5 AUSTERITY OF THE MIND OR GLUTTONY OF THE BODY?
Arecent television report on the new China showed a young couple, obviously members of the recently enriched middle class, being shown around their new luxury apartment in Shanghai. The lady was agog with all the gadgetry. Asked what more she would like to have she looked around and replied that she would like a dishwasher. She added that this was because a lot of her friends had one.
Thus she expressed a psychological lacuna that could easily be missed by a casual observer. Missed because it is so commonplace as to be scarcely noticed. It was not because of what a dishwasher could do that she wanted one, it was because of what it was.
Of course this good lady, like the countless millions of others around the world who own dishwashers, would be aware that a dishwasher can do very little that cannot be done just as easily without one. If a time and motion study were to compare this modern wonder with the time honoured method of rubber gloves and washing bowl it would reveal, at best, the saving of a few minutes' light effort. Indeed if all the time spent scraping plates, loading and unloading the dishwasher and wiping off the smears were
taken into account it is quite possible that the dishwasher might increase the effort required in washing the results of an average family dinner. That is aside from the hassle and mucking around when the wretched thing goes wrong.
Yet a dishwasher will almost treble the water and energy required to clear that family dinner. To keep the engines of economic 'growth' running the last decades have spawned a vast array of gadgetry ... electric lawnmowers, tumble dryers, dishwashers, electric carving knives and can openers, vacuum cleaners to hoover up autumn leaves (why not use a rake?), jet cleaners to wash down your patio (why not use a bucket of water and a stiff brush?), powered screwdrivers ... the list goes on.
When viewed from a strictly time and motion standpoint the saving in domestic human effort is negligible, if at all. Yet such gadgetry hugely increases energy and resource consumption. That is not the half of it. For once we take into account the whole life costs of development, production, marketing, distribution, maintenance and disposal we find such costs will be massively disproportionate to any minuscule relief from domestic drudgery that might possibly be afforded.
In reality two gadgets and two only ... the washing machine and the vacuum cleaner ... have resulted in a major liberation from domestic toil. That was true fifty years ago; it is just as true today. Thus we find ourselves locked into an economic system where people flog both themselves and the rest of the planet to death in order to create a 'labour saving society'. A visiting Martian would wonder whether to laugh or cry.
I have argued in a previous article that this type of production ... where total resource inputs substantially exceed total resource outputs ... constitutes a form of 'negative' or 'dark' growth. In such a situation gross income continues to rise, giving the appearance of real growth. Yet this appearance is a mirage since the 'growth' will always be outpaced by a parallel growth of hidden cost externalities. These include debt, environmental degradation and the social and medical maladies that result from overstress, anomie and social and life imbalance.
Half a century ago Vance Packard's seminal books The Hidden Persuaders and The Waste Makers created a considerable stir. Sadly these were yet more works ahead of their time. People read his books, nodded sagely, put them back on their bookshelves and forgot about them. Packard had let off a damp squib in Antarctica. He had not sufficiently reckoned on the power of conspicuous consumption.
In recent times George Monbiot shows signs of falling into a similar trap. He asks who will demonstrate for austerity? But he does not define with sufficient precision what is meant by 'austerity'.
Conspicuous consumption is really one of the oddest of human behaviours. Our visiting Martian would be truly baffled by the idea of people gaining status by grandiose public displays of waste. Sadly such behaviour has been around at least since kings and emperors. The footman was dressed in such a ridiculous uniform as to prevent him being of any use even as a bodyguard. Thus the noble could proclaim to the world that he was rich enough to waste a man's life.
In every town we see large houses with many times the number of rooms as there are occupants to fill them and surrounded by swathes of grass that are not even used as rabbit food. Their occupants proclaim that they are rich enough to waste all this space. On our roads we see cars whose occupants proclaim that they are rich enough to waste all this fuel. Our landfill sites brim with perfectly good, sound, usable or easily repairable merchandise.
Now everyone, thanks to their credit cards and third world serf labour, can get in on the act. Excessive and conspicuous consumption has now become a 'right'. Driving and flying have now become 'rights'. If that were really true then all is lost and the sooner the human race has its global nuclear war or inflicts upon itself some ghastly viral mutation, and gets it all over and done with then the better.
