October 28th, 2009 | China Daily Taking a long-term view of progress
Stimulus packages initiated by many governments to reverse the economic downturn by encouraging consumption are unanimously claimed as necessary, and they definitely are, given the necessity of maintaining enough jobs and keeping the economic machine running.
Yet, that is based on short-term thinking. We can hardly justify the act of encouraging people to throw away their motor vehicles and electrical appliances that are still usable in order to stimulate economic development by increasing consumption. It definitely runs counter to the concept of sustainable development.
As elaborated by Canadian writer Ronald Wright in his book A Short History of Progress, we have fallen into progress traps by doing so. No matter how different we are in culture and political systems, we humans as a big civilization in an economic sense have been feeding on the whole planet’s natural capital. If our civilization is to survive, we must learn to live on the interest rather than on the capital of the nature, according to Wright.
Published in English in 2004, its Chinese translation was off the press last month.
In spite of the fact that rapid economic development still has to be maintained to rescue millions from poverty and realize balanced development for all, it is more than necessary to reflect on the cost we have paid for what we have achieved in the past three decades. This book is undoubtedly a good read for the reflection.
To look at progress from the short-term or long-term perspective is at the core. Something we consider as progress or achievement in the short-term view may turn out to be disastrous ecologically if its long-term impact on environment is taken into account.
This kind of thing happens all the time. We do not live long enough for us to always anticipate how our actions will impact later generations. In the same way, decision makers do not stay in their positions long enough for them to always look at the plans they have adopted from thinking long-term to absorb the negative impact years after they leave office.
That explains why we have done too many things to overspend what we should have left for our offspring. But that should never justify what we have done.
Look at the more than 70 percent of the rivers we have polluted to the point of water shortage becoming a bottleneck for further development; look at the ever expanding desertification caused by overlogging and overfarming; look at the way we consume everything to meet the needs that are not essential for our existence; look at the credit cards and other products financial institutions try hard to push to stimulate people’s appetite to consume beyond their needs.
We replace handkerchiefs with tissues, ceramic rice bowls with paper ones; we throw clothes that can still be worn only because they are not in fashion. This list can be much longer. Should we consider these as progress we have made? We need to think about it.
The sad irony is the fact that most of us consider all these as progress from a short-term viewpoint.
To consume to the capacity of production is to live on the capital of nature rather than on its interest. It is not difficult to realize the mistakes we have made, but it is far more difficult to learn the lessons. That may be why this book is worth reading for everyone.
By Zhu Yuan