Archive for January 9th, 2020

“There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want.” A reflection on conspicuous consumption.

Thursday, January 9th, 2020
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Preach it, Mr. Monbiot! (Photo: Creative Commons)

It’s always bugged me: the recycling fascists among my friends are the very people who go to the Bali for their winter break, posting photos on Facebook of what they’ve consumed in restaurants, hotels, and bars along the way.

Well, it’s always fun to tell other people what to do. But it shouldn’t be confused with virtue. Environmental activist George Monbiot published a variation of the theme over the holiday season, when the memory of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s was still fresh. His article, Pathological consumption has become so normalised that we scarcely notice it,”  is on his website (it was earlier in The Guardian) is hilarious and true.

An excerpt:

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. 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).

How about living a little more modestly? Not for the sake of being more politically correct, but for its own merits, recognizing we could live on a fraction of what we do and walk more lightly on the earth. I’m not a Marie Kondo fan – in the end, throwing out stuff is just another kind of conspicuous consumption. and things need not spark “joy” to be worth saving – some spark grief, contrition, conscience, remembrance. If I were to get rid of everything that doesn’t spark joy, I would have to trash my bills, my cellphone, buckets of legal records, the bathroom plunger, jumper cables, and a few people I know.

Monbiot continues:

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. 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. 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.

He concludes: “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.” Read the whole thing here.