want to look ahead? look around instead.

while writing a post challenging current critique to take on a more global outlook, i ran into this post by kazys varnelis—now my original post has collapsed into my response for him. in his post, kazys starts by outlining two ‘types’ of consumers. the first one is the citizen of the global city, collapsed here with the creative class, who lives an apparently ‘green life’ (read: local consumption, pedestrian oriented) in new york, chicago, and other us cities, and then jets off to various parts of the world, often owning pied-à-terres on multiple continents. the second one is the suburbanite, often despised by the green hype movement but actually consuming much less in his daily commute since kazys assumes he suburbanite does not fly around as much.

let me stop here and just point out a few problems i have with these two ‘types.’ first, the prototype of the global citizen is not global: he (or she, although there is something very masculine here) is part of a very reduced, ‘local’ group that belongs to a few cities that all happen to be based in the united states. this problematic character is then eminently local. he jets away to different cities around the globe, but only finds the same: if anything, wealth has a tendency to equalize both consumption and environment.  however, he is actually in a very small group. let’s zoom out a bit. none of these cities (except shanghai, which seems hastily added as a destination in this argument) are among the biggest cities in the world. let’s review the top ten according to wikipedia: shanghai, mumbai, karachi, delhi, istanbul, sao paulo, moscow, seoul, beijing, and mexico city. so  kazys’s global citizen actually lives in medium- sized to small cities. but, you might say, they are a big influence in the global discourse. perhaps, but which discourse? the discourse that overwhelmingly seems to talk only to itself? and more importantly, how many people in these cities (big and small) actually live this jet-setting life? we would need a study to really know if there are any differences between the flying patterns of the city dweller and the suburbanite. isn’t the businessman after all the ultimate frequent flier, and isn’t he usually a suburban type?

the fact that a frequent flier that lives in the city is worse for the environment than the suburbanite is predicated on a dubious equation where the city dweller flies and the suburbanite doesn’t. this means nothing to the relative sustainability or lack thereof of city and suburb. the logical consequence is that, if both types were to fly the equal amount of miles (which for all we know, they might), the city dweller would still be more sustainable. answer: stop flying so much!

Suburbio - GYE, EC

the second part of kazys’s argument focuses on the volcano in iceland (i won’t attempt to type it). ah, the woes of interrupted flying in europe. first of all, coming from an andean country, volcanoes erupt all the time. the interruption of flying patterns is actually a minor problem. they cause great suffering, and while the losses might not be the same in terms of dollars, they amount to a higher percentage of the set of possessions people had. furthermore, you might loose the same amount of money on hotel and time than the total amount of losses by a farmer in the andes, but she just lost everything she owned. and the population affected can be much higher. let’s keep a bit of perspective here. so i hope by now you have surmised where i’m going  (and no, this is not an ethical, “third world,” post-colonialist argument, in case you are getting confused). rather, i’m arguing a truly global outlook.

the oil spill in the gulf scared a lot of people in the us. well, this is old news in the global picture. frequently, oil spills in the amazon jungle affect the last ecological reserve in the world. and oil spills in nigeria happen regularly. it is hard not to be cynical about laments on the gulf, when oil companies eager to accommodate the needs of the suburban lifestyle have caused so much pain and suffering in the rest of the globe. i understand kazys is not arguing for suburbia, but it is important to remember the consequences of this lifestyle. the recession has people talking of downward mobility and the new poor. again, old news. the rest of the world has been living in a recession for years. all these problems have already happened in the rest of the world. which brings us to my point: just as some of these problems are old news in the rest of the world, some of the solutions have already happened there also.

when new high-tech and high-priced gizmos like the kindle and its much hipper cousin the ipad came out, the blogosphere was very excited. nevermind that hacker websites from russia to south america have been scanning and posting pdfs for the consumption of the rest of the world that does not have a library around the corner nor easy access to jstor et al. the ipad is not the revolution, digital text is. it is less important how you read it, than the possibility of being able to read it at all! ingenuity finds uses for technology other than those originally intended, and this often happens because of need. think of cell phones used as micro loan mechanisms in india. think of the development of the bus rapid transit system in curitiba, transforming the bus into a dedicated line system resulting in an affordable mass transportation system that has been replicated in several cities in south america. christopher hawtorne thinks we should look at medellin… he is, of course, a bit late, but hey, we’ll take it.

in the end, i actually sort of agree with kazys’s conclusion, but my point is that it is not so much a prediction, as already a reality elsewhere, and that a more comprehensive argument should include this reality. want predictions for the future? want to look ahead? look around instead. the future of the ‘developed’ world is already happening in the rest of the world. it’s not all slums (although there are important lessons to be learned there, too). it’s not just a matter of ethics. it’s a matter of broadening our scope. so let’s fly sparingly. but the next time you fly, perhaps veer off your usual destinations (the same applies with your internet browsing!). it’s a big world out there, to be truly global you have to be aware of the full picture.

ps. ecuador: tungurahua volcano erupted and forced the evacuation of more than 2,000 people. 28 may 2010

pps. nigeria’s agony dwarfs the gulf oil spill. the us and europe ignore it. 30 may 2010

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