as he was the engine of their mobility (and he cooked their food), but as they cruised it became obvious that the dragon's antics were a serious impediment to, not only the continued success of the ship, but to their very survival. What to do? Abandoning the ship meant swimming in the shark infested ocean; while killing the dragon meant starving on a useless tub.
That ship is our economy and the dragon is Industry which demands that we look the other way as it extracts a bloody toll for economic growth. As consumers, we need to take responsibility for the consequences of our choices, but too often we are used as scapegoats and sacrifice while Industry gets a wink.
A recent front page Canadian newspaper article was an excellent example: "Are You a Water Waster?" This article failed to point out that Canada has a majority of the world's fresh water, but did admit that water shortages were only "in certain parts of the country." Therefore, all Canadians need to use less "in small ways to ensure future generations have clean water to drink."
And that is false. Reducing our personal water consumption is NOT the solution to future CLEAN water. The consumer is not the Water Waster Monster. We are legitimate water users, though perhaps we use too much as compared to the rest of the world. The real Water Waster of clean water is Industry, as industrial practices waste water by, not only destroying the quality, but wasting a much greater quantity than it uses, by polluting.
It is in one of those parts of the country where there is a real threat of running short that the Tar Sand Industry wastes water by taking 2 barrels for every barrel of oil produced. The water is wasted because the "settling ponds" won't settle for a hundred years and the water cannot be reused by the industry. They have created the world's largest dam to hold back the poisoned water: an environmental disaster waiting to happen with mere sand separating this from the Athabasca River, an important source of Alberta's clean drinking water.
More importantly, water tests done across North America found almost all samples -including well and creek water- to be contaminated with industrial chemicals such as a popular gasoline additive. In fact ALL samples in the US were polluted; there was no unpolluted clean drinking water found in America outside of a bottle. A situation where the dragon has been allowed to defecate his poisonous wastes anywhere on the ship he pleased. The passengers tiptoe around the steaming piles pretending they are not there. No one knows how to clean up.
Likewise ALL blood samples across North America show contamination by fire retardants and plasticizers (that new car smell) and other industrial chemicals. In fact a recent study in Ontario showed that the blood of politicians had higher concentrations of industrial pollutants than did the greater public. Too many rides in too many new limos, perhaps?
Virgin fallen arctic snow is polluted. Our entire environment is polluted to the extent that our bodies are now contaminated and who do we blame? The dragon? The war against cancer is lost because we are treating the passengers' symptoms and not the ever increasing dragon feces. The consumer takes the hit rather than the Industrial source.
Again, penny wise; pound foolish. We are told to recycle our fluorescent tubes to prevent minute amounts of mercury from contaminating our landfills. Yet Industry dumps massive amounts of mercury into our environment by refusing to clean up their coal-fired generators. Where American coal-fired plants have tried to clean up, our governments have only winked at these Canadian Environmental Monsters.
And please, for the sake of cheap consumer goods, let's forget the massive dirty coal consumption of China, and the growing attractiveness of America's massive coal reserves against oil prices.
In relation, ALL samples of tuna tested from American sushi bars were contaminated with mercury. The oceans are contaminated. The fish are sick. But still, the front line in mercury pollution control will be with the consumer. The passengers are reminded, only one lake-caught fish or serving of tuna per week as the dragon hides his urate in the fish.
Similarly, we are constantly reminded to throughly cook our ground beef as if the consumer is somehow responsible for E. coli contamination. The industrial process allows fecal matter to contact the meat, and then fails to properly wash and inspect the carcass before it proceeds down the slaughter line. Where government inspectors once used to inspect each animal, they now may show up once a month to inspect only the process.
The meat from one contaminated carcass is mixed in with thousands of animals in the processing. Recently the meat from hundreds of thousands of animals was dumped into landfills because of this Industrial Wastefulness. What was wrong with the economic model of a small local abattoir, where each carcass was individually washed, inspected and processed? It wasn't cheap enough.
So maybe the consumer does bear some responsibility: we want it cheaper (that's why we built the dragon ship); our desire for consumer goods is insatiable; we consume our crappy meat well cooked (and shipped a thousand miles). We admire that new car smell; we are proud of our new air tight house filled with industrial pollutants given off by all that new stuff. Our baby-boom middle class real estate investments and all their trappings are dragon boats destined to be worthless in 25 years.
So a blessing then for the poor who live in a 40-year old drafty house. We are much better off with old flooring, cabinets, cars and furniture that has long stopped giving off those noxious chemicals that pollute our bodies and those of our children.
This Earth Day summoned a Nancy Regan realization. CONSUMPTION: Just Say No! Remember how we used to speak of two-car families? Well now we have 4, 5, or 6 car families. And if we include recreational vehicles, we have 6, 8 and 12 vehicle families, an absurdity of consumption. And an indication that a consumption peak of sorts has been reached in the face of a world economy slowing because of approaching Energy Scarcity.
In the final tally, whether our concerns are Health, Environmental, Climate Change, or Energy Scarcity, the solution to all these issues is to throttle consumption before Progress Traps (Ronald Wright: "A Short History of Progress") throttle us. Consumption was last century's economic model; in a post-Modern world we must convert to a Recycling-based economy. Growth will come from New Energy, not consumer goods. Home Depot, like Walmart, is obsolete.
But of course, in a capitalist model where growth in consumption is not only desirable but necessary, sustained consumption reduction is absurd, for it creates a serious economic issue -a depression. So, lacking a revolution in economic thinking (or an Energy Scarcity crisis) and for the sake of the continuation of the last century's economic model, we are effectively addicted to excessive consumption. And thus also to the ongoing wasting of our water, health and environment in order to sustain and encourage economic growth, even as we are addicted to cheap soiled meat.
We cannot live without the dragon even though he will kill us all. A Progress Trap.
Finally, this is where Dr. Feelgood environmentalists such as Bob Stanford of Water for Life Decade essentially become industrial apologists telling consumers that things will get better if we but run the dishwasher less than 3 times a week or do only one load of laundry per week. They, like the newspapers that give Dr. Feelgood front page, are economic false prophets massaging our wallets comfortingly: "It's okay to consume, just cook your hamburger thoroughly, recycle those light bulbs and shower a little less."
As consumers of the dragon ship, we need to take responsibility, but much too often we and our children are sacrificed while the dragon gets a wink and a nudge.
Copyright: Coyote, blogger
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