Such talk loses any differentiation between necessities and luxuries. It reduces the human race to the cheap, shabby and undignified spectacle of so many selfish, squalling brats screaming and stamping their little feet, red-faced with spoilt rage, in this huge globalised toyshop. Necessities may be 'rights', luxuries are not. Any right to decent healthy food does not create an entitlement to a diet of caviar, sirloin and smoked salmon. Any right to clean water does not imply a right to breakfast on champagne. Any right to a decent abode does not imply a right to live in some ridiculous mausoleum. To talk of flying as a 'right' is garbage.
There is a still deeper aspect to this attitude. It is strange how the prospect of wind turbines upsets the aesthetic sensibilities of many people who do not bat an eyelid at the thousands of electricity pylons and the hundreds of thousands of steel lampposts and other tall ugly structures which litter the landscape. It is odd how aggressively car owners can often react to there mere suggestion of public transport. Now there is a little industry devoted to finding reasons why not to use energy saving lightbulbs because they contain mercury (contrary to the self interested bleatings of the 'health and safety' industry, who are well versed in the highly profitable dark arts of making mountains out of molehills, metallic mercury is insoluble in the body. I have had a jaw full of the stuff for three decades).
It is as if the very notion of saving or conserving; of exercising a degree of care, modesty and consideration in our actions, scalds some deep atavistic nerve. Indeed it does. It affronts the sacred right to waste and to make a public display of that waste. Deeper still it attacks the related cultural ideology that humanity dominates nature. The notion that this equation can work in reverse is one of the greatest heresies against Western materialism. So we can begin to delve into the wider patterns of aggressive, foul mannered, antisocial behaviour replete with its array of compulsive-addictive disorders which characterises Western consumer materialism.
Ideologies tend to circle the wagons around their economic substrata. So if maintenance of that—substrata requires a degree of selfish, anti social, foul mannered and aggressive behaviour, then it must be protected. Thus open, direct, criticism of bad behaviour has been increasingly frowned upon. Nowadays there are many suppress their inner doubts and obediently recoil at censoriousness or condemnation. Sin and wrongdoing have been abolished to be replaced by 'inappropriate behaviour'. Even that can only be whispered about in quiet corners for fear of upsetting the darling brats.
Sometimes, though, thunder from the pulpit is necessary to show that certain behaviour is to be damned. Conspicuous consumption can play no part in a sustainable future. If humanity is to survive conspicuous consumption must, by one means or another, be eradicated from the cultural lexicon. Seventy years ago Gandhi said that the Earth has enough for people's needs but not their greeds. That was when the human population was barely more than a third of what it is now. More than two centuries ago Adam Smith scorned the wealthy, in phrases his tendentious neoliberal hagiographers prefer to forget, for their 'geegaws' 'childish vanities' 'luxuries' 'follies' and 'base selfishness'.
Rather than displaying social puissance and status, the need for an individual to invest their person and their ego in the knickknacks they possess displays a deep insecurity, inadequacy and emptiness of that life. How disfiguring is it for grown adults to behave like selfish, spoilt egocentric infants In truth we are dealing with grotesque greed, waste and vanity which is socially corrosive, personally disfiguring and morally disgusting. We are dealing with the attitudes and actions of morons. We are dealing with the word that dare not speak its name ... decadence.
All politics involves some degree of ideological confectionery making. This is because there is a need to place ideas within the reference points of the religious, artistic, historical map that a culture accumulates. The newer and more radical the idea, the more important this becomes. The problem with Green ideas is that there are few such reference points. If you reject the very reference points themselves, as many Greens do, then you have a double problem. Green thinking affronts the deeply ingrained ideas of human dominance and the right to waste.
So the austerity that is being asked for is not of body but of spirit. All the equipment necessary to rescue humanity from arduous labour has been around for decades. That which is necessary to save light labour is unnecessary, especially if life were slower. The Slow Society movement has perhaps a more valuable contribution to make to eradicating the addictive scourge of conspicuous consumption than has previously been reckoned. All those of good will should be adopting it and promoting it with vigour, and in doing so affirm that waste is moronic and disgusting.
Relax; enjoy life; stop haring around like headless chickens just to pay off the debts from your last binge on useless Chinese geegaws. Pay down those debts; keep more of your money in your wallet; trust no salesmen. What is better than sharing a good meal and a bottle of wine with some friends on a summer afternoon? You might even feel and be more secure in yourself and less stressed; you will be healthier and wealthier. You might even enjoy it.