Arriving and Greening

Arriving and Greening

Khor at a climate conference in Bangkok in 2008

Martin Khor of the Third World Network spoke last night about China and consumption. Through the Web, the Chinese, he said, have plenty of access to representations of the American dream. He listed a few: three cars in each garage, a big house. They want these things, too. What, Khor asked, will consumption patterns and greenhouse gas emissions look like when the average Chinese income rises from about $4,000 today to $10,000, $20,000 or even $40,000? This, he said, was entirely possible in the span of a few decades given the rates at which China’s been growing. How do you change your lifestyle—your consumption patterns—from that of the American dream in China?, Khor asked. “Unless the Chinese dream is different from the American dream, it’s going to be a big problem . . . and a challenge for policy-makers,” he answered. My colleague from Cape Town, Tozie Zofuka, who works with Compassion in World Farming, offered another angle on this dilemma.

We all know, more or less, that the resource use required by the “first world” lifestyle is unsustainable for nine billion people—let alone those alive today. And yet, how do you tell people who’ve spent years, perhaps even lifetimes, seeking to “arrive” that, when they do, they shouldn’t buy a 4 X 4 or a bigger house, or get an air conditioner and a few flat-screen TVs (standard, still desired, symbols of success in industrialized countries). Instead, they should “go green” and get a small, fuel-efficient car (or bike or walk), limit their ambitions for a big, stately home, and forego the huge steak that they could afford to put on their grill for friends . . . even as they see many of those who’ve been wealthy for years in their own country or elsewhere continue to “live large.”

In South Africa, the question is adumbrated by the factor of race. How convincingly can you tell a black South African, who’s endured apartheid and constrained opportunities for much of his life, now that he’s finally entered the middle or upper class to say no to conspicuous consumption and the status (I’ve arrived) that it conveys? As Martin Khor said of China, it’s a real challenge and one South Africa and South Africans, like China and the Chinese, are confronting every day. Even so, as South African president Jacob Zuma said opening the “high level segment” of the Durban climate conference, it’s the industrialized countries’ development that’s at the heart of the climate crisis; that dream, turned into a global hot flash.

Photo by IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development)