The American Dream, the Chinese Version and Everybody Else
Cross-linked with 44 Days
Reporting from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA
This graphic lays it out clearly: the American Dream as a world model of success is unsustainable – and lethal to humanity’s prospects for survival. (image by www.popsci.com)
I am so thankful that in coming back to the United States for the second time in four years, I am able to reimmerse myself in the lifestyle which I was born and raised. It’s just the perspective I needed, compared to currently living in China’s capital, Beijing, with its 21 million souls. The entire state of Oklahoma, including its biggest town, Oklahoma City, only has a desert island 3.8 million inhabitants. Lots and lots of land for a just few people out here west of the Mississippi. My upbringing was twofold. One was growing up in suburban America and the other spending considerable time on our family farm. What has got my head spinning while back is my suburban childhood and adolescence, in all its iconic American Dream glory.
If people like the Chinese gorged on natural resources at the same rate as Americans, the planet’s 7,300,000,000 humans would need an additional 4.1 Earths, in order to satisfy their daily demands for water, food, housing, land, energy and other resources. Interestingly, the Chinese were almost at equilibrium in 2012, 1.1 Earths. But the world’s most populous country is trying its damnedest to catch up with America’s consumer driven gluttony. Current Chinese growth rates will assuredly deplete our planet’s very limited resources just that much faster, starting with air, water, spiraling atmospheric and atmospheric temperatures.
To its credit, Baba Beijing’s vision of their widely touted Chinese Dream espouses, in part, a return to the Confucian, Daoist tenets of simplicity, harmony and respect for the natural world. However, after a total of 11 years living in the belly of the New Century Beast, I’m not so sure how many of Baba’s citizens are listening. The Chinese’s recent pubic outcries and mobilization against air, water and land pollution are a hopeful sign that they at least see a ray of light. But like the frailty and hypocrisy of all humanity, there is still way too much of,
Don’t watch what I do, just listen to what I spout out of my mouth.
Wearing PM 2.5 face masks when the air pollution index climbs above 300 is fine and dandy, but like their peerless American avatars of resource gobbling excess, too few Chinese are investing in the difficult, lifestyle changing process of reducing consumption. Americans and Westerners in general wouldn’t recognize the word reduce if it hit them between their Visa and MasterCards. The fact that this wasteful, Western paradigm is the Chinese’s goal to aspire to, is not only genuinely disappointing, but lethal to humanity’s ability to survive into the 22nd century.
It is impossible to see the effects and consequences of the American Dream, if one does not live outside it in another milieu, for perspective, as I have had the opportunity to do so, for 25 of the last 34 years. The nine unaccounted years were when my family moved back to the United States, 2001-2010, which as a world traveling interlude, was also very instructive, what with the Clintonbushobama presidency, and its rabid drive towards Orwell’s Perpetual War and imperial collapse.
Five years in France was a great perspective on how the Old Continent’s lifestyle compares to Uncle Sam’s. The fact that France’s relatively modest consumption comes in at a mere 2.5 Earth equivalents is notable, compared to the USA’s 4.1, and the desert Disneyland called United Arab Emirates, with its 5.4 Planets needed. Tongue in cheek, if the French would just cut down on their consumption of 300+ kinds of amazing cheeses and thousands of labels of great wine, they could weigh in with China’s 1.1 Earths. But then, it wouldn’t be France anymore, would it?
It has been the last year in China which has made all the difference. For most of my international residences, there was always an effort to live well beyond the means of the local people, seeking that much ballyhooed expat life. With Beijing’s current cycle of ever increasing real estate costs, last summer, my family decided to move into a local Chinese neighborhood, to live like everyday urban locals do, at least in Beijing. Truth be told, having traveled in many of China’s megalopolises, apartment living in Beijing is not materially different than any other supercity, be it Chongqing, Shanghai or Chengdu.
For the first time while in a non-Western country, we really did reduce, down to a plain 75 square meter (about 750 square feet) apartment, in a Chinese housing community composed of highrise buildings. Two bedrooms and one bath for my wife and me, as well as our teenage daughter. Working class people in older American cities like New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco can relate to these dimensions and density, as well as large cities in Europe. But for 95% of Americans hanging their hopes on The Dream, it is difficult to imagine, especially out here in my childhood’s suburbs, with their oversized McMansions, on expansive, lawn covered lots.
Unless of course, you are first or second generation immigrants who are willing to compress down even more, in hopes of eventually climbing their way up to working and middle class comfort. Westerners disparage immigrants living 4-6 in a room, like it’s just not quite right. But, it’s the first rung of the ladder towards upward urban mobility around the world. I suspect some of my ancestors did no differently when they came to the United States during the Irish Famine Genocide of the mid-1850s.
Seventy five square meters is solidly middle class in urban China, and in much of Asia for that matter, where more than 50% of the world’s people live. The same could be said for Europe’s larger and America’s older downtown neighborhoods. But there the similarities largely end. Many millions of urban Chinese start out by staying at home well into their twenties, then sharing an apartment with (several) friends or total strangers (viz the aforementioned immigrants), as they work and save their way up to middle class success, which is emblematic of our modest, highrise apartment.
Comparatively speaking, rural Chinese, about half of the nation’s people – farmers and villagers – often live in quite spacious country houses. The iconic siheyuan, or open courtyard house, allows for a lot of space to move around and live. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, increasing urbanization has been the relentless world trend. China finally became majority urban only in 2011. But cultural attractions and McDonald’s aside, China’s 21st century rural citizens live a quite healthy and comfortable existence. For millennia in the Chinese countryside, what used to be a cycle of feast and famine, the waxing and waning of the Heavenly Mandate, has, since the 1980s, settled into a mostly prosperous life.
Sadly, all of the aforementioned, including you and me, live in sumptuous luxury, compared to the more than three billion Earth citizens, who live on less than $2.50 a day. And here’s the rub: the only way Americans can consume 410% more than they need and the French 250% in excess, cheese and wine and all, not to mention China’s exploding and very acquisitive middle and wealthy classes, is for half the world’s peoples to sacrifice their hopes, dreams and ladders to a decent and dignified existence. In any given environment, be it humpback whales or Homo sapiens, there is a finite set of resources for the population, even when measured on a global basis. For humans it has been this way for 8,000 years, since the dawn of settled civilizations, starting in Mesopotamia. The dialectic of the 99% versus the 1%, regardless of the scale: village, city, region, country or planet, has been and continues to be the status quo since time immemorial. On a planetary scale, for the bottom half of humanity, where 1,200 calories of daily intake is an embarrassment of riches, you and I are their 1%. Yet, only a microscopic percentage of us, Chinese, European or American, even attempts to make life changing, sustained efforts to reduce consumption, to live with less Fluff and Stuff, for the commonwealth of all humankind.
So wherever you are, in rural Russia, the mountains of South America, the projects of urban Europe, the wastelands of inner city and small town America, or the packed megalopolises of Asia, count your blessings. Pay your humble respects and thanks to humanity’s bottom half, who can only dream of your and my outrageous luxuries.
Want a fun, low cost honorary degree in Chinese Studies? Jeff’s book, 44 Days, will have you laughing while learning and becoming an expert on all things Middle Kingdom. If you live in China, buy it on the 44 Days website, clicking on either Print Book, Ebook or Color Ebook.