Pathological consumption has become so normalised that we scarcely notice it.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th December 2012
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.
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY
What inspired me to travel? I was lucky. My mom had a travel agency in New Jersey when I was a kid. We got to go on loads of cheap “fam trips” in the 60s and 70s. We were the family that got asked, “so…where you going THIS time?”
But as college and jobs and a new wife who thought New Jersey was exotic came into view, I forgot the adventure that came with roaming about the world.
A true story. My new (first, not Stacia) wife, who had spent most of her life in So Cal, went with me to New Jersey and actually said, “we should go to that bar along the Jersey shore beach…oh darn, we didn’t get money changed.” Really. THAT is far from a present and adventurous mind set.
And then I realized one day, working a Wall Street job, even from San Francisco, I was the only one who didn’t want to just go to Cabo or Hawaii. And I definitely found myself feeling like I was finally getting settled as the vacation week ran out. That there’s only so many cervezas to dull the pain of a very stressful job. And I was tethered to a person who simply couldn’t “just go”.
So I kept the job, told my Wall Street partners that vacation is defined as 2 to 3 weeks at a time…and I jettisoned the wife.
Looking back, the big catalyst and brightest star came from finding a mate that was of like mind and spirit. Someone who reminded me that “it is not the things you do in life that you’ll regret, but rather the things you don’t do that you’ll regret.” At the time, we worked together in business, then, as now.
One day, I returned to my desk and found a tiny origami bird on my desk she had folded…and a note. It read, “Dear Birdie. You cannot explore new oceans until you lose sight of the shore.”
I had been getting up at 2:00 or 3:00 am for a decade. I was sleep deprived and medicated to sleep, medicated to stay awake, and had the means to say, at the apex of my then career, buzz off. We’re going to choose a different path. And so we did…
For three children, 49 states, nearly 100 countries, we’ve gathered photos, stories, memories and people we’ve met that fill volumes. The trail rolls forward and the tales never end.
But the greatest books we’ll ever write are these. There is no price for the memories they contain.
No where in there is the word, “someday.”
Thank you Stacia