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Our Love/Hate Relationship with China

by David Blitterdorf’s

The past decade has witnessed mass consumption on a scale unprecedented in world history, and the hard truth is that the western world has become dependent on China to manufacture more than half the stuff we consume. Why? Because Chinese companies employ workers for pennies, and are not subject to meaningful environmental protection laws.  We’re beholden to China because we’ve based our entire economic system on the idea of continuous expansion, and we’ve convinced ourselves we need stuff to be happy. More stuff equals more happiness and a supposedly healthier economy. Stuff that costs less enables us to buy more stuff, so we love Chinese goods because they are cheap. However, when I stop to think about it, I hate Chinese goods for this very reason. Take a good look at the ecological devastation of China’s water, land and air, and the living and working conditions of China’s industrial labor force, and it becomes heartbreakingly apparent that China’s cheap goods are actually very expensive. It’s just that the true human and ecological costs aren’t part of the prices we pay. This kind of international trade is incompatible with human rights, fair employment, pollution control, global resource management, and business sustainability.

U.S. citizens must learn now how to restructure our lifestyles to use one-fifth of the energy and resources we currently consume, before we really hit the wall of fossil fuel resource depletion. Global trade must ramp down now, and significantly change its nature. We need to be happier with fewer, more durable things of higher quality, made near us with integrity and dignity, and which serve a function in our lives. We need to get good at fixing old stuff, instead of buying new stuff. To those who say this attitude is inherently elitist or isolationist, and incompatible with working-class needs or budgets in a global economy, I heartily disagree. It was once the root philosophy of the American way of life, before we became a nation of people whose leaders tell them to go shopping at times of national crisis. We need to get back to this moral code limiting consumption, and use it as the basis for our future economic systems at home and abroad.

Instead, for the past 20 years, Americans have been “educating” the Chinese in how to become mass consumers with the goal of expanding our markets, and we have successfully sold them on the horrible idea of consumption as the path to happiness and well being. What a shame – because China’s economic experiment, like that of the United States, is doomed to fail. Car ownership may offer a temporary sense of freedom for Chinese citizens, but as oil and other resources are depleted in the coming decades, it will become a symbol of the degradation of China’s culture and ecosystems. One-point-four billion people simply cannot all drive cars and consume at western levels without worldwide resource depletion and ecosystem collapse. I’m not saying the Chinese need to give up this idea while we continue to pursue it as a right – we need to give it up, also.

We Americans need to look in the mirror, and recognize that we are the problem: We consume more than 25% of the world’s resources, despite being only 5% of the world’s population. The United States will not be able to continue consuming at its current rate, simply because our planet can’t support it. We must move to local, closed-loop systems in all areas of our lives: local organic food production, local renewable energy production, a transportation infrastructure based on a mass transit bus/rail instead of individual vehicles, and electrification of our energy system to make this all work.  Along the way, we must take drastic actions, such as permitting of all SUV’s – to reduce the number sold. Unlimited individual economic “freedoms” to consume only make sense in a world where there will be unlimited resources forever, and such a world does not exist.

The United States can no longer engage in massive-scale world trade for items we don’t really need, because this is too energy intensive and simply isn’t sustainable. The Chinese want our way of life because we’ve convinced them that consumption is the road to happiness, but it’s not; it’s just an illusion propped up by empty economic theories. We have yet to figure that out, but the time is rapidly approaching when we will no longer be able to ignore it. When we do, this realization will change the way we live and do business. My hope is that we can make this change consciously, and enjoy a smoother road back to community, family, purposeful work, and all the other things which make life truly worth living – and, not coincidentally, aren’t things at all.

David Blittersdorf is the President/CEO of AllEarth Renewables in Williston, VT – a company that specializes in the design, manufacture and installation of the grid-connected AllSun Tracker solar energy system. He is also the founder of NRG Systems in Hinesburg, VT.

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