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You can't eat money: the cost of unlimited growth

PremiumSeptember 7, 2022 | 04:41 pm PT
Mark A. Ashwill Educator
In a 1972 book chapter entitled "Conversations with North American Indians," Alanis Obomsawin said something that applies to every country that has embraced the neoliberal economic order with open arms.

Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can't eat money.

Obomsawin an Abenaki American-Canadian filmmaker, singer, artist and activist is an icon who has not only fought for the rights of aboriginal communities for decades, but also disseminated valuable insights into ways of life that are highly relevant to contemporary discourses about sustainability.

In the neoliberal system, competition is "the defining characteristic of human relations" and citizens are classified as consumers "whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency," in the words of George Monbiot, a British writer known for his environmental and political activism. Inequality is one of its regrettable yet unavoidable features. Depending upon the level of government oversight and law enforcement, so is environmental pollution.

Everything Obomsawin described a half century ago and so much more is happening in Vietnam, including sand-mining, deforestation, overfishing in the East Sea, and widespread water pollution. Her searing critique of the fatal flaws of an economic model that prizes production and consumption over conservation and sustainability echoes through the ages and is truer now than when she penned those words.

Obomsawin's view reflects Native Americans' deep reverence for nature that transcends tribal affiliation. She speaks from a perspective that views "the entire universe as being alive – that is, as having movement and an ability to act. But more than that, indigenous Americans tend to see this living world as a fantastic and beautiful creation engendering extremely powerful feelings of gratitude and indebtedness, obliging us to behave as if we are related to one another."

Native spirituality encompassed the recognition of global interconnectedness and interdependence long before these terms entered the modern lexicon.

Vietnam and the circular economy

There is a lot of talk these days about the dire need to shift from a linear economy, in which raw natural resources are fashioned into products that are consumed and disposed of, to a circular one. A circular economy is a model of production and consumption that involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing products and materials for as long as possible.

There was a time in Vietnam's recent past when most people were still poor. As such, they reused, repaired, refurbished, and recycled products because they had no other choice. One had the feeling that the idiom "Necessity is the mother of invention" was invented in Vietnam. I was amazed at people's ingenuity in making the most of what little they had.

During my early trips to the country, starting in 1996, just as foreign direct investment was beginning to trickle in and the consumer economy starting to heat up, there was relatively little garbage in the environment. Single-use plastic was just beginning to enter the market. People turned off electrical appliances like clockwork if they were not using them to save money and, indirectly, limited the environmental impact of electricity production.

The prevailing mentality was one of conservation and preservation, "waste not, want not," as my parents, who lived through the Great Depression, used to say. Now, Vietnamese of means have no qualms about leaving all of the lights on in the house and using copious amount of water and gasoline in their expensive oversized vehicles simply because they can afford it.

Depletion, Vietnamese style

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines the depletion of natural economic assets as "the reduction in the value of deposits of subsoil assets as a result of their physical removal, the depletion of water resources, and the depletion of natural forests, fish stocks in the open seas and other non-cultivated biological resources as a result of harvesting, forest clearance, or other use."

In other words, aside from energy supplied by the sun, we live in a system in which resources are finite. The supply of sand for the booming construction industry, trees for furniture and paper production, seafood for domestic consumption and export, and water for personal and industrial use are not inexhaustible.

One example of natural resource depletion that has been in the news recently is sand-mining to feed the ravenous appetite of the construction industry in Vietnam's rapidly expanding economy. Sand is used in concrete and manufacturing as an abrasive. Riverbanks are giving way and homes collapsing into rivers in the Mekong Delta, the rice basket of Vietnam. Here in the north, I see this illegal practice occurring with impunity in many places along the Red River.

A woman stands at her collapsed house damaged by landslide along the Mekong river in Can Tho, Vietnam, December 17, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Kham

A woman stands at her collapsed house damaged by landslide along the Mekong river in Can Tho, Vietnam, December 17, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Kham

Another is overfishing. Five years ago, a top Vietnamese military official said that the government "should tighten its grip on overfishing as the seafood capacity in the Vietnamese sea is nearing exhaustion." This means that fishing boats must venture out farther and farther, often into other countries' territorial waters. As I stumble along the path to vegetarianism for ethical and health reasons, I think of this whenever I consume seafood.

The reasons are two-fold: 1) humanity's insatiable appetite for fish and other seafood products; and 2) harvesting tools that now exceed nature's capability to reproduce. This includes ships that can harvest fish at lower depths and process them on the way back to port. According to calculations, the total fishing tools in the world are sufficient to harvest all the fish in the oceans on four planets with ecosystems comparable to that of Earth.

Another widely reported problem is deforestation. Vietnam's forests (and people) have had to contend with wartime defoliation by Agent Orange. More recently, they have been under siege by illegal loggers who are rarely apprehended. In 2010, Vietnam had 14.5 million hectares (35,830,280 acres) of natural forest covering 50% of its land area. By 2021, it had lost 137,000 hectares (338,534 acres), which is the equivalent of 67.3 metric tons of CO2 emissions.

One endangered species is the fokienia tree, which grows at an elevation of 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) in Dak Lak Province. It is a "cash crop" among harvested trees because of the high price it fetches. The wood from these trees is used for furniture and art works. Given the rough terrain and lack of patrols, it is virtually impossible to catch illegal loggers in the act and prevent the continued destruction of these precious trees.

Finally, Vietnam has an existential problem with a precious natural resource that is the basis for life itself: water. One recent headline that caught my attention was HCMC’s water supply, lifeblood of 13 million, faces serious problems, an in-depth report. The reasons are pollution, an outdated water distribution network, and salt intrusion.

A report by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment estimated that the total amount of wastewater released throughout the Dong Nai River could have reached 4.7 million cubic meters a day in 2020. The daily amount of wastewater released into this river alone accounts for one-third of the wastewater released by the entire country. Water quality in the Saigon River, one of the most polluted rivers in southern Vietnam, is a serious issue.

Over the past decade, both of these rivers have played a pivotal role in the economic growth of the Southern Key Economic Zone, which grows. In 2019 alone, these waterways supplied over 5.1 billion cubic meters of water to factories, comprising for 68.3% of all the water used for industrial purposes in Vietnam.

The way forward

"Some things are in our control and others not." -Epictetus

While it is true that you can not eat money, the wealthy can move capital across borders with lightning speed in the technologically sophisticated global financial system of 2022. Many have long since hedged their "quality of life" bets by purchasing real estate in multiple locations as investments and a way out should the situation head south in their home country.

It is the people with little to no means, the vast majority, who will suffer as their high-net-worth fellow citizens make their escape. They will be left with air that is not fit to breathe, water that is no longer potable, fish and other seafood that are but a distant culinary memory, and a desolate landscape that resembles the moon where lush forests used to thrive.

It is the obligation of the Vietnamese government and its international partners to act swiftly. What is in the government's control is the strict enforcement of environmental laws that apply to individuals and corporations. What is not must be negotiated bilaterally or multilaterally with international actors, including nation-states, all of whom have a responsibility to solve these problems.

Our fate depends on it.

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