American overconsumption bad for environment
Overconsumption could have potentially devastatingly negative effects on the environment as well as
Published: Monday, March 11, 2013
Updated: Monday, March 11, 2013 18:03
Walking briskly down Main Street toward the Green on my way to class or my tutoring job at the Writing Center, I’m frequently surprised at the line-up of expensive cars that zip by me. Shiny Mercedes Benz SUVs cruise along in shades of vibrant red and silver. Sleek Audis with tinted windows purr up to stoplights. BMW convertibles zip in and out of impossibly small parking spaces. More surprising than the luxury vehicles’ presence on a college campus are the students who drive them. Not just any students man the wheel, but quite often, Chinese students.
Logically, I know many of the Chinese students may have more money than American students, or at least, in-state students. When one factors in the cost of their out-of-state tuition ($39,530) and housing ($15,126), plus the completion of the English language institute ($5,885) and the fact that many admitted to The New York Times they spent $4,000 to have an agency write their admissions essay, the necessity for having a pretty hefty amount of dough becomes apparent. Despite this realization, it still seems shocking that an international college student feels the need to purchase an expensive, gas-guzzling luxury vehicle the second he or she arrives in America. One explanation may be that many of these students feel pressure to fit into their conception of Western culture with conspicuous consumerism, a conception that most likely begins with the Chinese media’s portrayal of the “American Dream.”
It does not end with the cars. I was a writing fellow for a second language freshman ENGL110 class. 13 of the 15 students were Chinese, and their slew of glossy, high-priced gadgets never ceased to amaze me. At least three of the students had multiple iPads, all had iPhones and many typed on the newest models of Apple computers. Even their clothes seemed unnecessarily expensive. Bright Nike sneakers in a rainbow of colors and designer sunglasses were not uncommon. Sometimes, the students were late to our tutoring sessions because they were busy shopping, and sure enough, they entered Barnes & Noble with an apologetic smile, laden with Forever 21, Macy’s and Anthropologie bags. This eagerness to conform to their perception of lavish Western culture and then to bring those concepts back to China after graduation disturbs me for a number of reasons.
China is much often described as a growing world power built on widespread investment, urbanization and export-led manufacturing. Pick up any t-shirt, technological gadget, plate or plastic Barbie doll in the United States and you will see they were all manufactured in China. This is largely due to the jobs held by the increasing urban middle class. That group currently consists of 300 million people and is expected to explode to a staggering 800 million by 2025, Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times reports. This number should frighten anyone—not just because China’s largest cities, Beijing and Shanghai, can already barely support their inhabitants, but also because these people expect a certain kind of life. A life based off of the “American Dream.”
The “Chinese Dream,” meaning a big, expensive car, a big, expensive house, and a big, well, Big Mac, has truly frightening environmental implications. If China’s carbon usage keeps pace with its economic growth (largely due to American demand, mind you), the country’s carbon dioxide emissions will reach 8 gigatons by 2030, which is equal to the entire world’s carbon dioxide production today, according to Wired magazine. Approximately two Chinese coal plants open every week to support this manufacturing frenzy. What does this mean for the environment? Unprecedented congestion, air pollution, and a massive release of greenhouse gases such as methane, CO2, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide that deplete the ozone layer, contribute to global warming and sicken humanity. Cancer rates in China are up 80 percent from the 1990s, making cancer the nation’s biggest killer, according to The Guardian. Climate change skeptics merely have to look at the thick, grey smog that perpetually hangs over Shanghai’s industrial cities, also known as “cancer villages,” to know that something is amiss.
China is our second biggest trading partner after Canada. We import a whopping $402.6 billion worth of Chinese-made goods each year, only exporting $85.9 billion. That’s a $316.7 billion discrepancy, according to the Census. With this number in mind, and visions of Chinese workers losing their hair to chemotherapy treatment after working for a decade in a factory, somehow, this just doesn’t seem fair. We, as a nation, should feel compelled to take some responsibility for our gross consumerism and its victims. If the United States took measures to reduce our own emissions and help our Chinese partners with theirs, we could create new “American” and “Chinese Dreams” that don’t include environmental disaster.
Justine Hofherr is a guest columnist for The Review. Her viewpoints do not necessarily represent those of The Review staff. Please send comments to email@example.com.