Can we survive China’s rush to emulate the American way of life?

Readers would not often catch Lord Curzon perusing the pages of Mother Jones, a liberal-progressive commentary magazine. However, a recent article subtitled, “Can the world survive China’s headlong rush to emulate the American way of life?” caught my eye like few other articles have so far in 2008. That question is, I believe, the most important question we must ask ourselves over the next few decades.

China has also become a ravenous consumer. Its appetite for raw materials drives up international commodity prices and shipping rates while its middle class, projected to jump from fewer than 100 million people now to 700 million by 2020, is learning the gratifications of consumerism. China is by a wide margin the leading importer of a cornucopia of commodities, including iron ore, steel, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum, and nickel. It is the world’s biggest consumer of coal, refrigerators, grain, cell phones, fertilizer, and television sets. It not only leads the world in coal consumption, with 2.5 billion tons in 2006, but uses more than the next three highest-ranked nations—the United States, Russia, and India—combined. China uses half the world’s steel and concrete and will probably construct half the world’s new buildings over the next decade. So omnivorous is the Chinese appetite for imports that when the country ran short of scrap metal in early 2004, manhole covers disappeared from cities all over the world—Chicago lost 150 in a month. And the Chinese are not just vast consumers, but conspicuous ones, as evidenced by the presence in Beijing of dealers representing every luxury-car manufacturer in the world. Sales of Porsches, Ferraris, and Maseratis have flourished, even though their owners have no opportunity to test their finely tuned cars’ performance on the city’s clotted roads.

American consumption patterns such as personal transporation in the form of automobiles, high meat consumption, and a carelessly profligent lifestyle by the average consumer is simply not sustainable on a wordlwide scale. How the world copes with that reality may be one of the dominant questions of the 21st century.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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10 Responses to Can we survive China’s rush to emulate the American way of life?

  1. dj says:

    Great topic. When I was there last summer everything seemed to me to be emulating the USA.

    The most shocking was the housing developments mimicking crappy US ones. Culture music etc. is all being copied. Their MTV type music videos look like Backstreet boys from the 1990s.

    This however is their weakness. They are not truly being innovative but rather emulating. They are trying to have fun like Americans but never will, it is a fleeting exercise because they don’t have the reasons or the spirit behind it.

    I am going to bed, but I will think of a better way to explain this. This first occurred to me when I was talking to a Taiwanese friend. He kept ragging on Taiwan being so behind the US and I told him I thought Taiwan was a developed country now and offer many of the same opportunities. He explained to me though that none of it is original and it is very superficial.

    I do however believe Japan has achieved a truly different and independent and modern way of life different than western nations.

  2. P. Aeneas says:

    This isn’t a personal shot at Curzon (but maybe at the NYT), but I’ve come to resent being labeled a profligate spender or consumerist by association (as an American). This is often treated as some endemic feature of American culture, like a collective character flaw. I find that to be a stereotype. Most people are in debt because reliable automobiles and housing are ridiculously expensive compared to average wages and salaries. Education is also ridiculously expensive, and the pay from those fantastic jobs we were told we’d get due to our college degrees will barely cover the student loan payments for a decade or so. People in America drive their own cars everywhere because other forms of transportation are, outside of the hearts of large metropolises, just impractical. We eat the way we do not because we’re fat-swilling gluttons, but because healthy, plant-centric diets turn out to be generally more expensive and time-consuming.

    Many of these consumption problems are systemic. They have to do with how our economy is set up, and they have to do with geography. Energy-wise, it’s a tough situation. If American living space was set up like Europe’s, we wouldn’t need such reliance on automobiles. But how much energy would it take to completely redesign the populated portion of America’s landscape? Even if we left our city maps untouched, the infrastructure for mass public transportation outside of urban cores just doesn’t exist.

  3. Curzon says:

    P. Aeneas: Everything you say is correct regarding the causes and systematic issues of American resource consumption. I would take issues with your assertion of “stereotype,” for which I think you’re being over-sensitive — it is a fact that the world cannot support American-style consumption on a broad scale, but that assertion does not criticize, or make value judgments on, individual Americans.

