We all know it and still the amount of materials going into landfill is astronomical.
The image I have choosen for this is of the set of earings which Ben (my brother) gave me last year for the Christmas we spent in Manali, India before heading up into Spiti Valley on a memorable cycling adventure together!
I had been spending the occasional bits of shopping time perusing various shops and stalls in both McLeodganj and Manali, looking for a spiral set of earings to replace the earings I had (one) lost (one) repurposed and been sadly so far unsucessful. Its strange the things that become important when away from a static location. Things like a keyring or a trinket or single favourite pair of earings become strong identifiers for a sense of stability and of ‘me’. Having these attachment objects is not necessarily good because they can get lost and then the (hopefully temporary) feeling of sadness and dislocation can be overwhelming.
These beauties were found in the usual sort of shop that the hippy enclave of Old Manali has to offer. A tiny shop complete with peeling paint on wooden facade, set slightly back from the road. Dusty steps leading into it’s dimly lit interior which potentially hid any issues with the wall to wall displays of silver and brass and macrame jewlery. A rainbow array of gemstones and tumble stones of all shapes, sizes and colours. Full sets of ring, necklace, bracelet and earings almost falling off their wall hangings and out of their cases into the waiting laps of customers convinced to stop for chai and hash, which the young guy selling the goods immediately offered as a gesture of his good nature, good will and honesty regarding the quality of his products craftsmanship!
I refused to buy them, in spite of liking their peacock motif. I’m too stubborn for my own good and get annoyed by the constant hard sell but Ben evidently went back and got them for me before we left the town. Since then they have changed states several times!
The ‘silver’ has worn off and they are proudly displaying their brass hearts, they have been bent and reshaped several times as a result of being caught on clothing, hats and general wear and tear and now, as a result of the outer wire solder snapping, I have lost one and made the last one into a necklace. This necklace has become another one of those important items that have no material worth but which carries a lot of emotional significance.
Those earings had seen me through difficult (sick) times, been complimented on many occasions by many people, been carried up and down mountainsides and now reside in their newly evolved state. They are, of course, worth more than silver or gold (unless I am trying to buy myself out of a difficut situation and for that I have less emotionally weighty pieces). The belief we all have in the importance of the gesture, meaning and the lack of necessity for the material is constantly being eroded by the machinery of consumption.
It is sadly no different in many of the countries I have cycled through. Vast land slides of rainbow coloured trash and outdated electronics, toppling from roadside to riverside. The glint of silver foiled packaging or the shine of eroding circuitry reflecting the bright sunshine through the muddy footprints of the people who eat, sleep and work in the same area. What I think I see is people looking to (wholesale) aquire a style of living they have not considered in relation to their current situation. There is often limited infrastructure for recycling and whilst I have cycled past numerous scrap metal merchants ther metal is sitting and slowly rusting not being converted into cash.
And so for this festive time of year I give you the amazing George Montbiet!
Even if you have read it before it’s worth looking at again, as is his interesting and informative website.
The Gift of Death
Pathological consumption has become so normalised that we scarcely notice it.
There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World wall map.
They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.
Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale(1). Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable).
But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped i-phone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog: no one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas Day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.
The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production(2). We are screwing the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers.
People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility(3). Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.
In 2007, the journalist Adam Welz records, 13 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa. This year, so far, 585 have been shot(4). No one is entirely sure why. But one answer is that very rich people in Vietnam are now sprinkling ground rhino horn on their food or snorting it like cocaine to display their wealth. It’s grotesque, but it scarcely differs from what almost everyone in industrialised nations is doing: trashing the living world through pointless consumption.
This boom has not happened by accident. Our lives have been corralled and shaped in order to encourage it. World trade rules force countries to participate in the festival of junk. Governments cut taxes, deregulate business, manipulate interest rates to stimulate spending. But seldom do the engineers of these policies stop and ask “spending on what?”. When every conceivable want and need has been met (among those who have disposable money), growth depends on selling the utterly useless. The solemnity of the state, its might and majesty, are harnessed to the task of delivering Terry the Swearing Turtle to our doors.
Grown men and women devote their lives to manufacturing and marketing this rubbish, and dissing the idea of living without it. “I always knit my gifts”, says a woman in a television ad for an electronics outlet. “Well you shouldn’t,” replies the narrator(5). An advertisement for Google’s latest tablet shows a father and son camping in the woods. Their enjoyment depends on the Nexus 7’s special features(6). The best things in life are free, but we’ve found a way of selling them to you.
The growth of inequality that has accompanied the consumer boom ensures that the rising economic tide no longer lifts all boats. In the US in 2010 a remarkable 93% of the growth in incomes accrued to the top 1% of the population(7). The old excuse, that we must trash the planet to help the poor, simply does not wash. For a few decades of extra enrichment for those who already possess more money than they know how to spend, the prospects of everyone else who will live on this earth are diminished.
So effectively have governments, the media and advertisers associated consumption with prosperity and happiness that to say these things is to expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule. Witness last week’s Moral Maze programme, in which most of the panel lined up to decry the idea of consuming less, and to associate it, somehow, with authoritarianism(8). When the world goes mad, those who resist are denounced as lunatics.
Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.
2. It’s 57%. See https://www.monbiot.com/2010/05/05/carbon-graveyard/
3. See the film Blood in the Mobile. http://bloodinthemobile.org/
7. Emmanuel Saez, 2nd March 2012. Striking it Richer: the Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2009 and 2010 estimates). http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2010.pdf