Duck Soup
Conspicuous Consumption


The $20 million Michael Jordan is paid each year to promote Nike shoes exceeds the annual payroll of the plant which manufactures those sneakers. Like historical colonial empires, Nike extracts resources and labor from its colonies and turns a profit at home. Unlike historical colonial empires, Nike tells the colonials all about it. Whereas a 17th Century East Indian laborer or a Chinese coolie had only the sketchiest notion of the wealth of British monarchs, today's peasants have MTV.

    MTV reaches more eyes and ears than any other information source in history. If knowledge is power, and if feedback loops produce turbulence, MTV is poised to become the wellspring of revolution in an acceleratingly unequal world. There are millions who would love to be in Michael Jordon's shoes, but at $150 a pair, the 15-cent per hour workers who make them haven't got a shot at more than a shoestring.

    Imagine, then, the impression America's dietary news must make in the far colonial corners of the world. While countless folks starve to death abroad, we test-market foods with no nutritional value whatsoever in order to continue satisfying our gluttony without losing our swimsuit figures. Peasants are being driven off their ancestral lands to make way for export plantations, indigenous tribes are watching their forest homes fall to multinational axes, and alien mining poisons the fisheries that have fed villages for nearly ever, while we munch potato chips guaranteed to slide through our pipes without leaving a trace. "Let them eat Simplesse!" we cry.

    At the same time, the dispossession of native populations encourages ecological devastation in the ensuing scramble for food and fuel -- all of which helps illustrate why economic justice is a linchpin of the struggle toward a sustainable world economy. Even if we are comfortable with the economic Grand Canyon that separates the have-lots from the have-nots (and the evidence is that, by-and-large, we are) we live in an MTV world. Our side of the divide is visible to others as never before.

    If simple morality doesn't motivate us, pipe bombs, plutonium and anthrax may provide an unsubtle nudge. Perhaps the clearest expression of this idea is "The Natural Step," whose founder, Karl-Henrik Robert, saw that while scientists did not agree on all ecological problems and solutions, there was near unanimity about the coming crisis. He cut through quibbling about how bad global warming might get, what the precise mechanism of ozone depletion might be, who deserved the blame for acid rain and so forth, by putting together a set of agreed-upon principles.

    He circulated the ideas to all interested scientists in Sweden and rewrote the plan 21 times to reach a final form in 1989. Now the Swedish government and many major industries in the country have adopted these rules. Published reports say it is moving the entire nation toward sustainability.

    The root of his theory is the cyclic principle, which says there must be as much reconstruction of material as there is consumption.

    I. Nature cannot withstand a systematic buildup of dispersed matter mined from the earth's crust (minerals, oil, etc.).

    II. Nature cannot withstand a systematic buildup of persistent compounds made by humans (e.g. PCBs).

    III. Nature cannot withstand a systematic deterioration of its capacity for renewal (e.g. harvesting fish faster than they can replenish, converting fertile land to desert).

    IV. Therefore, if we want life to continue we must (a) be efficient in our use of resources and (b) promote justice -- because ignoring poverty will lead the poor, for short-term survival, to destroy resources (e.g. the rainforests) that we all need for long-term survival. (Source: Utne Reader, February 1996, pp. 26 -- 28)

    In 1994 eco-economist Paul Hawken signed on as president of the American Natural Step Group, which assembled a panel of scientific advisors to write a plan for the United States. Last fall, the Vision 2001 conference brought together industrialists and environmentalists in Lake Placid to explore "The Natural Step" as a path toward sustainability. In next to no time at all, the world will judge our progress. After all: they've got their MTV.


© Copyright by POINT, 1997
Last modified 3/20/97