In response to skyrocketing oil prices, many people are changing their lifestyles, trying to lead simpler lives as they tighten their belts. While these changes may be a response to increasing prices, they have the added benefit of conserving energy and decreasing carbon emissions. We must, however, ask ourselves how much we can change, what specific environmental benefits we can expect and how we should define our new lifestyles.
Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) statistics indicate that the industrial sector produces 52 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. The residential and commercial sectors account for 18 percent, the transportation sector accounts for 14 percent and the energy sector accounts for 7 percent. The industrial sector is, in other words, by far the largest polluter.
Conserving energy by changing our consumption patterns and lifestyles is undoubtedly a significant step. Stricter regulation of the energy used in manufacturing, however, must be undertaken and our whole concept of development scrutinized.
One may well wonder whether we can maintain our competitiveness without industrial development. The “6-3-3” economic policy of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) promises a 6 percent annual economic growth rate by bolstering development. In a sluggish economy, any policy focusing on boosting GDP is bound to attract voters. In the long term, however, focusing on development alone will fail to improve our living standard. In addition, it will only increase energy consumption and pollution.
The countries of northern Europe are now among the most competitive in the world, despite their low economic growth rates. Economic development and growth are not the primary goals of these countries, where people are more concerned with quality of living. These countries have not only retained their competitive edge, they are among the most successful in terms of energy conservation and carbon reductions.
So how did northern Europe pull this off?
These countries have not sought to compete on other countries’ turf. Instead, they have placed an emphasis on developing their own special strengths. The major industries and companies in these countries, such as Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ikea, have found success in integrating their operations with the culture and resources of their societies. This has fueled their ingenuity, creating unique products. Their competitiveness comes from skillfully utilizing the strengths of their environs and this is also what gives their products higher added value.
This qualitative form of competitiveness is vastly different from countries focused on quantity.
In terms of personal development, primary and secondary education in these countries focus on self-exploration. Students are encouraged to pursue their interests and choose their career paths based on these. They are not obsessed with class rankings. In fact, in these countries, schools do not even have class rankings. But that has hardly resulted in lazy students. On the contrary, students in northern Europe are largely serious about their studies because they enjoy what they are doing and their creativity is valued.
Northern Europe contrasts starkly against East Asian countries that place an overemphasis on development figures. These countries have not yet learned to exploit their special characteristics and strong points. Instead, they are constantly occupied with a game of trying to catch up to developed nations. Competitiveness based on quantitative assessments is destined to waste more resources and risk damaging quality of living. Individuals do not know what they want in life because they are not encouraged to flourish through their interests and when this happens to an entire country, it spells a lack of creativity.
“Localization” is a constructive process based on subjectivity. It is not an ideology nor based on isolationism. On the contrary, globalization is a necessary part of localization, or we could say that the two compliment each other. Only by interacting with the rest of the world can a country discover what is special about itself and what significance these features have. This is also the only way to develop these strengths and exploit them as resources. This is what Taiwan needs to boost its competitiveness. The KMT is rightly working to increase direct economic links with China and exploit globalization, but the economic progress we seek cannot be found without localization as well.
As we change our lifestyles, we should not think only of saving money but take a good look at our goals in life and seek to understand that simplicity can also be fulfilling. By gaining confidence in ourselves and our goals we can lead interesting and meaningful lives.
This is also the only way to find the creativity that is so important to competitiveness. With this perspective, we can observe globalization and understand where we fit in it and what we hope to gain from it. Eventually we will discover that competitiveness does not necessarily mean chasing on the heels of other countries.
Lii Ding-tzann is a professor of sociology at National Tsing Hua University.
TRANSLATED BY DREW CAMERON
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