Sunday, December 21, 2008

Stuff, Stuff and more stuff...

70 million computer mice, 60 million motherboards, 2 million square meters of wooden flooring, billions of plastic/glass/wooden beads, 15 billion buttons, 200 million yards of zippers, 8 billion pairs of socks, 300 million ties, 3 billion toothbrushes ...

What is this list? This is a teeny tiny portion of the stuff churned out by Chinese factories in a year. Are these the total production figures for the entire country? Again, the answer is a big 'NO'. This is just the amount of stuff churned out by a single factory or a single small city in China. For example, the electronics company 'Logitech' has a manufacturing base in the Chinese city of Suzhou. It produces approximately 70 million computer mice per year and supplies under its own brand as well as under other brands like 'Dell'. 'Acer' etc. Almost every single molecule of any product that we use everyday is from these huge Chinese factories. We're now buying things because they're being produced and are available in the market, rather than things being produced because they're needed for our life.

Over the past 3 decades, China has taken up mass manufacturing at a scale not imagined by anyone before. There are millions of factories across China churning out products by the billions. Most of us would not have heard of any of these companies as most of these products are sold under popular home brands of the respective countries. This is in contrast to the development model of the Japanese or the South Koreans who, over the years, have built up a popular brand image and value. While the world would blindly trust a product from a popular company in Japan / Korea, we would think twice before purchasing a product marketed directly as "Made in China". But in all probability, the entire product floated by the Japanese / Koreans would've been manufactured in China.

The massive scale of production in the Chinese territory, the ways & means of sourcing the raw materials to meet this production scale and the consequences of such massive production & dumping of products, while awe inspiring, also makes me uncomfortable and uneasy.For example, the Chinese city of Zhangjiagang is like the 'wooden workshop of the world' producing all sorts of stuff like plywood, wooden flooring, furniture etc. Seeing the effects of large scale deforestation on the Chinese forests, the government banned the felling of natural forests in the country. As a result, the wooden industry turned to the outside world for wood supply. Currently, China is said to be the largest importer of wood and a sizable percent of it is supposed to be illegal. Millions and Millions of acres of rain forests are being destroyed illegally and the wood is sent to the Chinese factories to be made into furniture to be sold to the affluent of the world. Forests of Africa, South America, Indonesia etc are rapidly diminishing due to this illegal trade.

The Chinese have a majority market share in almost every single product that you can imagine. There is a region in China,specializing in fake oil paintings that we see in hotels, shops and other public places. This place churns out thousands of fake Mona lisa, Marlyn Monroe and even Bush. There are huge markets selling plant herbs, animals parts and even human placentas to be used in traditional medicines.

The output of every product is in the Billions. I'm personally not in favor of this model of development which has produced millions of workers working around 100 hours a week, on the same monotonous job in an assembly line, for an extremely low wage. Some argue that this is better than the wretched life that these people would be living, if not for such factories. But I'm not comfortable with that thought. This model has produced millions of workers with steady, but low wages on one hand and a handful of rich factory owners, managers and industrialists on the other. The cities become divided into sections of huge overcrowded workers, interspersed with affluent homes and apartments.

This type of mass production is also building up clutter in this world. Everywhere we see huge warehouse style shops in our places such as Saravana stores or Big Bazaar in India or the ones like Walmart or target in the US. They have huge mounds of stuff at dirt cheap prices, all mass produced in such factories in China. We see people buying stuff by the cart loads. Most do not even care if they really need these items. They're just cheap and attractive. I see a huge glut of materials among the affluent of the world. Each one has something like 2 televisions, 3 mobile phones, 2 laptops, 2 cars, 10 bags, 20 pens and 5 bundles of paper. The concept of buying just one of any item seems to be vanishing. Here in US, I don't think I can buy a single pen or just 10 sheets of paper. I have to buy a pack of 10 pens or a whole bundle of paper.

The mass output of such factories have not yet covered the entire humanity. Imagine what will happen if the entire human population starts living like this. The production which is already in the billions would shoot up into the Trillions, Zillions or Pillions (I don't know what such huge numbers are called). Where are we going to get the resources for these? What will be ecological footprint of these operations? How are we going to dispose the waste products? I don't think, this mindless obsession for filling up our lives with endless cheap material possessions, augurs well for this planet.