What constitutes progress: consumerism and sustainability

On Monday, I published something about the economic collapse of a industrialized nation, as expertly chronicled in the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demrick. A huge, widespread shift backwards in economic development has happened in many places over human civilization, but the North Korean example is both recent and unusual. War is the most common destroyer of people and their economic capital, but the 1990s showed that international politics could be just as brutal.

I was mulling the term “de-evolution” to refer to what happened in North Korea, but I then thought of my own biases. To some degree, coming from an advanced post-industrial nation, I’m a chauvinist for a certain, consumer-oriented type of economic development. The number of TVs per 1,000 people, the electricity usage of a city, how much they export and how much personal debt they take on. Though I don’t subscribe to the “whoever has the most stuff wins”model of progress, it made me broaden my thinking. Clearly the North Korean example was an unwanted and ultimately deadly series of events. The society had grown to rely on thing like artificial fertilizer, large amounts of electrical power, and a complex and demanding transit infrastructure. When the lights went out, so went industry and agriculture. Disaster.

But, what if a society moved in such a manner, but didn’t require complex industrial products? A society that plans for a regression into a less consumerist, industrialized mindset. I wouldn’t call that a de-evolution- it’s an evolution on a different path.

A few years ago I took a series of long-distance train trips across the United States. During my trip on the Coast Starlight, running from Seattle to Los Angeles, I read the famous novel Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach. Published in 1975, it stands alongside The Dispossessed as an important utopian novel of the late Vietnam period. Both work along similar lines- an absence of consumerism, collective ownership, changes to the social and family structure. However, Ecotopia takes place in my backyard, not another solar system.

I read it during a journey through the lands that formed the nation of Ecotopia. For  a couple days the train rolled through the thick forests, mountain passes, and undulating farmland that carpeted a whole valley. Callenbach was speaking of a society that moved beyond petroleum and artificial products, but didn’t miss them.

When I was 18 I created an independent study that allowed me to examine urban decay and how different parts of the 20th century attempted to revitalize cities. After reading about the iron-fisted destruction of the Bronx by Robert Moses, one tends to gain sympathy for new ideas of sustainability and community. New schools of urban planning emphasize mixed development, environmentally-friendly building, and walkability. The Bay Area sometimes follows these lines, though one look at the traffic-choked highways shows there is much work to be done.

However, much of this thinking is a side-step. Cars aren’t eliminated- they’re made more efficient and perhaps made less necessary through public transit. Cities are still big concrete jungles- just with newer housing and perhaps a couple new parks. It’s not eliminating consumerism, but rather changing to more responsible brands.

Whether this type of society will stave off the huge problems posed by climate change is an open question. Large cities in industrial or post-industrial nations still use huge quantities of water and non-renewable resources. It’s not just the cars, but the pesticides, plastics, and consumer electronics.

Ecotopia has the advantage of being a utopia in the confines of a work of fiction, but it is a portrait of a society that made serious decisions over many years. Large cities like San Francisco are partially abandoned in favor of smaller, more self-sustaining suburbs. Major thoroughfares are turned into gardens and walkways. Policy changes don’t implement authoritarian population control, but do address whether a high birth rate is a major priority. Overall, many of the developments since white migration became substantial in the mid-19th century are slowed or stopped altogether. At the end of the day, there is a smaller electrical grid, a less robust transit system, and very little production of objects which cannot be replenished. In some ways, it’s like 1995 in North Korea, except as a desired outcome rather than a crisis. I, the consumer growth chauvinist, can see a society that moves forward despite moving back in my usual perspective.

Much like Unitarian Universalists have moved to the interdependent web over a linear chain of being, what progress and what regression are should be reconsidered. Society has overall goals that are not always quantitative- happiness, community, tranquility. There is no number of cars per city or megawatts of power consumed that is required to achieve these goals. What is needed is a system that works on the whole, and can work well into the future.

How you achieve that is the great debate.

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