A friend recently went to a movie at the Westminster Enormo-Plex on a cool night. While she stood in line, glowing heaters cascaded warmth over the heads of waiting patrons. How much energy do those things use, she wondered. More than the meager flames used to heat an entire Afghan village for a night?
This is a good time to start examining our propensity, not just for consumption, but for resource gluttony. My line-drying, small-car-driving friend wishes everyone could cut consumption by half.
Me, too. But it's complicated. If they did, the economy would collapse as dramatically as did the World Trade Center towers. This isn't World War II, when Americans sacrificed, because a "war economy" i.e. shipbuilding took up the slack. Now we're inseparable from our consumption.
Maybe it's time to question whether our "American way of life" is a just a goad to poor people around the world, maybe even immoral. (To be clear: The U.S. is not "to blame" for Sept. 11; I support a targeted war on terrorism.)
How can we justify movie-line heaters or lighting up empty skyscrapers at 3 a.m. when some people burn camel dung for warmth? We panic when a few Americans are tragically infected with anthrax but couldn't care less about millions of Africans dying from AIDS. We know nothing about Islam, and too much about Mariah Carey and Gary Condit.
But raise such questions, and some people scream that you are "unpatriotic." Just the opposite, if you ask me.
Jeff Milchen is a Boulder organizer who works in the democracy (not anti-globalization) movement, and he thinks about this stuff. He knows how deeply enmeshed we are in a growth-consumption-profits economic model.
It's not true, Milchen argues, that capitalism doesn't work unless profits grow continually. He believes a market economy is the best model we have, but also that only publicly held companies in thrall to the shareholders (who provide only a fraction of capital compared to most companies' sales of products and services) must perpetually grow.
Even Adam Smith, father of capitalism, believed that the system would work only when businesses were small, accountable and invested in communities (i.e. not Wal-Mart).
"We have a fundamentally broken system," Milchen says. We must radically reform or abolish the publicly held corporation, so companies stop abusing workers, Third World nations and the environment just to keep a few elite shareholders in cigars.
We also need radical electoral reform to reduce the influence of money. The media, Milchen believes, is armpit-deep in perpetuating myths of corporatism. Why, for example, has the mainstream media ignored such galling stories as the attempt by the Bechtel Corp. to privatize water in Bolivia?
Some portray capitalist reformers like Milchen as idiots in search of a protest, and they don't even want you to even consider whether our gross consumptionism is a fair, responsible global model. Before buying their lines, take time to read the thinking of people like former Harvard Business School faculty member David C. Korten ("When Corporations Rule the World"), to see if Wall Street's buy-buy propaganda is so great.
We may well choose, by default, to continue our blind stumble into the morass of privileged consumerism. But with each step, more of "them" not the Taliban, but the world's poor and disenfranchised will hate us ... even more.
Copyright 2001 The Daily Camera