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Ali: Constructive Consumerism

09/30/11 7:55AM By Saleem Ali
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(HOST) Commentator and UVM Professor Saleem Ali, reflects on his recent trip to China and how we might consume more constructively

(ALI) My recent visit to the industrial metropolis of Dalian in China gave me an appreciation for the power and peril of globalization. While there is much to criticize about China, we must all admire the Chinese government's amazing achievement of lifting 600 million people out of poverty. How did this happen? Mainly through the power of mass manufacturing! This is the same way South Korea, Malaysia and most other countries have achieved prosperity. China's factory-led growth is repugnant to modern environmentalism but it deserves more careful scrutiny. The products we consume have their place in a supply chain that brings livelihoods to many of our fellow human beings.

Conventional environmentalism, has provided a rather simplistic response to the conundrum of consumption by suggesting that we should "consume less." Indeed taking this minimalist "need-based" approach would lead to an artless utilitarian world. To function in a pluralistic society where human ingenuity can contribute to civilizational development, subsistence lifestyles on their own are neither an efficient nor a preferred choice by individuals.

We desperately need to have a more nuanced approach to consumption. Vermont can be a leader in promoting responsible consumption that balances local production with respect for global supply chains - thanks to many of our smart businesses that have a global reach. Vermont-based organizations such as the Institute for Sustainable Communities also show the virtue of hybrid livelihoods that combine a connection with our land and place, while being part of global economy.

The level of inequality and population base in the world is so large that simply consuming less without considering the impact such a decision may have on individuals in developing nations is irresponsible and naive. Whenever we ask for a reduction in material consumption of "disposable" goods and transition towards durability, there needs to be a concomitant push towards livelihoods in servicing those durable goods.

A cyclical economy where materials are reused and recycled could provide for such livelihoods but this requires more careful labor training, energy management and development planning. Research and analysis of multiple variables from the supply and demand sides would be needed to develop a tool such as a "sustainable livelihoods assessment." Consumers could be provided with an index score to make their consumption decision while governments also create appropriate incentives for trade and commerce based on such an

Currently there is a fracture between international organizations such as the W.T.O. and environmental organizations such as the United Nations Environment Program, which has very limited authority. A tool of this kind could provide a methodologically rigorous means of harmonizing these disparate organizations and giving them a common means of functional evaluation. Through such a process of integrative planning, we may be able to reach our goals of "sustainable development" that continues to elude us.

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