TELEVISION

Eve of destruction?

A special explores the dangers of global consumerism

SCOTT STEELE September 5 1994
TELEVISION

Eve of destruction?

A special explores the dangers of global consumerism

SCOTT STEELE September 5 1994

Eve of destruction?

TELEVISION

A special explores the dangers of global consumerism

THE HUMAN RACE

(CBC, Sept. 4,11,18,25, 9 p.m.)

Gone are the Berlin Wall, the Soviet juggernaut, the spectre of imminent nuclear annihilation. Even Communist China is experimenting with free-market reforms. The scourge of apartheid has evaporated in South Africa, and peace may be breaking out in the Middle East. For globe-trotting historian, military analyst and London-based Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer, those unexpected developments have profound implications. “I had, I guess, the standard set of assumptions about how things work that stood me in good stead throughout two decades of writing about international affairs—and then they fell apart,” he recently told Maclean’s.

“What had a tremendous impact on me from about 1987 on was that there were large areas of the world, and increasing areas of the world, where change was actually occurring, dramatic change, against what I had assumed to be the current, in nonviolent ways or relatively nonviolent ways.”

So Dyer, best known for his critically acclaimed seven-part 1983 NFB documentary War, began to rethink some of his earlier assumptions, including, as he acknowledges, the notions “that change is usually violent and often for the worst; that most things end in tears; that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.” And what has emerged is an ambitious and thought-provoking four-hour documentary called The Human Race. The program’s primary thesis: what are often taken to be expressions of human nature are, in fact, mere conventions that, at a crucial turning point in the history of civilization, must be left behind to ensure our survival as a species. “Male domination isn’t natural and neither is equality of the sexes—it all depends,” Dyer states in The Human Race. “Same goes for whether we are warlike or peaceful, democratic or authoritarian. Change the way we live and you may also change the way we behave towards each other.”

In the headlong rush towards the 21st cen-

tury, change is occurring at an unprecedented rate. Take India, a country of 900 million, where Dyer focuses on growing rates of consumption. Per capita income has increased by a third in a single decade. Ox carts plod through squalid streets carrying newly purchased television sets while the indigent sift through rubbish in the shadow of advertising billboards bearing such slogans as ‘Time to think of a second color TV? Think big.”

Such startling images underscore the anomalies of modernization. But Dyer uses India to illustrate an unstoppable trend: the emergence of a global consumer society. “It is the Third World’s turn,” he says in the documentary, arguing that it is unfair (and unreasonable) for the First World to try to contain development. “It’s not the eternal destiny of Indians to be poor, just as there’s no natural law saying that people in the North will always be richer. In fact, there’s a huge shift in wealth and power under way in the world right now.”

Within 50 years, Dyer predicts, there will

be about 10 billion consumers on the planet, posing grave environmental dangers. In Mexico City, by far the world’s most polluted metropolis, there are now three million cars—and the number is expected to double by the year 2000. “You cannot really blame the Mexicans,” Dyer states. “About one-fifth of the world’s people now have their own cars, TVs, fridges and microwaves. And collectively, these billion First World people account for four-fifths of the consumption in the world. But now, the rest of the human race is chasing the same goals—and a lot of them are going to make it.”

Dyer argues that the communications revolution, especially the spread of television, is speeding the process enormously. “People all over the Third World can see through our windows nowadays, thanks to the modern mass media,” he says. “They know how we live and what we have—and they want it, too.” He adds: “The same technology that’s given us mass communication has also given us mass production, mass consumption, weapons of mass destruction, the ability to wreck our entire planet. We’re in a race—and unless we take the final step, we could lose everything.” The double meaning of the documentary’s title suddenly becomes apparent.

Just what is that final step? Unless the industrialized world makes some w drastic changes, Dyer pre| diets, civilization is doomed. 9 ‘We are all going to have to ;§ share the sacrifices,” he I states, adding that global 5 rules are going to have to I be set, and the West, which " has pioneered overconsumption, is going to have to adjust to having less. What is needed, he argues, is an increased awareness of the planet as a global village. And while the mass media fuel consumption on the one hand, he believes that they may actually hold the key to humanity’s survival. “We can see everybody else in the world now and they can all see us,” he says. “Essentially, it’s turning us all back into villagers. Which is just as well— because our cities are dying.”

While ultimately cautious, Dyer arrives at an optimistic conclusion. “No promises,” he states, “but maybe, just maybe, the world is changing fast enough to have a chance.” Whether his words prove prophetic remains to be seen. Still, The Human Race is a wakeup call for a planet that cannot afford to sleepwalk into the next century.

SCOTT STEELE