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A Potential Ally in Fighting Consumerism

The U.S. doesn’t export much to China, but it has managed one deadly export: a consumer-based lifestyle. That’s something we need to change, beginning at home.

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Read this article in Spanish. Lea este artículo en español

 

Rooftop solar hot water tanks in the Yunnan capital city of Kunming. China is poised to overtake Europe, Japan, and North America in the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines, and it already dominates the markets for solar hot water and small hydropower. Photo by Even Rogers Pay
Rooftop solar hot water tanks in the Yunnan capital city of Kunming. China is poised to overtake Europe, Japan, and North America in the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines, and it already dominates the markets for solar hot water and small hydropower. Photo by Even Rogers Pay

China and America are becoming alarmingly alike. The first President Bush proclaimed, “The American lifestyle is non-negotiable.” China’s growing consumer class responds to criticism with, “The Americans have it. Now it is our turn.” Meanwhile, majorities in both countries face a growing gap between rich and poor, declining public services, and environmental degradation.

“The most toxic export of the U.S. is our wasteful way of production and consumption,” says Annie Leonard, maker of “The Story of Stuff,” a sharp yet funny video critique of the overstuffed life. Unfortunately, this U.S. export is spectacularly successful in China.

If both countries continue on the overconsumption track, a collision is inevitable. China alone would need the resources of 1.12 Earths to achieve a U.S. lifestyle. Future conflicts may be disguised as geopolitics, but they will be essentially about the control of resources. The recent “Free Tibet” campaign is already perceived by most overseas Chinese as such an attempt, as it bears alarming similarity to the “Free Iraq” campaign.

Yet there are other possibilities. I have lived in the United States for more than a decade, and am fortunate to know another America: pioneers of organic and permaculture food production, followers of voluntary simplicity, activists challenging corporate domination, and many others working to rebuild a community-based economy. Millions of Americans seek a more fulfilling, just, and sustainable way of life. This America is out of the limelight, yet it is where I see hope for both America and the world.

Similar things are happening in China. Though the mainstream media still touts economic growth as the panacea for all problems, more and more Chinese are questioning corporate globalization and working toward alternative models. One result is the booming new rural reconstruction movement, which incorporates aspects of traditional Chinese culture, including harmony with nature, community values, and a sense of sufficiency instead of endless pursuit of wealth and consumption. The movement organizes farmers to work with each other to be a healthy people on a healthy land. This vision can foster collaboration across the globe, instead of “free trade” which often pitches farmers against each other. After visiting some family farms in Minnesota to observe permaculture practices and community supported agriculture, a leading Chinese agricultural expert said, “If you Americans were spreading all these around the world, you would be much more welcomed.”

Are Americans ready to press for policies that address the destruction the materialistic American dream has caused? Might they, for example, support higher fuel taxes as the German public has done? We only get one planet to live on—this is more non-negotiable than anything else.

Americans and Chinese can work together as allies in a fight for more justice and less greed, in a search for better dreams for humankind; or we can start a last-one-standing fight for the final drop of oil.


Dale Jiajun Wen wrote this article as part of A Just Foreign Policy, the Summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Dale Jiajun Wen is an activist scholar from China, working to build bridges between emerging alternative voices in China and the global social justice movement. She works for the International Forum on Globalization where she maintains a bimonthly China newsletter on www.ifg.org.
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