Ali: Constructive Consumerism

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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.

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

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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