The American dream

The American Dream. We all know what it is and if pressed could patch together a definition likely including freedom of opportunity, the right to go to school, work hard, and achieve a semblance of prosperity without the constraints of race, ethnicity, class structure or caste membership. That Dream is also embedded in iconic symbols such as the Statue of Liberty, Old Glory, and, of course, our Constitution.

The ideal has for more than two centuries acted as a magnet, attracting people from all over the world &

and continues to do so, reflected in the conundrum of illegal immigration from failed or oppressive states.

In many ways, achieving the American Dream is judged by one's life style and the acquisition of goods. The Republicans have called it the "ownership society:" a home, cars, freedom to pursue recreation, be well clothed, employment that allows such purchasing power. Call it the American way of life, or the American standard of living. Consumerism is the engine that drives our economy and, in so many ways, defines us as a people.

However, there is a sea change in the works that is only just beginning to be articulated and felt globally. It will require a redefinition of the American Dream &

not out of choice but out of necessity. In great part, this nascent redefinition has been fashioned by the environmental movement which has moved well beyond "Save the Whales," and hugging trees. The green movement has morphed into something far more expansive and therefore more difficult to solve. An "Inconvenient Truth" begins to address only one facet of what will be a worldwide change that awaits us all.

In a recent New York Times article by Jared Diamond, professor of geography at U.C.L.A., and author of "Guns, Germs and Steel," he touches on what is a startling paradigm shift in the dialogue taking place regarding the use of global resources.

First, Diamond points out that today there are 6.5 billion people on the planet (it is projected that by mid-century there will be 9 billion). Of that 6.5 billion, one billion live in the first world, meaning developed countries. The remainder, some 5.5 billion people, live in what is euphemistically called the developing world.

In other words by far most of the globes inhabitants live in a state of perpetual poverty (when compared to a Western standard of living). Or put another way, they live not by choice but by necessity off the grid. Every day is a struggle for survival, a search for clean water, basic food, shelter and work. All of the accouterments of a Western life style, which is de rigueur to an average American, is completely out of reach for the vast majority of third world inhabitants.

Diamond writes that those in the West have a relative per capita rate of consumption 32 times higher than those in the developed world. Most of the developing world is well below 32 and closer to 1. Expressed another way, each American consumes per annum what it would take 32 Kenyans to consume at current rates.

When those in the developing world, to include China, look at the West and America, what they observe via worldwide communication and films is a life style to which they aspire. China, on a development tear, is consuming vast amounts of the country's and the world's resources (1.3 billion Chinese hunger for "ownership") as they build cars, power electrical plants, create chemical and coal plants at a furious rate, all in rush to achieve a per capita life style known for decades only to the West. For Westerners to argue that this goal is now folly falls on deaf ears in the developing world. Diamond writes that China has four times the U.S. population. "The world is already running out of resources and it will do so even sooner if China achieves American-level consumption rates." Already China and India are competing with America, Japan and Europe for a diminishing number of resources, though China is still 11 times below America's consumption rate.

Should China catch up to America's per capita consumption rate, Diamond points out, that would roughly double world consumption rates. If India were on board, that rate would triple. If the entire developing world "were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates)." The planet's resources could never, even at present rates, sustain such increases.

Here is the paradigm shift that must occur: if our planet's ecology is to survive, the world community must completely revise what an acceptable global per capita consumption rate looks like. In other words, the American Dream, as lived and exported, must be profoundly altered. Consumerism, in all forms, must be guided by sustainability and the realization that high consumerism, often wasteful, doesn't necessarily translate into a high quality of life.

The new reality is that Western Europe's consumption is half of ours, yet their quality of life, according to Diamond, is higher by any reasonable criterion "including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to health care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools, and support of the arts." The American dream has crossed the Atlantic and even there it must be reevaluated.

The global community, stepping well beyond the Kyoto Protocol, should begin what would be a revolutionary discourse about what it means to live a full and rich life given the constraints of sustainability. The alternative is to binge now, live as if the world's resources are infinite, relinquish any pretense of being good stewards of the planet, and begin to prepare our children and their children for what will be a calamitous future, not just because of global warming but because of global waning. Will such a dialogue take place? The inconvenient truth is: not likely.

is a columnist for the Ashland Daily Tidings.

Share This Story