    With America, as written elsewhere on this blog previously, I fear that as a nation and an economy it is highly vulnerable to a broad meltdown because of the high dependence on individual daily life on automobiles to transport ourselves, and distant regions that also require transportation, to supply food. Lack of public transportation infrastructure outside cities means the US is much more vulnerable than Japan or large parts of Europe in the event, so I fear.

  4. P. Aeneas says:

    Point taken, Curzon. I guess I’ve been a little sensitive on the issue since I read a book called Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, which despite some interesting financial theories, dealt primarily in those stereotypes. It’s just a little disheartening to hear about the American lifestyle obsession when a lot of people are working their tails off in order to achieve even the semblance of a first-world living standard (I’m trying not to sound populist here, I swear). Otherwise, I agree with you on most points, especially the vulnerability of our own economy compared to other, more ‘compact’ economies.

  5. Curzon says:

    Ultimately America is so big and resource-rich that it has the luxury of not being compact — except that, as noted, we are thus more vulnerable to the meltdown I refer to if one of the sources of our lifestyle (cheap transportation for individuals) is lost.

  6. Michael says:

    The challenge is recognizing those situations where we are resource-scarce (water in the Southwest, for example) and willing ourselves to deviate from the national norm to accomodate those scarcities.
    At some point, you have to choose between big and monolithic. You can seldom have both.

  7. Sonagi says:

    People in America drive their own cars everywhere because other forms of transportation are, outside of the hearts of large metropolises, just impractical.

    Yes, but do so many people need SUVs or vans?

    We eat the way we do not because we’re fat-swilling gluttons, but because healthy, plant-centric diets turn out to be generally more expensive and time-consuming.

    Time-consuming, sometimes. More expensive, not necessarily. First of all, wheat, soybeans, and corn, used to feed livestock and to create ingredients commonly found in many cheap, processed foods, get the lion’s share of $16 billion in agricultural subsidies. Until recently, WIC coupons could not be used for fresh produce, only milk, cereal, and other big ag/food industry products. Secondly, it is possible to eat healthy within a modest budget. Below are some items I bought recently at a supermarket or local farmers’ market:

    1 lb. bag of frozen wild blueberries: $3.00
    1 lb. of dried pinto beans: $1.25
    1 lb. of nitrite-free hot Italian chicken sausage: $2.00 (marked down to half-price because of looming expiration date)
    1 lb. bag of organic brown rice: $2.50
    1 lb. bag of carrots: $1.00
    1 head of green cabbage: 60 cents a lb.
    2 clamshell packages of spring greens: $4.00 (buy 1, get 1 free)
    1 dozen eggs from local farmer’s free roaming chickens: $2.50
    2 big bunches (about 1 lb.) each broccoli rabe, Chinese gailan greens, spring onions, and about 1/2 lb. each kale and spinach, all for $18 at the local farmers’ market

    Most people are in debt because reliable automobiles and housing are ridiculously expensive compared to average wages and salaries.

    The average square footage of new homes has increased from about 2,000 to 3,000 feet over the last 25 years despite the fact that household size has not gotten bigger. Moreover, part of the reason why housing has gotten so ridiculously expensive in many parts of the country is that people were buying homes they could not afford because they thought they could flip them in a few years for a profit.

    Education is also ridiculously expensive, and the pay from those fantastic jobs we were told we’d get due to our college degrees will barely cover the student loan payments for a decade or so.

    On this point I am in agreement. College tuition has increased much faster than inflation while grant money has shrunk, replaced by loans. Young people today are worse off than their elders were a generation ago. They leave college with more debt, take longer to pay it off, and thus get a later start in saving for retirement or putting equity into a home.

  8. Kurt9 says:

    The real resource limits of planet Earth:

    http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/

    We’ve got quite some time before we reach any real limits.

  9. zenpundit says:

    China is importing raw materials to export them in the form of finished goods, disproportionately to the American market.