By James Miller
Christmas, as we all know, is the grand festival of the religion of consumerism. We pay homage to our saviour Santa Claus in the vast cathedral of the shopping mall. There we make a sizeable donation to the faltering economy and, just because it’s Christmas, cheerfully pay the GST to our non-existent government. We stagger home laden under the weight of a vast array of glittering gifts. We then dress them in the finest of wrappings and reverently lay them at the foot of the sacred tree. Over a sacrificial meal of turkey and pinot noir our family bonds are strengthened, relationships renewed, and we settle into a blissful oblivion before the television set.
A friend of mine, however, recently told me of his plans to inject some ethical concern into this time-honoured ritual. My friend, like countless millions in the West, is part of a new breed of shopper, the “ethical consumer.” And this year he decided he wasn’t going to buy his children any toys made in China. His reasoning was that China has lax environmental regulations and poor safety standards. When I asked him whether he thought that this would cost him more money, he replied that there were plenty of other bargains to be had at Wal-Mart.
The logic of consumerism says that it’s good to buy more things for less money. Companies like Wal-Mart have made a fortune out of this simple formula. The way they have done so is by squeezing their suppliers to manufacture goods at the cheapest possible price.
The consequence of this has been a staggering industrial revolution in China, and an equally staggering environmental devastation. China’s rivers are drying up. Its lakes are awash with toxic waste. It is rapidly losing arable land to desertification and pollution.
The social consequences of this ecological crisis are also tremendous. In one of the world’s greatest stories of migration, over a hundred million people have left the countryside and squat in poor housing around the edges of China’s glistening new cities. Under the discredited hukou or household registration system, many of them are denied the health, social and educational benefits that are made available to the cities’ officially registered residents.
Who is responsible for this catastrophe? And will a boycott of Chinese goods help?
The fact is that the religion of consumerism has directly contributed to China’s devastation. Our desire to buy more stuff cheap is one of the chief causes of China’s ecological crisis. For the way that manufacturers have responded to our demand has been to download the environmental costs of manufacturing onto those who can least afford it: the disenfranchised poor in the developing world.
Wal-Mart is not to blame in all of this. They were merely responding to a demand, not creating it. Neither are the Chinese people to blame for this. They were merely trying to lift themselves out of poverty. And who can blame them for that? But in our obsessive quest for value for money we have simply deferred paying the full cost. What is the greatest heresy in the theology of consumerism? Not getting a bargain.
The reality is that there is no such thing as a bargain. Someone, somewhere will eventually have to pay the full cost of the goods that we purchase. Under the current system of global consumerism, we are only paying a fraction of the full price. The rest takes the form of a debt that we owe to China’s urban poor and its natural environment. Eventually that debt will have to be paid. But it will not likely be paid by you or me or my friend who was buying gifts for his children. The terrible irony is that it is our children who will have to pay. The fixed limits imposed by nature imply that sooner or later the Ponzi scheme of global consumerism will eventually have to come to an end. Whenever we give our children a bargain gift this holiday season, we are also saddling them with a debt that they will end up having to pay.
So is there such a thing as ethical consumerism, and will boycotting Chinese goods really make a difference? The answer to both these questions is no. The good news, however, is that Chinese people are taking responsibility for their own situation. Rather than blaming the West for their woes, they are taking steps to deal with their environmental crisis in their own terms. For this we must all be grateful this holiday season.