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Greed Kills

Greed Kills
by Zhang Xiaojia

“It is perhaps time now to admit that we did not learn the full lessons of the greed-is-good ideology. And today we are still cleaning up the mess of the21st-century children of Gordon Gekko.” The Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently made this comment to the Federal Labour Business Forum. He is telling us that it was the unsupervised greed that caused all the mess on Wall Street and brought the world economy into crisis. The way I see it, uncontrolled greed is not merely dangerous; it kills.

As an international student from China, I was appalled to learn that four babies were killed and more than 12,600 were hospitalized by the melamine-tainted infant formula produced by SanLu earlier last month. At first glance, people thought it was only a random incident. But when further investigations were undertaken, it was revealed that almost every milk product sold on the Chinese market contained excessive melamine. According to the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine of China, over 24 dairy products from respected Chinese companies such as MengNiu, YiLi, and GuangMing failed to pass the melamine test.

What is melamine? It is a chemical compound that is used to make plastic materials and fertilizers. The Chinese milk industry uses the Kjedahl method to measure the nitrogen content in milk to determine the actual protein because nitrogen is released from protein. In the past, milk manufacturers sometimes inflated their products by adding more water, but the diluted milk often cannot pass the protein level check. Therefore, if melamine, a substance that contains high level of nitrogen, is added into milk, it fools the protein level checks. However, the intake of melamine causes kidney stones, which led to the death of the four babies and to the hospitalization of thousands of others. The hunger for profit outweighed the health and lives of millions. It is human greed that created this catastrophe.

As human beings, we should learn from history and avoid mistakes that we made in the past. If not, we are destined to let history repeat itself. It was only four years ago that 13 innocent infants lost their lives in the “Big-head baby milk” scandal. According to a report in 2004 from Xinhua, 45 types of inferior milk powder were sold in Fuyang city, Anhui province. The report said more than 200 babies who were fed the milk powder developed what the doctors called “big head symptom” causing these babies’ heads to swell and their bodies to waste away. Specialists said then that this was the worst malnourishment case they have seen in 20 years. The Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said then that the manufacturers of these milk powders would face “severe punishment”. But in just four years, this haunting nightmare came back again. I wondered if the punishment was not severe enough – or was the greed for money just too tempting?

Currently, China is still recognized as a communist country but the concept of getting rich was hardwired into our minds over thirty years ago when the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proclaimed, “To get rich is glorious”. Since then China has reconfigured itself into a market-driven economy; the seeds of pursuing profit and becoming “glorious” have been disseminated to every corner of the country, so that the prime concern for the Chinese government nowadays is to seek for a higher GDP. In order to accelerate the cycle of consumption, the Chinese government promoted a list of “inspection-free products“ which covers a range of 2528 commodities. SanLu's poisoned milk was on that list, along with several other milk products that contained excessive melamine. In a sense, the government should be held accountable for letting these corporations run unchecked. Moreover, it is not the first time that the Chinese government showed inadequacy in supervising dairy products.

The melamine tainted milk incident has further diminished the trust of the Chinese general public towards food safety. My cousin, who is going to deliver her first child next month, asked me to bring her some milk powder from Australia when I return for the summer vacation. Although the government is guaranteeing the safety of milk products after the scandal, she is still very concerned with the quality of milk powder being sold on the Chinese market. Indeed, how do you put the life of your baby in the hands of a government that has failed to keep its promises over and over again? As a consequence the Chinese dairy industry is suffering domestically and internationally. Even the famous White Rabbit Creamy Candies made with Chinese milk are being taken off shelves in Canada and the UK. Meanwhile, the food industry is not the only one that has been contaminated by the “get-rich-quick” ideology.

2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, is a year that should have brought glory to the Chinese people. However, the Sichuan earthquake made the whole nation mourn. Tens of thousands of young schoolboys and girls were buried after their school buildings had collapsed on them. It was not long after that that the Chinese officials admitted that there were possible quality problems with those school buildings. The morality of the construction contractors must have been devoured by their greed when they chose to use inferior materials in building these classrooms. Moreover, how could a country that is capable of sending astronauts to outer space fail to maintain standard checks of thousands of school buildings?

“Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cut through.” These words of Gordon Gekko's may have been the business motto in the capitalist world for ages. But, it is the same greed that has now brought the American economy into chaos. If China keeps on mimicking all the essence of the greed theory and follows the “To get rich is glorious” slogan, more people will suffer, more human lives will become collateral damage. The Chinese government should learn from these tragedies and utilize its power to regulate greedy corporations and focus less on controlling its people’s minds.

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Can we overcome our greed? Remember I=PAT

Consuming less may be the single biggest thing you can do to save carbon emissions, and yet no one dares to mention it. Because if we did, it would threaten economic growth, the very thing that is causing the problem in the first place.

