Low hanging fruit of our labour


There it was, the Superman stuffed toy dumped on the bathroom floor, again. I picked it up. It had been dunked in the tub and was still sopping wet. I turned it over in my hand.

As I checked it out, it occurred to me that a lot of work had gone into that toy. I started counting. There were 37 separate pieces of cloth carefully stitched together along with 15 heat decals printed on top, not to mention the stuffing inside and the professional Made In China tag sticking out of the leg seam. The workmanship was outstanding; I couldn’t have done it. And to think that it came all the way from China and cost less than 10 bucks.

What made the toy possible at all was the cheap labour available in China. A lot of our clothes come from Bangladesh for the same reason. Business always goes where the costs are cheapest and the markets are the wealthiest. In business parlance this is going after “the low hanging fruit”—the easy profits.

That has also been the guiding social, cultural and economic philosophy for the past 200 years. Do what comes easiest is a kind of Occam’s Razor of the modern age. But it goes back much further than that. As far back as 10,000 years ago, humans have hunted animals to extinction. The wooly mammoth was one. Our ancestors over-cut forests and over-farmed sensitive habitats creating deserts that last to this day.

The development and wide-spread use of fossil fuels has provided us with the ultimate low hanging fruit. The stuff powers most of our machinery, from farming to manufacturing to transportation and everything in between. As far as quality of life is concerned, at least from a human perspective, it’s never been better. It’s become so good, in fact, that it’s killing us. For a third or more of the world’s population we now live in a reality of over-abundance. Living off the fat of the land takes on new meaning.

Eric Schlosser tells it pretty well in “Fast Food Nation”. He informs us that rate of adult obesity in the States is twice as high as it was in the 1960s, and that “no other nation in history has gotten so fat so fast.” He also notes that as the US exports its culture abroad, obesity is on the rise all over the world.

Call it the curse of the “labour saving device”. Gadgets and machinery were the great liberators of the 20th Century. They “freed” our parents and grandparents from heavy manual work. The side effect, of course, is the fact that they’ve chained themselves to us—or us to them. We’re chained to our cars. We’re chained to our computers and our television sets. We’re chained to our fast food restaurants and golf carts and office desks. Constantly seeking oral gratification—to take the place of physical activity—we’re chained to our fridge doors and microwave ovens, too.

All of this is symptomatic of the real low hanging issue: that we’re Hoovering up the world’s most accessible resources at an alarming rate. Lester Brown, the founder of the Earth Policy Institute says that in a world that’s growing by more than 70 million people a year, the prospect of feeding the world’s population is becoming increasingly difficult. He forecasts food shortages in the near future and the real possibility of regional conflict. In the meantime human encroachment is driving thousands of species toward extinction annually and gobbling up millions of hectares of wild spaces around the globe—reconstituting them into monocultural uses such as vast tropical palm farms for palm oil.

Increased demand for dwindling resources will create new, troubling scenarios. Brown’s website gives a good example:

“The potential for further grain consumption as incomes rise among low-income consumers is huge. But that potential pales beside the insatiable demand for crop-based automotive fuels. A fourth of this year’s U.S. grain harvest—enough to feed 125 million Americans or half a billion Indians at current consumption levels—will go to fuel cars. Yet even if the entire U.S. grain harvest were diverted into making ethanol, it would meet at most 18 percent of U.S. automotive fuel needs. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank with ethanol could feed one person for a year.”

And so we arrive, full circle, back at the granddaddy of low hanging fruit—gasoline. There are, fortunately, people working on what comes after fossil fuel. On the same website, Brown’s Earth Policy crew reports that…

“The events of the past two years illustrate that the door is closing on the prospect of building new coal-fired power plants in the United States. While only five new coal plants, totaling 1,400 megawatts, began operation in 2008, more than 100 wind farms capable of generating 8,400 megawatts came online. Yet this is only the beginning…”

Indeed. The world is currently—and continuously—using 15 terawatts of electricity (a terawatt is a trillion watts) to keep the global lights on. It would take more that 7 million wind turbines operating constantly at peak output to produce that much power—or 30,000 big coal-fired generating stations. The modern world is an energy-hungry place.

So if we’re rapidly running out of low hanging fruit what comes next? In a world of diminishing expectations we’re headed for what the Europeans call “Energy Descent”. They’re now building action plans and reconfiguring entire cities to survive the coming decline of affordable fossil fuel supplies.

Looking at Canada, and especially New Brunswick with its ramping up oil refinery and LNG terminal, we’re not even close to these kinds of thoughts—let alone action plans.

But the problem is not the government or even big business. It’s us, all of us. It’s difficult enough to reduce, reuse and recycle let alone committing to abandoning our cars and SUVs and cutting our home energy consumption by two-thirds.

The answer is in the mirror. The ultimate weight loss program is not driving to the gym. It’s parking the car, getting out of the easy chair and doing some real, physical work, though it’s unlikely that’s ever going to happen. As the world’s most opportunistic species, opportunism—going after the low hanging fruit first—is what we do best. Tomorrow will always take care of itself. For better or worse.


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