Guilt is good. It’s the feature that distinguishes the rest of the population from psychopaths. It’s the sensation you are able to feel when you possess a capacity for empathy. But guilt inhibits consumption. So a global industry has developed to smother it with a 13-tog duvet of celebrities, cartoon characters and elevator music. It seeks to persuade us not to see and feel. It seems to work.
Last year’s Greendex Survey found that people in poorer countries feel, on average, much guiltier about their impact on the natural world than people in rich countries. The places in which people feel least guilty are, in this order: Germany, the US, Australia and Britain, while the people of India, China, Mexico and Brazil have the greatest concerns. Our guilt, the survey reported, exists in inverse proportion to the amount of damage our consumption does. This is the opposite of what a thousand editorials in the corporate press tell us: that people cannot afford to care until they become rich. The evidence suggests we cease to care only when we become rich.
“Consumers in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, China and India,” the survey stated, “tend to be most concerned about issues like climate change, air and water pollution, species loss and shortages of fresh water... In contrast, the economy and the cost of energy and fuel elicit the most concern among American, French and British consumers.” The more you have, the more important money becomes. My guess is that in poorer countries empathy has not been as dulled by decades of mindless consumption.
Watch the latest advertisement for Toys “R” Us in the US. A man dressed up as a ranger herds children onto a green bus belonging to the “Meet the Trees Foundation.” “Today we’re taking the kids on the best field trip they could wish for,” the ranger says, “and they don’t even know it.”
On the bus he starts teaching them (poorly) about leaves. The children yawn and shift in their seats. Suddenly he announces: “But we’re not going to the forest today,” and says while stripping off his ranger shirt, “we’re going to Toys “R” Us, guys!” The children go berserk. “We’re going to get to play with all the toys, and you’re going to get to choose any toy that you want!” The children run in slow motion down the aisles of the shop, then almost swoon as they caress their chosen toys.
Nature is tedious, plastic is thrilling. The inner-city children I took to the woods a few weeks ago would tell a different story, but if you drive the message home often enough, it becomes true.
Christmas permits the global bullshit industry to exploit values with which so many of us would like the holiday season to be invested — love, warmth and community spirit — to sell things no one needs or wants. Sadly, like all newspapers, the Guardian participates in this exploitation. The Nov. 23 issue of its magazine contained what appeared to be a shopping list to prepare for the last days of the Roman Empire. The magazine contains a smart cuckoo clock to replace those not up to the mark, a remotely operated kettle, a soap dispenser at ￡55 (US$90), a mahogany skateboard (disgracefully, the origin of the wood is not mentioned by either the Guardian or the retailer), a pappardelle rolling pin at ￡25, chocolate ornaments and a ￡16 box of garden twine.
Are we so bored, so unaffected, that we need this junk to ignite one last spark of hedonistic satisfaction? Have people become so immune to feelings of fellowship that they spend ￡46 on a jar of dog treats or ￡6.50 on personalized crackers rather than give money to a better cause? Or is this the Western world’s solution, spending ridiculous amounts of money on conspicuously useless gifts to enhance our social status? If so, we must have forgotten that those who are impressed by money are not worth impressing.
To service this peculiar form of mental illness, we must wear down the Earth, ream the surface of the planet with great holes, fleetingly address the destruction then dump the resultant waste into another hole. A report by the Gaia Foundation indicates explosive growth in the pace of mineral mining: cobalt production up 165 percent in 10 years, iron ore is up by 180 percent and a 50 percent increase in nonferrous metals exploration from 2010 to 2011.
The products of this destruction are found in: electronics, plastics, ceramics, paints, dyes and the materials in which our gifts are packaged. As the richest deposits are mined, more land must be used to maintain production rates. Even the most precious and environmentally destructive materials are jettisoned at the start of the next product trend. The British government reported that a ton of gold used in electronics is thrown into landfills every year.
In August, a row started within the conservative party. Environment minister Lord de Mauley urged people to repair gadgets rather than throwing them in the trash. This, he said, was necessary to reduce the amount of landfill material and in line with European waste directives the Daily Telegraph reported in August that “the proposals risk alarming businesses that are struggling to increase demand for their products.”
The Tory MP Douglas Carswell asked: “Since when do we need government to tell us what to do with broken toasters?... Having ruined our prospects of economic growth, the Eurocrats now seem to be giving us advice on how to make do and mend. The sooner we leave the European Union, the better.”
He understands that the government’s program for economic recovery depends on endless consumption and that if people start repairing things the scheme fails. Stated differently, mahogany skateboards and e-kettles are products of a saturated market, and the economic growth to which we must bow demands spending without end.
“But old clothes are beastly,” the incessant whisper says. “We always throw away old clothes, ending is better than mending and ending is better than mending.” A brave new world seems less fantastic every year.
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