Wednesday, May 09, 2007

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.]

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At May 10, 2007 7:43 pm, Blogger cristy said...

All I can do is to vigorously agree with you.

At May 11, 2007 5:50 pm, Blogger philjohnson said...

Yes Mark the problem is a burgeoning one and the attitudinal dimension to it goes from the Parliament and Business all the way down the social strata. We live in an age of consumption and greed. The adage there is enough on earth to meet everyone's need but not enought to fill everyone's greed remains a stark truism.

The disconnecting of the Budget from responsible planning and practice on global warming and pollution and diminishing natural resources is appalling. Years ago Hollywood made "Sleepless in Seattle". Now we need "Clueless in Canberra"!

Alongside the Budgetary woes you mention is the entire field of education - or better intellectual stagmation fostered by Howard's mob. I have just handed out my award for fostering idiocy to the Howard ministers on their (non)philosophy of funding education.

If you will indulge my long and idiosyncratic rant it can be found here:-

At May 21, 2007 5:01 pm, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

Thanks cristy.

Philj, I hear what you're saying. I've been thinking through these issues, but I'm not sure if greed is a helpful way to articulate what's happening. It reduces it to people's individual follies or characters. How will this help us make sense of how our whole culture and society operates? I'm still thinking about this, though. Haven't worked it all out.


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