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September 2000
Consumption Connections to Global Inequality

By Redwood Mary


Recently I visited a clear-cut area here in Northern California. Freshly cut redwood trees were lying along steep slopes. This area—once alive—was now quiet and devoid of wildlife. Even the birds avoided the area. I was stunned. I can no longer walk into a clear-cut and remain unaffected. I also realized that this destruction is not just made by men and their machines, but by all of our combined choices.

Earlier this year I attended the Commission on Sustainable Development sessions at the U.N. Headquarters in New York. A delegate from the Philippines, representing her rural organization, spoke at one of the sessions. I will never forget her words: "I look at all these [conference] papers that will be thrown away. You would not see that where I live in my country. We use everything, nothing is wasted...even paper is used again to wrap food."

There were also women in attendance that I had met at the 17th Session of the U.N. Commission on Human Settlements in Nairobi, Kenya. I had visited the communities in which they lived, in one of the 96 slums that surround the city of Nairobi. Now, here they were in the "land of plenty." How could I explain to them: why we Americans have so much while they struggle daily to survive with so little? The benefits of globalization have not trickled down to them.

Out of the famous "Earth Summit" that took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, came Agenda 21. This document, signed by nations from around the world—including the U.S.—stated: "The major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in the industrialized countries, aggravating poverty and imbalances." Molly O. Sheehan, a Worldwatch Institute Research Associate, says, "Although the world economy pumped out nearly $41 trillion [worth] of goods and services in 1999, 45 percent of the income went to the 12 percent of the world’s people who live in western industrial countries." This wealthy minority is largely responsible for the excessive consumption that drives environmental decline and global economic imbalance. Moreover, economist John Kenneth Galbraith observes: "the world’s richest countries make up only a fifth of global population. At the other end of the spectrum, the poorest fifth of the world’s population—more than one billion people—still lack food, shelter, housing, water and sanitation, and access to electricity. Given these extremes, today’s global pattern of consumption remains structurally skewed in favor of private affluence and public squalor."

Solutions to unsustainable consumption exist and we can set an example for leaders to follow. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development points out in a 1997 document: "Governments have the primary responsibility for putting in place the framework that shapes consumption choices and have a profound steering role through utility regulation and public expenditure in many critical clusters, such as food, energy, water and transport. Yet, in secular, post-industrial societies, most governments have so far been reluctant to show leadership and stimulate public debate on the wider vision of welfare in which the satisfaction of needs, rather consumption per se, is the aim."

Consumption Solutions
We must press government to shift subsidies to reward and support those enterprises that are creating environmentally-friendly and innovative alternatives. We can create jobs with solar energy technologies and have clean food provided by bio-dynamic and organic farming. The root problems that face our human settlements are not detached from economics. We must return to an economic system that values life and life-giving systems. To quote a remarkable colleague of mine, Julia Butterfly Hill, "We as humans are guided by our value systems. We have placed our value systems on the dollar and base that value on dollars of exploitation, extraction and destruction of our environment. It is time to take our dollars back and place [their] value on the protection of the earth instead of its destruction."

Many times I have acquired "office supplies" by retrieving things like discarded folders and half-used notebooks out of garbage piles. As consumers we do not always think about the source of what we are consuming—the earth. Nor are we always mindful of what we throw away.

Our nation once used hemp for oil, rope, paper, clothes and numerous other purposes. Paper was made of cast away rags. Now, trees that were once used for limited purposes, such as housing, are used for throw-away products: paper towels and napkins, cups and plates, computer paper, newspapers, books, three-foot thick government reports, envelopes, throw away advertising and junk mail, and packaging of every kind. Our high-tech wizardry has conditioned us to overlook low-tech solutions. With forestry, for example, cutting no more than what the forest can grow back is not only a logical investment in the future, nature will do all of the work if we allow it to. Most of the standing wood in the U.S. is in houses. Any time a demolition occurs, materials can be salvaged and recycled. In New Orleans, local government in partnership with a non-profit group created such a solution and jobs as well. Another example can be found in Berkeley, California, where a lumber yard sells reclaimed wood and wood from companies that practice sustainable forestry.

Another positive trend that could be accelerated is organic farming. Organic farmers replace agrochemicals with a greater diversity of crops and natural pest control strategies. Organic farming can reduce groundwater pollution, threats to wildlife and consumer exposure to pesticides. Farmers in Europe, for example, have doubled the area cultivated with organic methods to four million hectares in only three years. In Italy and Austria, the share of certified organic agricultural land topped ten percent in 1999.

Here in the U.S., we have the power of spending money. We can tell corporations like the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic that we will not support them with our dollars until they respect human rights and stop the exploitation of sweatshop labor [see Starks piece in Satya, August, 2000]. We can tell the Fisher family, who owns the Gap clothing empire and who purchased redwood forests, to stop the destruction of these damaged ecosystems in Northern California. Whether it is workers’ rights or survival of our forests or the species that share the earth with us, we must continue to stand together, raise the standards, and defend human and environmental rights. As Vaclav Havel—author and former President of the Czech Republic—says: "We must not be afraid of dreaming the seemingly impossible if we want the seemingly impossible to become a reality."

To find out more about Redwood Mary and the Plight of The Redwoods Campaign, visit For information on the new video "The Timber GAP," visit or contact


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