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SUSTAINABILITY BEGINS AT HOME

Our family festivities run foul of hard facts

by Stephen Hesse

Christmas has become a modest affair in our family. Our son gets a few presents and the adults get a day of peace and quiet.

Things haven’t always been this way, but time and experience have encouraged us to pare down our holiday excesses to the bare essentials.

My partner is Japanese, and her family has always celebrated with cake and just a few presents on Christmas Eve. In stark contrast, I grew up in the United States, where there are Christmas shops that remain open all year round.

My parents were frugal New Englanders, so they rarely went overboard on anything; but Christmas was different. In our house and every house in the neighborhood, no matter what the inhabitants’ religion, December brought decorations, parties and stacks of presents.

So the first time my partner celebrated Christmas in the U.S., it was not surprising that the sheer vigor and volume of American consumption overwhelmed her.

About the same time it began to overwhelm me, too. Whether due to love or graduate studies in environment and law, I realized that I had been suffering Christmas hangovers for years. I don’t mean the kind of hangovers brought on by too much red wine, brandy eggnog and malt whiskey. I mean the ones caused by too much consumption; period. The kind of hangover you feel when your bank account is too light, the garbage bags you’re hauling out are too heavy and post-holiday grumpiness has set in.

I know Christmas is supposed to be a time for peace on earth and goodwill toward our fellow humans, so I should be telling inspiring tales of forests saved and tuna populations protected. But for environmental columnists, this season always brings a flurry of reports and press releases reminding us of how very unjust and lacking in goodwill our world is.

And because this is the season for giving, I would be amiss if I did not share some of what I have received. So here are two highlights from this month’s proverbial mailbag.

Mid-December brought an essay titled, “Santa Claus is Chinese, or Why China Is Rising and the United States Is Declining,” by Lester R. Brown, president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute (see: www.earthpolicy.org ).

Brown is even more of a humbug than myself, pointing out that overconsumption is a critical problem at every level of American society.

“Underneath the American Christmas spirit and good cheer is a debt-laden society that appears to have lost its way, marred in the quicksand of consumerism. At the personal level, credit-card debt just keeps climbing, and at the government level, we have the largest deficit in history. At the international level, we have a trade deficit that moves to a new high month after month,” he writes.

According to Brown, personal savings in the U.S. have “virtually disappeared,” and of 145 million credit-card holders, only 55 million pay off their bill each month. The rest pay steep monthly interest rates, carrying their debt from month to month to month.

“Millions of people are so deeply in debt that they may remain indebted for life,” he warns.

Not that Americans have a good role model in their government. Brown puts the national debt at $8.5 trillion, which works out to about $64,000 per taxpayer.

What does all this have to do with China? Well, according to Brown, 80 percent of the toys sold in the U.S. are made in China, 80 percent of all artificial Christmas trees sold in the U.S. are made there, too, and this year Americans will buy Christmas ornaments from China valued at more than $1 billion.

And that’s just the beginning.

Every month the U.S. Treasury covers the nation’s fiscal deficit by selling securities on the international market — and the two leading buyers of Treasury securities are Japan and China.

“China is now also becoming our banker. This developing country is financing the excesses of an affluent industrial society,” explains Brown.

Many will argue that this wealth redistribution is just fine, thank you very much. But according to another report, also released in mid-December, the world’s wealth is still highly concentrated in the hands of a privileged few.

The report, titled “The World Distribution of Household Wealth,” and published by the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) in Helsinki, notes that the richest 2 percent of the world’s population has now amassed more than half of the world’s wealth.

The report defines wealth as “the value of physical and financial assets less debts,” and, it points out that although China is steadily gaining cash reserves, wealth remains heavily concentrated in North America, Europe and high-income Asia-Pacific countries such as South Korea and Japan. “People in these countries collectively hold almost 90 percent of total world wealth,” according to a UNU-WIDER press release.

Where are all these rich people tucked away?

The wealthiest 10 percent of the world’s adult population — those with at least $61,000 in assets — are concentrated in just a few countries: 25 percent in the U.S.; 20 percent in Japan; and 12 percent in Germany. Of the richest 1 percent — those 37 million adults worldwide with assets of at least $500,000 — 37 percent live in the U.S. and 27 percent live in Japan.

Viewing wealth across the globe, China holds much of the middle third, while the bottom third is in the hands of India, and African and low-income Asian countries. But China is already moving up in the charts, according to Anthony Shorrocks, one of the authors of the report.

“The United States and Japan stand out because they have large populations and high average wealth. Although Switzerland and Luxembourg have high average wealth, their populations are small. China, on the other hand, fails to feature strongly among the super-rich because average wealth is modest and wealth is evenly spread by international standards. However, China is already likely to have more wealthy residents than our data reveals for the year 2000, and membership of the super-rich seems set to rise fast in the next decade,” according to Shorrocks, director of UNU-WIDER.

For those who have seen the homeless and poor in the richest nations, it will come as no surprise that inequality is not just found between developed and developing nations. Wealth distribution within the wealthiest nations is quite unequal as well.

Using something called the Gini value, the researchers measured inequality on a scale from zero to 1, with zero representing equal sharing. Based on figures from the year 2000, Japan had a wealth Gini of 0.55, while the U.S. had a much higher level of inequality of around 0.80.

Worldwide, the inequality is even more dramatic. The study found that globally, the wealth Gini for adults is 0.89.

“This degree of inequality would be obtained if one person in a group of 10 takes 99 percent of the total pie and the other nine share the remaining 1 percent,” according to the UNU-WIDER report.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking, “With that kind of information flooding his mailbox all month, no wonder Christmas in the Hesse household is a modest affair.”

And you’re right. If I didn’t know about the inequality, and if I wasn’t so keenly aware that human consumption is rapidly degrading our oceans, rivers and forests, I would probably celebrate the holidays with a bit more abandon.

But I do know the situation, as do most of us who live in Japan, the U.S., Australasia and Europe.

So my family celebrates holiday-lite — with the added benefit that I haven’t had a Christmas hangover in years. At least not of the financial or spiritual variety!