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And so the word “sustainable” dies

Killed by the NY Times magazine.

The larger idea is to build a more sustainable economy, or what Chinese leaders have called a balanced and harmonious society. In that economy, families would not have to save 20 percent of their income in order to pay for schooling and medical care, as many do now. They would instead be able to afford more of the comforts of modern life “” better housing, clothing, transportation and communication. In time, China would become the world’s next great consumer society.

Maybe you thought that the word ‘sustainable’ was already dead, but really it was only ill — ill-defined by overuse. But thanks to the NYT magazine and economics columnist David Leonhardt, it has now been officially defined out of existence.

Maybe you thought ‘sustainable’ meant something like “capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment.” How wrong you were. Apparently, to the Times, ‘sustainable’ means being the biggest consumers in the world. George Orwell would be proud.

Special props to the NYT and Leonhardt for running a piece that uses the words sustainable, sustain, and sustainability six times — without once mentioning global warming or China’s unsustainable contribution to it — on the day before the big international climate conference in Cancun, a day their op-ed page ran three pieces on global warming, including one explaining the dangers of our unsustainable path (see Farmer in the Times: “Climate change, I believe, may eventually pose an existential threat to my way of life”).

And extra bonus credit to the Times for this head-exploding cover:

Yes, the “health of the world economy depends on” China learning to spend “more like Americans.” As if (see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?”)

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The article is a masterpiece of tortured logic and magical thinking. Here’s the paragraph that follows the one quoted above:

That term may have negative connotations in the United States, particularly after the last decade of debt excess. But the term means something very different for China. A Chinese consumer society would improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The benefits of the industrial boom that began in the 1980s would spread more rapidly beyond the country’s eastern coast. The service sector would grow, and the economy would no longer be quite so dependent on smoke-spewing factories.

So the only negative connotation the NYT is aware of for the phrase “world’s next great consumer society” is debt excess. No treehuggers at the Times magazine.

And somehow the benefits of the industrial boom would spread rapidly beyond the country’s east coast, but smoke-spewing factories wouldn’t? How exactly are all those mass consumer goods bought by all those new Chinese shopaholics going to be manufactured? By magic?

Note to NYT: If you make a bunch of stuff for hundreds of millions of people, you’re gonna have to build a lot of smoke-spewing factories.

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Finally, I’m all for improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people — but somehow I imagine it can be done without “cultivating the urge to splurge” of Americans. Indeed, I am reminded of a piece I wrote two years ago — Chinese Premier: Rich nations should ditch ‘unsustainable’ lifestyles “¦ and stop buying all the crap we make. I cited an AFP story:

BEIJING (AFP) “” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Friday that rich nations should alter their lifestyles to help tackle global warming, at the start of a two-day meeting on climate change, state media reported.

“The developed countries have a responsibility and an obligation to respond to global climate change by altering their unsustainable way of life,” Wen was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.

Not exactly a view that the NYT felt needed to be part of its piece.

That said, the first thing that popped into my head when I read Wen Jiabao’s admonition was this Onion story:

Chinese Factory Worker Can’t Believe The Shit He Makes For Americans

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 shit 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 shit?”

“¦ “I hear that Americans can buy anything they want, and I believe it, judging from the things I’ve made for them,” Chen said….

Among the items that Chen has helped create are plastic-bag dispensers, microwave omelet cookers, glow-in-the-dark page magnifiers, Christmas-themed file baskets, animal-shaped contact-lens cases, and adhesive-backed wall hooks.

“Sometimes, an item the factory produces resembles nothing I’ve ever seen,” Chen said. “One time, we made something that looked like a ladle, but it had holes in its cup and a handle that bent down 90 degrees. The foreman told us that it was a soda-can holder for an automobile. If you are lucky enough to own a car, sit back and enjoy the journey. Save the soda beverage for later.”

… Chen expressed similar confusion over the tens of thousands of pineapple corers, plastic eyeshades, toothpick dispensers, and dog pull-toys that he has helped manufacture.

“Why the demand for so many kitchen gadgets?” Chen said. “I can understand having a good wok, a rice cooker, a tea kettle, a hot plate, some utensils, good china, a teapot with a strainer, and maybe a thermos. But all these extra things-where do the Americans put them? How many times will you use a taco-shell holder? ‘Oh, I really need this silverware-drawer sorter or I will have fits.’ Shut up, stupid American.”

Chen added that many of the items break after only a few uses.

“None are built to last very long,” Chen said. “That is probably so the Americans can return to buy more. Not even the badly translated assembly instructions deter them. If I bought a kitchen item that came with such poor Mandarin instructions, I would return the item immediately.”

May Gao of the Hong Kong-based labor-advocacy group China Labour Bulletin said complaints like Chen’s are common among workers in China’s bustling industrial cities.

“Last week, I took testimony from several young female workers from Shenzhen who said they were locked in a work room for 18 straight hours making inflatable Frisbees,” Gao said. “Finally, the girls joined hands on the factory floor and began to chant, ‘No more insane flying toys for Western pigs!’ They quickly lost their jobs and were ostracized by their families, but the incident was a testament to China’s growing disillusionment with producing needless crap for fat-ass foreigners.”

Continued Gao: “As Chinese manufacturing and foreign investment continue to grow, and more silly novelty products are invented, we can expect to see more of these protests.”

And if the NYT magazine has their way, the Chinese can look forward to making their own crap too!