21 March 2011

Faith and the Future

The landfills are almost full, the Himalayan glaciers that supply water to the Pearl river (as well as all the major rivers of China and India) are disappearing, the planet is running out of oil...and all anyone in the Hi-tech Village cares about is their next LV bag, how they're going to get their hands on an iPad 2 and their next meal at a posh sushi restaurant. Part of the explanation for this is simple ignorance: many people literally don't know about these problems because governments and corporations don't want them to know about them. But there's more to it than just ignorance; religion also plays a part.

In the free-market economies like the US and HK, instilling the faith that technology will solve all our problems is crucial to the legitimacy of government and corporate elites. The key assumptions of free-market capitalism are that resource scarcity doesn't matter (because we can always invent our way out) and that the planet can handle an infinite amount of waste. This belief is not science, but faith; there is absolutely no evidence that resource scarcity isn't a problem and tons of evidence that it is.

Essentially what this boils down to is an unquestioned faith in economic growth. If growth is good, then consumption is good, because without increased consumption you can't have economic growth. Dictionary.com defines the verb to consume as: to destroy or expend by use, to eat up or drink up, devour, to spend wastefully. Sounds about right, so why is this seen as an unambiguous good? Because of the belief that we can't ever run out of resources.

In the post-war twentieth century, the world was locked in a struggle between two utopian secular religions: Communism and Neo-liberalism. Communists believed that rational central planning could eventually do away with the problem of scarcity, Neo-liberals believed that the free-market would do the same thing. With the collapse of Communism in Europe, China's government switched to a pragmatic, non-ideological approach to economics, and with the abandonment of faith they have succeeded in doing what communism failed to do--bring millions of Chinese people out of poverty.

During the same time period, the US strengthened its faith in free-markets, deluded by what Neo-liberals saw as the vindication of free-markets by the failure of Communism. But while the US economy grew, real wages for most workers had stagnated. The average Chinese person got richer because of the abandonment of faith and the average American got poorer because their faith got stronger. In the US, the income generated by economic growth went almost exclusively to the people who needed it least. Elites continued to promise that the wealth would eventually "trickle down" and that income inequality was a necessary evil for promoting economic growth, which would benefit everyone in the long run.

What's ironic is that the Neo-liberal ideologues who have argued that resource scarcity doesn't matter are, in many cases, the same people who were the architects of the Iraq war--which was at least partially about securing access to oil reserves. This is similar to what's going on in the US's (and HK's) economic systems in general. Elites who claim that unregulated free-markets will eventually make us all rich, and make scarcity irrelevant are also hoarding resources at an unprecedented rate so that they'll be able to survive the eventual resource shortfalls.

The ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are as much about the threat from China as they are about any country in the Middle East. Occupying Afghanistan effectively cuts off China from the oil in Iran. If Iran wants to send oil to China, it has to go through areas the US controls (either Afghanistan, or by sea, where China's navy can't compete with the US's). China's response to this was predictable: they started hoarding oil, realizing that hoarding currency wasn't good enough since war between the two countries would make the US debt to China largely irrelevant, and they started massively upgrading their naval power. Currently, the US and China are engaged in a competition for access to oil reserves in Africa and all over the developing world. It certainly looks like the two countries are preparing for the possibility that their competition for resources could eventually lead to military conflict. And that is the worst possible thing that could happen for humans on this planet. But as long as Chinese people continue to aspire to the obscene level of consumption that exists in the US (and HK), and as long as Americans continue to believe that that obscene consumption is their birthright, the worst case scenerio looks increasingly likely.

It may be possible for humans to innovate our way out of these environmental problems, but it's far from a certainty. It certainly isn't possible with existing technology.  It will take planning for the future, and reduced consumption. Unfortunately, the current faith in free-markets precludes both solutions. It's much harder to avoid driving off a cliff when you can't see the cliff.


  1. Interesting article. It's the Malthusians versus the Anti-Malthusians all over again. One interesting point about growth in economy and wages stagnating in the US. This is the exact problem facing China today. GDP rising >10% annually, yet increase in salary is very small, even less than the rate of inflation in recent years, so the common people are actually less well-off.
    As some economist put it, the 21st century will be like a game of Chess between the US and China. Hopefully, for the sake of mankind, a win-win solution can be found, otherwise it'll be catastrophic for the whole world.

  2. While in Hong Kong, I felt that Boulderites (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boulder,_Colorado) were above this mindlessly excessive over-indulgence. We, as thoughtful world citizens, did not put every plastic cup and aluminum can in a bag inside a bag. People give you approving glances at grocery stores when they see you using a backpack for your groceries instead of plastic bags.

    Now I'm back in Boulder. And goddammit, the grass was only greener on this side because of all the fucking herbicides. I work at a test prep company with relatively well-educated, conscientious people. But today, I pulled a cup out of the dispenser to get a drink from the water cooler. And what should I hold in my hands but a nice clear plastic cup that most of my friends would use as their normal cups. This one, however, was intended to be disposable. Even one of my students made a remark about feeling guilty for throwing such nice cups away.

    The thing is, I'm pretty sure my company didn't buy these nicer cups because they thought it would give our customers a better impression of us. No, thye did it because they didn't think not to do it. In HK, at least people are deliberately wasteful because they want to showcase their wealth and status. So, Wes, maybe you're not giving them enough credit. You can only change a behavior if you acknowledge you're doing it and at least Honkies know they're being wasteful...Or maybe not.



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