Visceral fear is not without foundation. If we do not go out shopping, then factories stop producing, and if factories stop producing then people get laid off. If people get laid off, then they do not have any money. And if they don't have any money they cannot go shopping. A falling economy has no money in the public purse and no way to service public debt. It struggles to maintain competitiveness and it puts people's jobs at risk. A government that fails to respond appropriately will soon find itself out of office.

This is the logic of free-market capitalism: the economy must grow continuously or face an unpalatable collapse. With the environmental situation reaching crisis point, however, it is time to stop pretending that mindlessly chasing economic growth is compatible with sustainability. We need something more robust than a comfort blanket to protect us from the damage we are wreaking on the planet. Figuring out an alternative to this doomed model is now a priority before a global recession, an unstable climate, or a combination of the two forces itself upon us.

The message from all this is clear: any alternative to growth remains unthinkable, even 40 years after the American ecologists Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren made some blindingly obvious points about the arithmetic of relentless consumption.

The Ehrlich equation, I = PAT, says simply that the impact (I) of human activity on the planet is the product of three factors: the size of the population (P), its level of affluence (A) expressed as income per person, and a technology factor (T), which is a measure of the impact on the planet associated with each dollar we spend.

Take climate change, for example. The global population is just under 7 billion and the average level of affluence is around $8000 per person. The T factor is just over 0.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per thousand dollars of GDP - in other words, every $1000 worth of goods and services produced using today's technology releases 0.5 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. So today's global CO2 emissions work out at 7 billion × 8 × 0.5 = 28 billion tonnes per year.

We are now witnessing the greatest challenge humans have ever faced.

We need to change and we need to change fast. Greed certainly kills and unless we can overcome our greed we will all be killed.

Greed has locked us into dramatic climate change.

MARGOT O'NEILL: Dave Griggs now leads Monash University's new Sustainability Institute after heading up the British Government's Hadley Institute and the IPCC's Science Working Group.

What most of us don't understand, he says, is that no matter what we do, the planet is now locked into dramatic temperature and sea level rises by 2050 because of the greenhouse gasses already trapped in the atmosphere. A two-degree temperature rise was once projected towards the end of the century and regarded as a tipping point for dangerous climate change. It's now likely to occur in our lifetime.

DAVE GRIGGS: Maybe two, two to three degrees by mid-century.

MARGOT O'NEILL: I mean, that almost is the end for the Great Barrier Reef.

DAVE GRIGGS: Inherently scientists are very conservative, and they won't come out and make a statement in public unless they are very confident about it. But the kind of sort of thing that are going around in private, you know, oh, the Barrier Reef's gone, the Murray Darling's gone.

ANN HENDERSON-SELLERS: We should be exercising triage. We should be looking at the parts of the world that are already dead, they're just still walking around. And we just need to leave them alone, and maybe the Murray Darling Basin is one of those.

On the ABC'S Lateline program last night scientists expressed their fear that our greed will destroy the planet.

Zhang, we like to think of humans as the intelligent animal. I think the greedy animal is probably a better description. While the world focuses on the financial crisis we seem to have forgotten the climate crisis which has been brought on by our greed. Our greed is destroying the planet and will eventually destroy us.

The world is in desperate need of new systems both political and financial. We need to overcome our natural greed to make this planet liveable for all. Let's hope our intelligence is powerful enough to overcome our greed.

The All-Too-Human Condition

Zhang, thank you for your article and its unique perspective.

 Perhaps you will forgive a 62 year-old his cynicsm. History, as George Santayana observed, is something that mankind is condemned to repeat without exception. We endure the same sorts of problems from one century to the next. For most humans what happened 20 years ago may have happened. What happened 50 years is barely known and what happened a century or more ago never happened. Who has ever heard of the The South Seas Bubble (expect for the smarties who treasure such obscure facts)? How many GenYers know about The Great Depression or even the last significant Australian recession?

 The enduring motivations of the human species, apart from the carnal ones, are greed and hubris.

We have welcomed dictators, kings, emperors and all manner of scoundrels to rule us. We have an attention span that barely exceeds a week or two and  we place great store on myths and amusements.

Our whole existence is barely moved by introspection or education. For example countless allegedly sophisticated and educated people rely on horoscopes and fortune-tellers to order their lives.

In spite of advances in technology and understanding, the world still remains an exceedingly dangerous and barbarous place. A case to contemplate is the jailing of Afghan student, Parwez Kambakhsh, for daring to ask questions relating to women's rights.

China is not unique in its problems relating to health and safety issues. However, it will take a long time, perhaps at least a century, before better attitudes permeate Chinese society. By that time China will be the world's dominant superpower so we had better hope that its practices have improved.

 

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