My good friend Alexei Laushkin has written about American idolatry, materialism and its impact on the environment and other nations at the EEN blog, Deep Green Conversation.
I agree with him that many people make terrible and damaging choices about money and material possessions. His point about modern idolatry being a serious and deadly business is a good one. Idols aren’t just physical objects that people venerated long ago. As I have affirmed before, the self has become the primary object of adoration.
However, I think Alexei’s cost accounting is flawed. He places too much blame on economic wealth and globalized trade.
The “golden calves” of money, fame, power, sex and prestige do not force us to consume any more today than years past. Decadence has always existed whenever there has been enough disposable income to support the habit.
Alexei says that for “those…who care about the environment, there is a real and substantial cost [of] these idols.” I have a few problems with this statement. First, it is a strange claim since the very real, and arguably more serious costs, are spiritual (he discusses this earlier in the post). Second, regardless of your disposition toward the environment, materialistic decadence will have real costs. Finally, I would disagree that the costs are primarily environmental costs.
His language sounds like the same used by people who believe that economic growth is a threat to the environment (though I think Alexei isn’t one of those people). The reality is that the wealthier our world has become, the better able we’ve been able to mitigate our impact on the environment (if we take population growth as given). Only as nations grow wealthier do markets for hybrid cars, organic foods, and extensive recycling programs develop.
Alexei laments China’s economic growth that consumes large amounts of global resources. Certainly there is much to lament about Chinese policies, but I need not agree with those policies to point out that Chinese demand for imports is the lifeblood of many economies, ranging from wealthy ones like ours to poorer ones like Peru, Sudan, and the Congo.
Do the people of these poor nations suffer ill effects from trade with China? Absolutely. Corruption, poorly planned development, and worse things all occur. But we should not ignore the opportunity costs of not trading with China, or any other foreign nation, in our calculus. For example, consider the costs associated with driving. Owning a car brings costly insurance and maintenance costs. Many people die in automobile accidents each year. But despite these real and substantial downsides, some people find the benefit of having a vehicle is still a net positive.
Again, I am not affirming all, or even any part, of Chinese trade policy. My point is that we should not be so strident or comprehensive in our denouncing of foreign trade in our global economy.
When Alexei asks, “when will it ever be enough?”—referring to America’s importing of creation’s wonderful bounties—he sees unnecessary consumption and dangerous greed. I will not dispute that real greed and real waste occur, but condemning our desire for imports so harshly overlooks the fact that billions of people around the world are better off because rich countries demand imports. Global trade does not damn people to “everlasting spiritual poverty” on its own as Alexei implies.
Alexei believes that we export greed, which he calls a shameful commodity. I would argue that no nation has the monopoly on greed. All nations, rich or poor, face the decisions that pit virtue against vice, selfishness versus selflessness.
Seeking to make wise choices about our consumption is a difficult task. Not only are we driven by selfish desires, but gathering all the relevant information complicates the process. Determining which economic policies have an acceptable impact on the environment is much more nuanced than simply seeking to limit consumption. America’s forests today are healthier than they were 100 years ago. In fact there are more trees in the United States today than there were 100 years ago. One major cause of this is the forest industry’s replanting efforts that are necessitated by their business model and the growth in demand for paper products.
Unfortunately there is no reliable side on which to default. Neither unlimited global trade nor dedicated economic localism is a sure path to virtue.
Adam D’Luzansky lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.