Thursday, March 19, 2009

Was 2008 the Year that Changed America?

This Tom Friedman column keeps rattling around in my brain, keeping me awake at night, wondering!
by Charlie Leck

I’ve been thinking a great deal about a Tom Friedman column from a couple of weeks ago. As a matter of fact, it’s actually had me thinking about its argument in the middle of the night, when I should be sleeping.

Is it possible that 2008 was really a momentous year – a year that changed America forever?

If so, should we worry about it? Or celebrate it?

Friedman begins the column by pointing to a faux story by The Onion in its June 2005 edition. “Sometimes the satirical newspaper… is so right on,…” Friedman says. He quotes a paragraph from the story.

FENGHUA, CHINA—Chen Hsien, an employee of Fenghua Ningbo Plastic Works Ltd., a plastics factory that manufactures lightweight household items for Western
markets, expressed his disbelief Monday over the "sheer amount of shit Americans will buy."

"Often, when we're assigned a new order for, say, 'salad shooters,' I will say to myself, 'There's no way that anyone will ever buy these,'" Chen said during his lunch break in an open-air courtyard. "One month later, we will receive an order for the same product, but three times the quantity. How can anyone have a need for such useless shit?"

"I hear that Americans can buy anything they want, and I believe it, judging from the things I've made for them," Chen said. "And I also hear that, when they no longer want an item, they simply throw it away. So wasteful and contemptible."

[Read the original Onion story: Chinese Factory Worker Can’t Believe the Shit He Makes for Americans]
Then Friedman asks his column’s essential question:

“What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”
Friedman describes the American system as one that can not go on ad infinitum – that the system is not economically or ecologically sustainable. Our scheme, he says, depends on us “building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff.” That all requires more and more energy usage while China grows astronomical wealthy based on an American dollar that eventually collapses, leaving us as one of the largest debtor nations on the planet.

He quotes Joe Romm, physicist and climate expert, as saying:

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.
Already our world is facing a scarcity of water and great parts of it have been deforested. The great seas have been over-fished. Our air, water and soil are polluted as well.

We are living beyond our means!
This is the tragic, searing truth that Americans must soon face up to and 2008 may have been the year that made us realize it.

This is not a depression we’ve entered. No, it is a great, uncomfortable awakening that will make American face reality. We cannot have whatever we want. We cannot travel constantly and recklessly. We cannot, each one of us, create mountains of waste. We cannot spew chemicals into the atmosphere that gag and choke the life out of the only world on which we can live. And, it may have been 2008 that made us realize all this.

With Friedman’s column nagging at me, I wandered around my house and waded through the piles of excess in the garage. We – just the two of us – have enough for a number of large families. On the top storage shelves in the garage and in the back cupboards in the kitchen are ‘things’ we haven’t used for years and years and there was no serious reason why we needed to purchase any of them in the first place.

Did we really need that dog hammock? (Yes, you read correctly!) What about this barbequing set (spatula, fork and brush with golf shafts and grips)? It has sat here for more than 12 years. I found five sets of golf clubs for just the two of us – and one of us hasn’t golfed in 20 years. I found enough serving bowls to feed the entire army stationed in Afghanistan at one sitting. There are a dozen coffee mugs that haven’t been touched since we bought them in 1991. If it weren’t so boring, I’d go on and on and on. And, I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to all my collectibles – things I assembled over the years because… well, because… well, just because!

I want to stop buying things. I do not need that salad shooter. I do not like shooting things. No more golf shirts because I already have so many that I could wear one each day of the summer and not wear any one twice. I have a stack of sunglasses I’ve never worn.

I swear, I swear on my mother’s memory that I will stop buying things that cannot be easily passed on and used and enjoyed by someone else when I am finished with them or tire of them. I think of myself as a diligent recycler, but I will get even better at recycling every single thing that I can.

2008 may not change America
but it has changed me and I will never be the same. For the sake of my grandchildren and their grandchildren I must stop being wasteful.

I promise! I will not buy that salad shooter!

[Read: Friedman (8 March 2009), The Inflection is Near]

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