Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Truth About Consumption


Last night I went to one of the events that is part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and was co-hosted by the Royal Geographical Society.

Jonathan Watts is the Asia environment correspondent, probably the only person specializing in this in the region. He has been in China for about seven years and previous to that was in Japan.

When Watts was a young boy in North London, he was told that if all the people in China jumped at the same time, It would create such a force that the earth would spin off its axis and fly off in the universe. The image made such a deep impression on him which is why the title of his book is When A Billion Chinese Jump.

Watts came to talk about his book and also his thoughts on how the Chinese government is tackling environmental issues with the ongoing NPC and CPPCC sessions.

Through a video and slide show presentation, Watts showed shocking images of dried up river beds, polluted water, hazy skies, people getting sick from the environment and beautiful scenery that is relatively untouched during his travels through the country.

He said in the upcoming five-year plan is significant because it previously only affected one country, but now what China does will affect the colour of the sky and the temperature of the planet. The current situation has forced the Chinese government to make changes, limiting the amount of energy consumed and the resources used. It'll be interesting to see if it can enforce this, but it's a good first step in trying to slow down the wreckage of the environment and start to try to find a way that is more sustainable.

The main problem, he said is that people in China want to be like us -- they want to emulate our lifestyles. And we in the west have done nothing to curb our desire to consume. When people in the audience heard this -- mostly Brits wearing designer threads and carrying brand name bags -- they probably felt uncomfortable hearing the truth.

He was trying to explain that while the environmental problems he is seeing, like the extinction of the Baiji river dolphin, cancer villages and dried up riverbeds, we too are to blame for these results. We are the ones who are driving the demand to consume and China is just trying to fulfill it by raping its natural resources and causing major environmental disasters.

The challenge for China now, he said, is for it to find ways to lower consumption, and also to find a development path that focuses on quality over quantity. He says this is China's big test in the next five to 10 years. He added this will also challenge the government in how it gets buy-in from the people -- it may have to become more open in order to get people to agree to changes. If the government continues in its repressive way it could lead to even more civil unrest and not get the desired results.

A Hong Kong woman asked Watts if one-party rule was the answer for China in tackling such big environmental issues. He basically said no because you need freedom of the press and speech to have accountability of the government particularly when it comes to law enforcement, but also that one-party rule is very inefficient and orders don't always filter down to the grass roots level.

Afterwards I heard some people in the audience talking about the shocking images Watts presented and talked about -- perhaps they haven't visited China or read enough about it to know that what he reports on happens on a daily basis. I find there is a huge disconnect between Hong Kong and China, but also how the former is almost a pure capitalist society where consumption drives the city. You are bombarded with images everyday of glamour and name brands, flashy cars and designer handbags that you are practically living in a high-class bubble and want to have a part of the action.

However my three years in Beijing have taught me that I have much more than my friends there in terms of material goods -- in fact too much. The simple lifestyle there showed me I didn't need a lot of things to be happy; having enough to eat, a secure place to live in and just buying necessities was enough to live on. Wearing designer clothes there had no effect because people either didn't recognize them or would think they were fake.

So now in Hong Kong I am trying to continue that lifestyle I had in Beijing, though things here cost much more. In this way I try to keep things real and not get wrapped up in a commercial illusion.

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