Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What about sustainable development?

I went to bed last night thinking about how unsustainable the current consumer-driven economy is and woke up this morning to read: 90% underground water in China polluted. Cities in northern China have been the most polluted with increasingly more pollutants, causing economic losses worth of [sic] dozens of billions of US dollars.

When I say (in many places in this blog and on Organic-Ally) that buying 'cheap' has its long-term repercussions, readers might think that I am a snob. So perhaps I should change my tune and say 'cheap' is not sustainable.

Just before Christmas British fishermen were told that their quota of cod that could be landed is to be reduced by 5% (if I remember correctly). Demand for cod has led to over-fishing in the North Sea. Even juvenile fish have been landed resulting in their not being able to reproduce, thus further reducing the stock of cod.

Very soon, there won't be any cod and the cod fishermen will simply have nowt. Is this sustainable?

Fishing and agriculture might seem a far cry from what readers here might be familiar with. So let's take an urban example.

Public transport in a major city. Poor public tranport makes people decide to drive to work. More cars on the road lead to more congestion. Ultimately the roads are gridlock and no one goes any where.

I remember vividly my short work stint in Jakarta where as a pampered overpaid management consultant we were chauffeured every where. Coming back from lunch break one afternoon we were stuck in gridlock traffic (as usual). But as work still needed to be completed (well, yes, us overpaid management consultants really did work our socks off) we decided to walk the five minutes back to the office.

Our driver turned up an hour later. Is this a symptom of sustainable development?

Which brings me to cheap clothes and stuff we do not need. I was thrilled to find a (fellow) social scientist Juliet Schor making a case in Social Justice vs the Cheap Sweater.

Here the author is arguing that globalization is making products so much cheaper that consumers are led to buy more. Conventional political wisdom says that this is a good thing. But from the point of view of the planetary ecology, and perhaps even from the point of view of consumers' welfare, it's a more complex picture.

Schor goes on to note that the "cotton used for all those free t-shirts is pesticide-intensive and depletes soil at a rapid rate. Textile dyes use carcinogenic chemicals, such as azo-dyes, which have been banned in Europe, but not the United States".

Then she asks the ultimate question of "whether consumers are really better off because they've been snapping up clothes, shoes, accessories, bed sheets, TVs, computers, and toys at historically unprecedented rates".

"The fact that they're also discarding many of them almost as fast should give the proponents of cheap imports pause. And when we add into the equation the loss of domestic jobs, the exploitation of foreign workers, and the degradation of the environment locally and globally, the whole package looks a lot less appealing, and the failures of the global economy more glaring."

Back to Organic-Ally.

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