The vicious cycle of stuff
As the debate over federal treasurer Peter Costello's 12th budget continues, pundits are afraid the budget tax cuts will trigger a consumer spending spree and force inflation up (you can also hear an MP3 ABC news piece on this). While Costello may not think that we are spending too much (of course not, our expenditure helps fund his party's election fight) many, including me, think that Australia is in the grip of frenzied over consumption – of stuff.
I was first struck by the image above when I saw it in the paper last year – it heralded the arrival of thousands of containers of consumer goods destined for 2006's Christmas retail spending splurge. The report indicated the goods on that ship were from China.
Then, I was struck by this comment on Australia's environmental record in a piece at Adbusters I came across today:
the reality is that Australia, as a major producer of coal, helps other countries pollute the atmosphere, especially in the Asian region. Eighty percent of the nearly 170 million tons of Australian coal mined annually goes to Asia. Australia continues to push coal consumption in Asia. The Australian government spent nearly $21 million on coal projects in Southeast Asia in the mid-1990s…In all likelihood, it's Australia's coal burning in this Chinese coal-fired power plant – contributing to the pollution crisis in China and heating up the climate.
And the electricity this plant generates goes to powering the factories, warehouses, and ports than manufacture and ship the consumer goods that make their way aboard container ships bound for Australia (and everywhere else).
It strikes me that we've got a vicious cycle – Australia has gotten very good at digging this stuff out of the ground and shipping it overseas, and then buying everything the manufacturers throw back at us. Thus a cycle of increasing greenhouse gas emissions is fed.
Of course, while the impacts of global warming are experienced locally, the phenomenon poses a crisis of global proportions. And yes, we need a strong, international approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including international instruments such as the Kyoto Protocol, which Australia refuses to sign. I'm also convinced that the old environmental maxim, 'Think globally, act locally', is as relevant as ever. It's unfortunate then that the budget doesn't go anywhere near enough what's needed to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.
Don't get me wrong: I don't begrudge the tax 'relief' being offered to low-income workers in Australia (too little, too late, if you ask me), nor do I begrudge the opportunities for Chinese workers to get employment in the boom there (though I'm very concerned about labor conditions and rights for workers in China). I am concerned about how unfettered industry and an obsession with economic growth is driving our planet, and the human societies that populate it, to ruin.
If we don't think this through enough, the economy won't be the only thing that overheats.
[Images: the photo of coal power plant in China is by Tobixen, used under GNU Free Documentation License; the photo of the cargo ship carrying freight from China is of 'SS Chadstone' arriving in Australian waters, used under 'fair use', sourced from Blue Wedges, previously published in The Age on 11th November 2006.]