Ten million inhabitants of the Congo Free State paid the price for King Leopold II's greed and brutality when he opportunistically forced them into slave labor to extract sap from rubber trees to sell to the embryonic automobile industry in the 1890s. The price of tires did not reflect the externalized cost of the slave labor, nor did it reflect the value of lives lost at the hands of Leopold's military.
Today, externalization of costs insidiously hides cheap labor, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, destruction of the environment and ubiquitous toxins which have worked their way up to the top of the food chain in mothers' milk. Shockingly, human life has become an externalized cost as a direct consequence of the unsustainable lifestyle of people in North America. Literally, millions of people have died or been injured as a result of our extravagant lifestyle, which often requires enormous quantities of fossil fuels for transportation and the manufacture of consumer or capital products.
Oil is the resource infused with the most blood. Despite media coverage of American imperialistic wars and the propaganda cascading from the White House, millions of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya were victims of America's determination to control the world's oil supply. Millions of innocent people have been killed in Iraq alone, and tragically, their lives are part of the externalized cost of whatever benefits were accrued as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation. Paradoxically, due to our consumption habits and lifestyle, we are assigning a value to human life which can be calculated by dividing the resulting excessive purchases germane to perpetual unsustainable growth divided by the number of casualties who have become victims of American imperialism in the pursuit of economic advantages. Since World War II, growth in production, as measured by the GDP, has been the benchmark of economic success, despite its critical flaws, not the least of which is the exclusion of quality-of-life factors in its calculation. Every president in the United States or prime minister in Canada has referred to its essential role in measuring the health of the economy.
George Kennan, one of the major architects of U.S. foreign policy following WWII, succinctly delineated the plan to sustain continued growth when he warned that "We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. We cannot deceive ourselves that we can afford the luxury of altruism and world benefaction."
In 1958, President Eisenhower proudly announced: "There are solid grounds for confidence that economic growth will be resumed without an extended interruption." His Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors suggested: "The issue -- whether we shall shrink from or measure up to the challenge of potential abundance -- is perhaps the supreme issue of the 20th century." Apparently, abundance overrides healthcare, education, stewardship of the environment, and caring for the less fortunate members of society. Without exception, every Chairman and President voiced similar sentiments during their term in office. Economic growth, whether sustainable or unsustainable, was apotheosized as a core value in the American zeitgeist.
To promote relentlessly growing unsustainable production of goods and services postulated a concomitant growth in consumption, challenging business mavens to develop strategies to induce consumers to perpetuate growing aggregate demand by ritualizing shopping and by obscuring more important values through insecurity, conformity and aspirations to meet the spurious and nefarious standards set by our culture.
Planned obsolescence, perceived obsolescence, technological obsolescence and omnipresent, pervasive and incessant advertising are the four major strategies that have been developed over the years to pressure consumers to shop until they drop.
Planned obsolescence is only common sense if you need repeat customers to maintain high levels of profits. If everything was made to last forever, your customer base would become seriously depleted.
Celebrities, supermodels and peers continually inform our sense of taste as to what is fashionable. Ask yourselves why automobile manufacturers design new models every year. Have they been continually discovering more efficient and aerodynamic bodies every year since the first car rolled of an assembly line, or have they discovered that people will buy cars more frequently if their car differs too significantly from the latest model?
Technological obsolescence is insidious due to the fact that new, shiny, indispensable, alluring and irresistible techno-gizmos are perpetually paraded in front of our covetous eyes. First cell phones, then cell phones with cameras and computers, followed by iPods, iPads and cobo, not to mention computers with exponentially more power and speed loaded with new, exciting features.
Electronic products are encumbered with a myriad of external costs such as the public school children who work in coltan mines in the Congo, the women who work on the assembly lines in Chinese sweatshops, dipping electronic chips into trichloroethylene without any protection for their hands or concerns about potential birth defects, all the greenhouse-emitting transportation between countries to ship resources, parts and assembled products, and the toxic pollution spewed into the ecosystem when we discover that our once miraculous new gadget has become obsolete. Dumping electronic products in the waste bin means either incineration or burying them in a landfill, resulting in the release of toxins assimilated during the manufacturing process into the ecosystem.
The one external cost that is completely invisible and neglected in calculating the cost of a product is the price tag of all the damage to the environment and loss of human life inflicted on countries where cheap labor or resources were abundant. Developing countries have paid a steep price in order that wealthy countries can preserve their excessively opulent lifestyle. Notwithstanding that overall consumption is the problem, it disguises the fact that there is a widening gap between the rich and the poor and a shamefully inequitable distribution of wealth, particularly in the United States. While the wealthy or upper middle class may be generating more economic or financial activity, a growing number of Americans and Canadians are struggling to remain afloat.
An interesting, purely hypothetical exercise would be to calculate the additional consumption in North America compared to some European countries and divide the difference by an estimate of the number of people who have lost their lives to imperialist, predatory interventions in developing countries. The result would be an extremely rough guide as to the value North Americans are unwittingly attaching to human life.
Norway has the highest United Nations Human Development Index (UNHDI), while the United States is fourth and Canada sixth. The UNHDI is a composite index reflecting a number of quality-of-life measurements such as life expectancy, education, literacy and standard of living. Since Norway has the highest index, I will compare its consumption levels to those of North America. In Norway, the annual personal consumption expenditure per capita was $14,530 in 2005 international dollars and only includes the acquisitions of goods and services. Canada and the United States had expenditures per capita of $15,094 and $15,816 respectively in the same year and rank first and second on the list. In other words, to enjoy the highest quality of life, as measured by the UNHDI, each Canadian and American only needed to spend, on average, $14,530 per capita. In 2005, the population of Canada was 32,268,000 and the population of the United States was 298,213,000. To live a lifestyle comparable to Norway, the total expenditure in Canada would have been $468,854,040,000 ($14,530 x 32,268,000). In the United States, it would have been $4,333,034,890,000 ($14,530 x 298,213,000).
In fact, the total expenditure in the Canada was $487,053,192,000 ($15,094 x 32,268,000) and in the U.S. was $4,716,536,808,000 ($15,816 x 298,213,000).