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.