Monday, January 31, 2011

An environmental parable, revised

This post is otherwise known as your daily dose of cynicism.

An ancient Chinese fable from a compilation by K.L. Kiu, who also translated this (I've taken the liberty to correct the [sic]'s):

"The Art of Stealing"

The Guo family in the state of Qi was very rich while the Xiang family in the state of Song was very poor. Mr. Xiang went to Qi from Song to learn from Mr. Guo how to become wealthy.

"I am very good at stealing," said Mr. Guo. "After I became a thief, I managed to support myself after one year. In two years' time I was comfortably off. After three years I owned lots of land and my barns were all full. From then onwards I could afford to give to the needy and I helped many friends and neighbors."

Mr. Xiang was delighted. He took in Mr. Guo's remark about stealing without understanding how one should go about it. Therefore, he scaled walls and bore holes to get into houses. He took everything his eyes could see or his hands could reach. After a little while, he was convicted of theft and the inheritance left by his ancestors was confiscated.

Mr. Xiang was of the opinion that Mr. Guo had deceived him so he went to see Mr. Guo in order to put the blame on him.

"How did you steal?" asked Mr. Guo.

Mr. Xiang gave him an account of what he did.

"Oh dear!" said Mr. Guo. "You have totally missed the point of what I meant by stealing. I'll explain what I mean. I heard that Nature has seasonal changes and Earth produce fair crops. I steal from Nature's seasons and Earth's produce: clouds and rain give abundant moisture while hills and ponds supply other rich yields. With these I nurture my grain, plant my crops, put up my walls and build my houses. On land I steal birds and animals and at sea I steal fish and turtles. Everything is stolen, for grain, crops, earth, trees, birds, animals, fish and turtles are all products of Nature. Which of these belong to me? But when I steal from Nature, I do not get into trouble. Now precious stones, treasures, provisions, silks, money and goods are things that are amassed by men. They are not the gifts of Nature. If you steal such things and get convicted who can you blame?" --Liezi

Obviously this fable is out of date. Or somewhere along the line -- relatively recently, actually -- this innocuous act of "stealing" from nature turned into a widespread pillaging of it, and we now find ourselves in the unpalatable position of having to punish those who take from nature yet give nothing back.

The above is a Chinese fable, and certainly applies to China, but no Western country is exempt. The consumer society was set into motion half a century ago in the States and it's beginning to tear the country a new asshole. Jeffrey Sachs has a more eloquent description, in which he...

said America’s economic system had corrupted the soul of the country by engineering excess: over-eating, excessive television-watching and material consumption now dominated the lives of millions of Americans. “We designed a kind of society that is designed for addiction,” he said.

“We’re mean. Our politics is mean,” to the rest of the world and to America’s own poor, he said. “We’re an unhappy society amid wealth.”

Yes, when all you care about is the next consumer fix -- the video game, the double-bacon triple-cheeseburger, the candied cumshot of divertissement and dither -- it's tough to focus or think intelligently about the workings of government and media, and it's hard to work up a reasonable amount of anger for Bristol Palin on Dancing with the Stars. You just go with the flow and find yourself a little worse off the next day.

Sachs was talking specifically about happiness, but the relationship to the environment is all too obvious. A society hellbent on consuming because its identity is entwined with spending power and luxury is a country that will ride the environment like a two-bit mule till it collapses and farts on us all.

For more heady reading about the environment and US-China relations, see: US Department of Energy.