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May 2004
The Race for the American Dream
By Catherine Clyne

 

August 2000
August 2000

On July 10, torrential rainfall caused a landslide that wiped out the homes of hundreds of people in Manila, in an area called Lupang Pangako, meaning “Promised Land.” Lupang Pangako is a dumpsite towering 15 meters high, and is home to anywhere from 60,000 to 300,000 people (depending on who you ask). More than 300 people are dead—buried in a mountain of trash. Most likely there are many more, but the dumpsite disaster is old news now, so the numbers are no longer reported.

People reside on or near dumpsites in many cities in the “developing” world. They provide subsistence for those who recycle what is discarded. Lupang Pangako is something of a promised land to the people who live there. An average of 5,000 tons of trash is dumped there every day, about three-quarters of which is recycled by scavengers. Promising treasures lie below the surface: rags, containers, scrap metal, paper, glassware, household products, whatever is reusable is collected and used or sold. People even forage for meals, digging for leftover food and frying it up. This last practice might seem pretty disgusting to most Americans, but then, most Americans are not in similar circumstances. Poverty is harsh wherever you are; but the kind of poverty that most people in the world experience is oftentimes beyond comprehension. Here, in the U.S., people scavenge for reusable things, mostly for recyclables that are redeemable for money, and pick through bins for leftover food; however, we do not have a sub-culture of garbage pickers that recycle three-quarters of our dumps. Instead, we are a garbage making culture.

In the U.S., “disposable” is an appealing trait of merchandise, from contact lenses to cameras, plastic cutlery and paper plates, cups and napkins to take-out food containers, aluminum cans to glass bottles, diapers to latex gloves and hospital gowns. Disposable is a good way of describing our consumptive habits. Fashion “seasons” tell us to get rid of our old clothes and buy new ones that will be replaced the following year. The automobile industry tells us that it’s not enough to own a car from the 1990s, it’s time to buy one from the 2001 line. Consume more, more, and still more, American culture tells us, to the point that stuff builds up and we become indifferent to the sheer glut of volume. Even living creatures are transformed into disposable things: mentally ill people, prisoners, impoverished people and indescribable numbers of animals. Unless they are loved or useful to us, we want no part of them. Big Macs, KFC, Whoppers: disposable creatures served in disposable packages.

The other day I heard conservative columnist William Buckley, Jr. on the radio. When a listener called in to discuss the broadening gap between the wealthy and impoverished, and advocated a redistribution of the world’s wealth, Buckley pooh-poohed the argument and pointed out that people who have enormous wealth, like Bill Gates, have talents and have created things that we want, so we purchase them and they get rich. Economies grow, engendering wealth. People in poverty, continues Buckley’s reasoning, can use their talents and creativity to make money. In Manila, people use their talents to eke out a meager existence by foraging through garbage. Given that the average garbage picker at Lupang Pangako makes between $2.50 and $4.50 (U.S.) daily, it’s unlikely that many of them will have the opportunity to purchase things at their local Gap store, never mind having an email account. (So much for the idea that entrepreneurship will make everyone into a Bill Gates.)

“The American way of life is non-negotiable!” So pronounced President George Bush (Sr.) at the summit on the environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Mr. Bush’s arrogance is representative of the way we think about our “American way of life.” It is a failure of the American people to take responsibility for our over-consumption of the earth’s resources and its consequences, a “hear no evil, see no evil” mentality when confronted by our direct connection to rainforest depletion, species extinction, fossil fuel consumption, pollution, etc. It’s not about guilt; it’s about responsibility.

If the U.S. can consider itself to be the world’s superpower, then we’ve got to stop acting like babies and grow up. Americans do their recycling, then drive around in gas-guzzling SUVs thinking all is OK in the world, that they’re “doing their part.” It’s an insulation that has become a cultural paradigm, upholding an outright refusal to realize that the majority of people in this world actually don’t live the way we do, and—what’s perhaps more eye-opening—we neglect to see that they WANT to live the way we do. If we have the “right” to own four cars, have four babies, own four pure-bred pets, and buy four guns every month, then everyone else in the world has the right to live the same way. Who are we to say otherwise?

Consumption patterns in the West have an inestimable impact on the rest of the world. While we serve as models for people in the “South” we hold a double standard when we criticize developing nations for their environmental trespasses and population explosions, then don’t apply such criticism to ourselves, as Mr. Bush’s declaration illustrates all too well. As the role models that everyone loves and loves to hate, our cavalier and self-righteous over-consumption patterns are disgraceful.

One way to deal with the frustration and outrage that such realizations stir up is to direct it into positive action. I direct mine into a personal policy of, as Gandhi put it, “non-cooperation.” I take inspiration from the Washington, DC-based post-punk band, Fugazi, who sing: “Never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying, receiving undefiled.” “Undefiled” consumption is the challenge. I’m learning to direct energy into being more mindful of what I consume: organic, locally-grown food when possible, and cruelty-free products are obvious choices. But “cruelty-free” doesn’t apply to just nonhuman animals. For example, there is cruelty involved in apparel made in sweatshops and in the growing of food by oppressed workers. Apparent “cruelty-free” products—even some vegan “replacements”—often contain elements that are not biodegradable and are harmful to the environment. It’s not a pursuit of the holy grail of undefiled products. It’s about doing the best that you can to take responsibility for yourself and others by being mindful and not cooperating with a culture that is grinding the world into environmental destruction and economic inequality. It’s about growing up and maturing our consciousness and, ultimately, joining the world to make it a place where the need for cruelty-free products will be obsolete.

Catherine Clyne
has been Satya’s Editor since 1999.

 


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