Consuming the world
In this episode we explore the challenges of consumerism, which threatens to destroy our entire world…
Back when I was a kid, way back in the 1950s, the council dustcart would come through our village once each week. It was a small, simple, smartly-painted old truck, much smaller than the lumbering monstrosities of today. Even at that small size, though, it was probably still large enough to serve the entire village all in one go - perhaps a thousand households back then.
And that’s because most of what went into that truck was, literally, dust - whatever was swept off the floor, or the fine, fine ash left over after the coal or wood or peat had been burnt, and burnt, and burnt again. There wasn’t much left to go into the bin after that.
Along with the visits from the dustman, the rag-and-bone man would drop by every couple of weeks or so, to pick up any old-clothing or meat-bones for repurpose or re-use. Likewise the scrap-metal man - I remember seeing him clattering past quite often on his old horse-and-cart, though we rarely had anything for his purposes. Other than that, anything else would go onto the bonfire or the compost-heap, to go back into the vegetable-plot, eventually. There wasn’t much waste, anywhere - not least because we couldn’t afford to waste anything anyway.
Jump forward half a century or so, to now. There’s still all the old shops on the town’s High Street, of course, with somewhat-updated versions of the same services that they’ve delivered for centuries:
But behind the High Street, all of the old town-centre is gone, replaced by a mess of shopping-malls full of… well, just junk, basically. Vast amounts of junk, everywhere:
It’s not just there, either. Further out from the centre, there are at least three more of these malls, each perhaps even larger than the town-centre itself. Again, most of it just… junk. Shiny new junk, perhaps, but still just… junk.
And the garbage trucks are now three times the size that were, and they travel in pairs, and they’re already full by the time they’ve picked up from perhaps just fifty houses and there’s plastic wrappings, plastic, plastic, always more plastic, trailing down the road behind them, everywhere they go.
What the heck happened?
What happened? Well, consumerism, basically. Invented by a bunch of advertising-guys in the US, back in the 1920s or so, because their big-corporation clients couldn’t make more money unless they could get people to stop being sensible and become more wasteful instead. In essence, use psychological-warfare against the entire world, to get everyone to regress back from responsible adults to self-centred two-year-olds. (Yes, you got it, it’s yet another form of paediarchy, isn’t it?). Customers no more, but mere consumers now, addicted to - what’s that phrase? - “buying things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like” - and throw it all away soon afterwards anyway. More, more, always more - just like a two-year-old…
Well, the warfare worked - for the corporations, anyway. The addiction spread and spread and spread. Britain was so broke after the Second World War that it took a while to take off over there - but once it did, around the mid-1960s, it took off like a rocket, and the relentless acceleration hasn’t slowed down ever since. Planned-obsolescence, particularly prevalent from perhaps the 1980s onwards, gave it yet another boost, creating yet more waste. ‘Two-for-one’ deals likewise created yet more waste; ‘buy now, pay later’ created yet more waste, and also vast increases in debt. And plastic, of course: always more plastic. Plastic-packaging become the rule for everything - which is why, despite increasing efforts to cut back on it, we’re still drowning in the wretched stuff. Waste upon waste, everywhere.
Not just over-consumption of ‘stuff’, of course: we’re stuffed in other ways too. I’d seen a photograph of my then-middle-aged grandmother, back in 1938, proudly taking part in a parade to support and celebrate the International Red Cross. Perhaps a hundred people in the parade; hundreds more cheering from either side of the street. What caught my eye was that there was not a single person amongst that entire crowd who seemed visibly fat; in fact none I could see who were even mildly overweight. These days, by contrast, it seems rare to see anyone who isn’t…
The so-called ‘economy’ is now so dependent on this wastefulness that, after some disaster, governments will hand out money to everyone, just to get people buying again - or, more accurately, to get them to be wasteful again. And past a certain point, GDP, or, Gross Domestic Product, is not really a metric of success, but more just a metric of how dangerously wasteful we’ve become.
The more honest and accurate alternative to GDP is Earth Overshoot Day - in essence, a means to measure how much and how fast we’re consuming the world into oblivion. As the Wikipedia page explains:
Earth Overshoot Day (EOD) is the calculated illustrative calendar date on which humanity's resource consumption for the year exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year. The term "overshoot" represents the level by which human population's demand overshoots the sustainable amount of biological resources regenerated on Earth. When viewed through an economic perspective, the annual EOD represents the day by which the planet's annual regenerative budget is spent, and humanity enters environmental deficit spending.
Perhaps think of it as a metric of non-sustainability - or, increasingly, our non-survivability. It’s also a metric of how much of the world’s resources that we’re literally stealing from the future. And the bleak fact is that, with all of our wastefulness, we’ve been in overshoot every year since around 1970, and getting steadily worse almost every year since then. In 2021 the overshoot-day was assessed as 29th July - in other words, we’re consuming almost twice as much as the Earth can continue to support. We cannot keep on going much longer like this.
The one-line summary? What we live under right now is a global-scale ‘economics’ that depends on our being as wasteful as possible - the exact antithesis of economy. Not A Good Idea…
Is there any way out of this mess? Well, yes, there is - several of them, in fact. One of the more obvious places to start is simply to refocus back on what we need, rather than on what someone else wants us to want. Another is to keep reminding ourselves that the whole thing is entirely artificial: a century’s-worth of pervasive propaganda, a product of deliberate dishonesty coupled with clueless corporate greed.
Ultimately, though, the only way forward that will work in the longer term will be to get rid of the entire possession-system, the money-’economy’, the whole parasitic system of debt - to create a global-scale economics that literally is an economy. There’ll be more on how to do that in real-world practice, coming soon in future posts here: Watch This Space, perhaps?.
A small coda, maybe.
Around an hour to the south from where I now live, in the south-east of Australia, there’s an extinct volcano that’s known these days as Mount Franklin. It’s a bit less than a thousand feet high, with a flat hollow caldera in the middle, and the steep rim all around it. It’s a beautiful place, quiet, calming, friendly in its own way; very popular with day-tourists from Melbourne and the like.
It had been popular with the indigenous peoples, too, back before the massacres. It was on the southern lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung and of the Gunangara Gundidj, who called it Lalgambook. A great gathering-place for them, and probably for many of the other peoples of the south too: hundreds of people, maybe thousands, would gather together there once each year, at one specific time of the year.
For the gathering, one of the main attractions, we might say, was that at that time of the year there would be a huge outburst of yabbies - a type of freshwater crayfish. An absolute feast for everyone there. We know this, not just from local stories, but because the archaeologists found a large midden on the far side of the river, still almost twenty feet high, made up entirely of yabby-shells.
Twenty feet of shells: yes, that’s a lot of yabbies. A lot of consumption going on at those feasts. But that midden had accumulated from maybe as much as twenty thousand years of gatherings. Over that amount of times, that’s not a lot of waste.
Oh, and yes, the yabbies are still there, thriving in the little tunnels they dig into the sides of the river-bank. Cherax destructor, is the Latin name. Not as destructive as us, though. Oh well.
I was terrified of the local rag-and-bone man, he just seemed other-worldly
Excellent writeup. Overspending has become order of the day, whether we use or not.