Towards The Big Melt
By Stephen Leahy
18 January, 2007
Inter Press Service
retail store sales during the holiday season in North America is one
reason 2007 is predicted to be the hottest year on record. And it's
well past time that people began to connect the dots between what they
buy and the resulting environmental impacts such as global warming,
In other words, consumption
has consequences: big, nasty environmental consequences that inflict
suffering mainly on the world's poor.
That North Americans, and
to a lesser extent Europeans, are profligate consumers is well known.
If everyone consumed like North Americans we'd need five planets to
support us -- only three planets are necessary if we all lived like
Europeans, according to the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report.
The world collectively overshot
the Earth's capacity to support us in 1984, the report notes. In the
22 years since reaching that crucial tipping point, rates of consumption
of resources have accelerated. Not just in North America and Europe
but China and India, not to mention other parts of Asia and Latin America.
While this ever-accelerating
consumption of resources the sign of a healthy global economy according
to economists, it has also resulted in climate change, amongst many
other environmental and social ills.
"People don't appreciate
that their purchases have real environmental impacts," said Monique
Tilford, acting executive director of the Centre for a New American
Dream (CNAD), a Maryland group promoting environmentally and socially
"They also don't think
their individual actions make much of a difference," Tilford told
A Chinese-made computer desk
that can be bought for 40 or 50 dollars at a U.S. or European retail
store is likely to be the product of illegal clear-cutting in Indonesian
rainforests. Such clear-cutting not only fuels crime syndicates, it
results in the loss of biodiversity, releases huge amounts of carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere and drives indigenous people off their lands.
"We need to shift people
to become environmentally and socially conscious consumers," said
That means buying less stuff,
and also being willing to spend more on products that are better for
the environment or societies in other countries.
"And for those willing
to be more conscious, they often don't have the knowledge or information
to know what's better and that's the role of NGOs like ours," she
CNAD started a Responsible
Purchasing Network for state and local governments in 2000 which has
been successful in creating a large market for environmentally-friendly
products, Tilford said.
"It is very complicated
for public to know what's from where or how products in the stores are
made," noted Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, a U.S.
group focused on environmentally sustainable economy.
China makes about one-third
of the world's furniture, quite surprising in a country that strictly
protects its few remaining forests. Imports of foreign timber have skyrocketed
and are well over 40 million cubic metres per year. Reports show that
re-exports of forest products from China to the United States and Europe
have increased by about 900 percent since 1998.
"Scarcity quickly crosses
national boundaries," Brown said in an interview. "If the
Chinese furniture makers can't get trees in China, they get trees from
Siberia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia."
Greenpeace, Global Witness
and other NGOs have documented extensive illegal logging operations
in these countries, with China the main receipt of the illegal timber.
Over the past decade, China
has become the world's leading manufacturer of low-cost products. More
than 80 percent of all toys, including electronic goods, sold in the
U.S. are made in China.
"If we weren't consuming
all the stuff China manufactures, they wouldn't be growing so fast,"
Brown pointed out.
That over-consumption has
reached such an absurd level that the average U.S. citizen, living in
the world's richest nation, spends more than they earn every year.
Tilford admits that at the
individual consumer level, people are often so busy they don't want
to know or ignore the evidence that their behaviour is resulting in
environmental impacts like global warming.
"It is sometimes stunning
that people will not make the most minimal effort to change," she
The huge societal shift needed
to find ways to live sustainably will likely not happen without some
kind of disaster that will generate enough suffering that people will
make the shift, she says.
Both Tilford and Brown believe
that the U.S. public needs to elect people who will put policies in
place to ensure products sold on U.S. shelves are made sustainably no
matter what country they come from.
"People in other countries
are putting their lives on the line so we can buy gourmet products,"
But unless there is enough
popular support, there will be no action.
© Copyright 2007 IPS
- Inter Press Service
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