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Weighing the costs of luxury
[ 2007-07-18 15:49 ]

Ours is a developing - and poor - country with a per capita GDP of $1,970, giving us a ranking of 112th in the world. But that never seems to dissuade us from lavishing our money on the latest modern conveniences. The use of cell phones is an example.

Unofficial statistics (sorry, there aren't always authoritative statistics available in this country) indicate that China has no less than 400 million mobile telecommunications subscribers, and that on average they upgrade their mobile phones every two years.

Inaccurate as that might sound, the figures at least suggest that every few years hundreds of millions of cell phones end up at the backs of drawers or in waste collectors' sacks. This also means that for every replaced or stolen phone, a battery and adaptor are also rendered redundant. Just imagine the waste.

The essential and original function of a cell phone is to facilitate mobile communication - making a call or sending a text message while on the go. But people's taste for constant renewal has conferred new meaning on the cell phone: color screens, polyphonic ring tones, video games, MP3 players, digital cameras ... the list goes on. Each new modification triggers a wave of replacements as people dump their old models. Young people are the main target of these novel functions, but many middle-aged people, mostly higher- and middle-income earners, also frequently update their mobile phones as fashion dictates. 

The desire for frequent replacements also derives from technical - or disguised commercial - reasons.

Being the old fogey that I am, I have gone through three models since I bought my first one seven years ago. I lost the first one, a Nokia, to a thief and deserted the second one, a Samsung, because of an incurable antenna problem. I bought my current one, an LG, two years ago, after the Samsung service man told me, with a contemptuous look in his eyes, that he could not find a replacement for my phone's antenna unit because it was "too old". His reaction made me realize that three years could be considered "old" in the world of mobile phones.

Now my third phone has begun to show signs of senility - it often happens that the person I am talking to can hear me but I cannot hear him. I know I may have to buy a new model because it could be difficult to find the parts needed to fix my current model, which has been phased out. I feel like I have been kidnapped by mobile phone merchants.

Mobile phones are not the only products that drive or induce us to pursue constant updates. There are also TV sets, washing machines, refrigerators, high-fi audio systems and so on.

It is unreasonable to blame people for craving a higher resolution TV set, a faster computer or an automobile that is easier and more comfortable to drive. It is human nature to constantly seek greater enjoyment. Hundreds of years of development of modern industry have led us to believe that science and technology are invincible and omnipotent, and that so long as human beings are willing to explore new ideas, they have the power to raise the level of human enjoyment without limit. In other words, we assume that painstaking effort is the only fee we need to pay in exchange for a life of constant improvement.

However, the huge piles of electronic garbage remind us that we have ignored a more fundamental cost of modern luxury - the draining of resources and the pollution of the air, earth and water. We should ask ourselves: Is it moral for us to mine the resources of this planet beyond what our generation needs, cutting into our offspring's stake just to pander to our incessant avarice for luxurious enjoyment?

Email: liushinan@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 06/06/2007 page10) 


About the author:

刘式南 高级编辑。1968年毕业于武汉华中师范学院(现华中师范大学)英文系。1982年毕业于北京体育学院(现北京体育大学)研究生院体育情报专业。1982年进入中国日报社,先后担任体育记者、时政记者、国际新闻编辑、要闻版责任编辑、发稿部主任、《上海英文星报》总编辑、《中国商业周刊》总编辑等职。现任《中国日报》总编辑助理及专栏作家。1997年获国务院“特殊贡献专家政府津贴”。2000年被中华全国新闻工作者协会授予“全国百佳新闻工作者”称号。2006年获中国新闻奖二等奖(编辑)。

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