around the wold – part 18.3 (the SUV and the water bottle)

November 16 2006:

In my admittedly limited travels in the former soviet bloc, I have observed a couple of cultural trends which seem to have replicated themselves throughout. The first is the proliferation of SUVs and the second is the near ubiquitous sight of water bottles discarded everywhere. In Canada, the SUV has infiltrated society successfully enough that they are very rarely remarked on (other than in the context of their environmental unfriendliness), every street in every suburb is thoroughly populated with them. While there may still be status attached to certain SUVs, the manufacturers have produced, and the marketers sold, such a wide variety of them that mere ownership no longer confers special status. The same can not be said in eastern Europe.

There is a hierarchy of automobiles in Armenia (and Romania for that matter) with the SUV gaining top honours and the Lada relegated to ‘drive it because you have nothing else’. The SUV culture is fairly easy to distinguish as it has two salient features – type and proximity to the best parking spots. Rare types automatically confer top status, and that with that status comes access to the prime parking spots in town. Walk out of the hotel, or to the nearest restaurants or shops and you observe parked directly in front of the main entrance the gleaming behemoths. Gleaming, of course because when your ego is tied directly to your ride you certainly don’t allow it to carry around a layer of dust.

Within the SUV culture one can observe more subtle gradations. Top dog is the HUMMER, preferably black with tinted windows – recalling gangsta culture of the late 1990s in the US.
On the same tier but driven by a deferment class of locals are the Mercedes Gelandwagon or Range Rovers – also black, but adorned with special add-ons such as crash bars, snorkel exhausts and auxiliary lamps. One gets the impression that these are favoured by those fearing an ambush – call it the ride of the slightly paranoid oligarch. The former ride, the HUMMER, is piloted by the owner – an ostentatious display of his wealth and power, the latter are chauffeured around by driver/bodyguards.

The second tier is dominated almost completely by the Toyota Landcruiser. Also black, also fully appointed with leather and sometimes accessories with a goon-driver. These hold their own next to the top dogs – parked or double parked in front of the best restaurants and shops in town. I wonder if the Hollywood gangster movie culture which glorified the SUV driving gangster didn’t artificially create the demand and the subsequent aping of that same culture.

Finally at the bottom of the SUV culture (but above all other motorized transport) are the slightly smaller Nissans, Lexus, Audi’s etc. This does beg a question though – in a city without a Lexus dealership, just how did these vehicles come to wash up in Yerevan? How many vehicles disappear off the streets of Western Europe and North America and wind up in this part of the world?

While Canada frets about climate change and reducing our greenhouse gas emission’s, large parts of the world seem to have simply not gotten the (navel gazing – self critical ) message. I suspect that whether we ever virtuously manage to reduce our own levels of pollution, it will not matter one bit. Everywhere east of Western Europe (including the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe), thousands of people are acquiring vehicles at an insane pace. And while they drive they are tossing plastic water bottles out the windows with wild abandon. You cannot appreciate the sheer levels of material pollution in Eastern Europe until you see it.

Canadians can work themselves into spasms earth awareness once a year as they spread out through their communities to clean up the junk accumulated alongside roads. (Although I suspect that a great deal of it is actually material which folks quite nicely placed in blue boxes but which subsequently bounced or blew out of the collecting trucks as they headed towards the central depot – but I digress) The reason we pry ourselves from in front of our TVS only once a year is that by and large there isn’t that much material pollution to clean up – in fact only a day’s worth of effort. (Shocked gasps of horror from the priests of environmental absolutism)

Think about it -if we succeed generally in cleaning up our neighborhoods once a year there simply isn’t that much to clean up. For more than half my life we have been indoctrinated to eliminate our littering habits, culminating in our being programmed to offer once a week a blue box full of plastic to the magic curb gods. Does this mean there aren’t thoughtless Canadians discarding plastic bottles out the window as they blast along the 401 – of course not. But I defy anyone to identify any stretch of any highway in Canada and compare the amount of trash collected to that which I have observed clogging the landscapes here.

Judging from what I have observed in both Romania, Armenia and Czech Republic, the entire populations of those countries could knock off work for six months to devote themselves to cleaning their cities and countryside of discarded plastic and still would hardly make a dent in the sheer volume of trash. Some may counter by throwing up the volume and variety of disposable items we consume to condemn us as Philistine plunderers. Yes we do consume quite a bit by any standard, BUT, we manage its consequences much better than most other societies. While we have successfully programmed consumers to dispose of trash in accordance with prescribed rules, what of those regions where not only is the existing trash not even disposed of, but as their overall wealth increases, demand for more disposable items increases with little structural or cultural processes in place to manage the garbage?

Why so much trash? My personal opinion is that it can be summed up with two general concepts – rule of law and property rights. We have grown so accustomed to the smooth functioning of these concepts that we have the luxury of ignoring their importance in the smooth running of our societies. The dirty little secret which most collectivist socialists in the west refuse to admit is that by and large when people own their own property and when contracts (including that between taxpayer and government service provider to enforce / coerce individuals into adhering to, for example, bylaws) are enforced by a fair application of the rule of law, when left to their own devices people tend to look after their own property with a complimentary effect of having a lesser impact on the ‘common’ property. In the absence of those two concepts, people seem to have no interest in the welfare of ‘common’ and socialized property and are suspicious of the ability of courts to protect them from uneven and petty application of laws.

Thus it is not uncommon to see in the former eastern bloc, newly privatized residences walled and gated off from their neighbors with the streetsides strewn with garbage and discarded trash. This is a visible manifestation of the fact that while they may own their own property for now, the residents are unconsciously expressing a fear that this is only a temporary condition (70 years of socialist paradise preceded by a neo feudal history will do that to you), coupled with the fact that enforcement of contracts as part of a civil society is uneven and rife with corruption.

Clearly this does not comprise a comprehensive theory as to why there is so much garbage, obviously there are other powerful cultural forces at work but the next time I hear sanctimonious ‘earth firsters’ and climate change shuck and jive artists at work I might advise that they save their breath on lecturing Canadians and concentrate their efforts instead on exhorting and educating other parts of the world which could really use a good cleaning up.


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