We never needed all that stuff, and now more than ever we don't.
I looked down from above at my first giant mall in 1981. It was "South Square Mall," here in Durham NC. It was one of the ugliest urban sites I'd ever seen, a sprawl of concrete and elevated parking lots, nestled into the bowl of what was once probably a lovely site. Ghastly.
By the way, this mall was demolished a few years ago after a much larger and more luxurious mall, "The Streets at Southpoint," was built out at the sprawl-periphery of Durham and started to siphon dollars from South Square.
South Square shut down and over the course of weeks I watched in fascination as its wretched conglomeration of concrete and pavement was entropized down to a rubble mountain and bulldozed away.
Sadly, it was replaced by an equally unlovely stretch of freestanding big box stores including Sams Club.
Well, anyway, I was astonished on that long ago day as I ogled my way down South Square's two-story covered boulevards, and I had the thought I've thought over and over again ever since: "How can there be so many shoe stores in this mall? Who can possibly be buying all these shoes?"
In the same way, I've brooded over my grandfather's explanation, oh so many decades ago, that stocks get hammered when the companies that issue them don't grow. How can everything grow, always, until the end of time? There is only a certain amount of planet, it's not growing. How can eternal growth be our paradigm?
The Inflection Is Near?
by Thomas L. Friedman for the New York Times, March 7, 2009
Sometimes the satirical newspaper The Onion is so right on, I can't resist quoting from it. Consider this faux article from June 2005 about America's addiction to Chinese exports:
FENGHUA, China — Chen Hsien, an employee of Fenghua Ningbo Plastic Works Ltd., a plastics factory that manufactures lightweight household items for Western markets, expressed his disbelief Monday over the "sheer amount of [garbage] Americans will buy. Often, when we're assigned a new order for, say, 'salad shooters,' I will say to myself, 'There's no way that anyone will ever buy these.' ... One month later, we will receive an order for the same product, but three times the quantity. How can anyone have a need for such useless [garbage]? I hear that Americans can buy anything they want, and I believe it, judging from the things I've made for them," Chen said. "And I also hear that, when they no longer want an item, they simply throw it away. So wasteful and contemptible."
We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...
"We created a way of raising standards of living that we can't possibly pass on to our children," said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog climateprogress.org. We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.
"You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior," added Romm. "But it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, 'This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate ...'
Over a billion people today suffer from water scarcity; deforestation in the tropics destroys an area the size of Greece every year — more than 25 million acres; more than half of the world's fisheries are over-fished or fished at their limit.
"Just as a few lonely economists warned us we were living beyond our financial means and overdrawing our financial assets, scientists are warning us that we're living beyond our ecological means and overdrawing our natural assets," argues Glenn Prickett, senior vice president at Conservation International. But, he cautioned, as environmentalists have pointed out: "Mother Nature doesn't do bailouts."
Economies need to transition to the concept of net-zero, whereby buildings, cars, factories and homes are designed not only to generate as much energy as they use but to be infinitely recyclable in as many parts as possible.