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July 2, 2002

Why We're Trapped in the Western Free Market Economy

It is not my modus operandi to reply to another column. However, the recent Come To The Darkside, You Knob about the utter horsecrap that Western society's free market economy dumps on us struck a chord with me. I've had similar feelings and thoughts, and as far back as early highschool I've longed to find a far off land that I could move to and escape all the bullshit. (Unfortunately, the location I picked, New Zealand, probably has just as much bullshit, but more sheep.)

Upon further thought, I can see that escaping isn't going to be easy. Heck, it may not even be possible, at least for most of us poor schmucks. From what I understand and based on my assessment of the entire situation, it's actually easier to break out of this "the bottom line is the last word" system if you're really deeply entrenched in it - that is, well-off and rolling in dough. Just getting by? Tough luck brother, come to the new Clip'n'Save grand opening double coupon days! Whether it was designed to or just happens to, this system tends to trap the people who probably most need and want to break out. You say fuck WalMart (somebody give me an Amen!) and support your local Mom and Pop stores. Yes, I'm all for that.

Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to. An awful lot of people, even ones with very well-paying jobs, live essentially paycheque to paycheque. All the low, low monthly payments add up (vehicle, house, credit card, furniture, cable, internet, phone, hydro, gas, RRSP, RESP, etc., etc.) and you're left with barely enough to rent a movie and have dinner out each month, let alone save up a significant amount of cash to buy your freedom. So, what happens is that someone needs something, and although they would like to support the Mom & Pop store a few blocks away, they think they can save some money by going to WalMart and doing all their shopping there, instead of having to trek around to 5 different Mom & Pop stores.

Most of what I've said assumes, of course, that the cheapest product will not be the most socially, culturally, morally, ecologically, and environmentally responsible product. In some cases, the opposite will be true. (Just look at SUVs, a.k.a. Stupid Ugly Vehicles.) In my very own case, I drive an SUV for two reasons; it fits all the stuff one typically hauls around when there's a toddler in the family, and it was the cheapest vehicle available to do so. Do I care that it gets half the mileage of my Honda del Sol? Does it really irk me that when I drive alone I'm consuming way more gas than I need to? Do I hate myself for allowing myself to become the driver of a 4000 lb behemoth? Yes, yes, and yes. But it was the cheap option at the time. Something more fuel-efficient would have cost more, which I couldn't have afforded. Sigh.

What needs to happen to break the cycle? A good first step would be to remove the price tags from everything, and replace them with a global socio-ecological cost tag. Call it the GSE price. Now, instead of thinking "Gee, this Neilson 1% milk costs 20 more than this locally-produced stuff" people will see "Hey, the impact of buying this local milk is a lot less than this corporate mega-dairy superfarm stuff" and buy accordingly. People can't process information they don't know. If you present them only with a list of ingredients and a retail price, making a socially-sound decision is impossible, unless you're some sort of economic savant that happens to know everything about each product one could possibly purchase.

Maybe this is the call to arms Reverend Dragitis is looking for. Start a loose-knit group that's got the energy and drive (and free time) to do some research into the products we buy. Start with food - everybody needs it, and it can have drastic impacts on societies and environments. Figure out if buying Ontario peaches during the summer is any better or worse than the California imports. Is President's Choice getting coffee from employee owned coffee co-ops in South America, or are they feeding the slave labour machine and damaging rainforest ecology to bring you your hot cup of bitter in the morning? Go into a supermarket with your list of GSEs for all the various products, and start labeling. Will people notice? Probably. Likely the store owner will be one such person, who may not want you skewing the carefully researched and tracked shopping habits of their well-documented demographic.

Even if one can escape this free market economy and all the stuff it hurls at you on a daily basis, to where can you escape? The USSR collapsed, so we know that didn't work. Just about every other nation is either dirt poor, or another free market economy (or on its way there). You could get a cabin up in the back woods of Northern Ontario, live off of your own vegetable garden, hunt your own meat, set up a solar array, and pray that the blackflies leave you the hell alone. Or perhaps you can just drown out all the noise with a few tokes of really prime bud, just so long as you have some organic whole wheat muffins lying around to snack on so you don't inadvertently contribute to the bullshit potato chip market.

In an ideal world, I would buy pesticide-free produce. My vehicle would contain Canadian-sourced parts and be low-emissions and have phenomenal fuel mileage. My home would be made of renewable resource materials, and the process of building it would not produce any landfill waste. Oh, and the land I build on would not be farmland either, but reclaimed and cleaned former industrial land that was previously not being used. The electricity I buy would come from wind, wave, and solar power, and would be cheap enough that I wouldn't need natural gas at all for any of my appliance (which would have been made in Canada). My clothing would not be made in sweathouses overseas, but in humanitarian factories that pay workers a fair wage. They would also be well-made and durable so that I wouldn't have to replace them every few years due to them wearing out or falling apart too soon. My municipality would collect both recyclable and compostable materials, and what little goes to the landfill they would first process to ensure all recyclable or compostable material has been reclaimed. Nothing I buy would be disposable, but would be either dishwasher or washing machine safe so I could reuse it. (Both my dishwasher and washing machine would be highly water and energy efficient and use biodegradable detergents.)

Sadly, of all of the above, I have a water and energy efficient washing machine. Why? I made a conscious effort to buy the best, and paid more to do so. Sadly, everything else is pretty much what is available and inexpensive.

Stop the economy - I want to get off...


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