People have too much wealth? Get stuffed!

Yet another anti-consumerist tract slams people’s obsession with stuff – overlooking the fact that this so-called stuff has improved our lives hugely.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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This article is republished from the February 2011 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

It’s terrible stuff, stuff. We’ve stuffed our homes with stuff we think we want. We stuff big holes in the ground with stuff we’ve decided we no longer want. And ultimately the planet will be stuffed because of our obsession with stuff. But there’s stuff we can do, like reducing the amount of stuff we buy, reusing stuff we used to throw out, or redesigning stuff so it isn’t stuffed after a few months; it should just keep on doing its stuff and not need replacing with new stuff. Why can’t we get by with less stuff? Indeed, maybe we need to ration the amount of stuff people can have. It won’t be easy – but life’s tough.

That, in a nutshell, is the message of The Secret Life of Stuff, a new book by Julie Hill, a leading light with the UK campaign group cum think tank, Green Alliance. The aim of the book is to draw our attention to just how wasteful we are with the planet’s precious resources. We live in a finite world, argues Hill, and it’s about time we started taking care of it a bit more.

Hill’s argument is that we need to understand where these resources are coming from, how they are being used, and what the future holds if we carry on as we are. She writes: ‘The priority we have given to economic growth, and lack of attention to the basic resources that fuel that growth, mean that we have only the crudest idea of the fluxes in the material basis of the economy. This obfuscation of how we use resources could undermine our wellbeing in just as dangerous and far-reaching a way as the obfuscation of money men in the credit crunch of 2008.’

For Hill, much of our consumption is mindless. She illustrates this by describing her perfect dinner party of anti-consumption writers, including Alain de Botton (Status Anxiety), Neal Lawson (All Consuming), John Naish (Enough), Richard Girling (Rubbish and Greed), Oliver James (another book called Enough), and Pete Lunn (Basic Instincts). Enough, already.

A flavour of these writers’ outlook is given by her summary of Lawson’s views: we live in a time of ‘turbo-consumerism’, with us as ‘willing hamsters’ on a wheel that we’re afraid we might fall from. Hill continues: ‘We have allowed ourselves to be beguiled by marketeers to spend time shopping which would have been better spent with our families or on community activities, we have allowed shopping to become our religion, and we have amassed so many material goods that there is a booming industry in storage for the overflow.’

Looking at that line-up, you might think that there has been ‘enough’ mindless production of books about the perils of consumption. Certainly, Hill could have saved a lot of resources by only buying one of those books; after all, they share pretty much the same dismal message. It would certainly have saved on ingredients for that dinner party, which could become an intimate, candlelit-in-a-non-romantic-way meal for two, rather than wasting food on guests who only seem intent on regurgitating bile about the feckless consumption and stupidity of everyone else.

While Hill has a great deal of sympathy with this outlook, she is at least not so puritanical that she cannot admit to the attractions of such vices. She doesn’t really believe it is ‘possible to be happy in a world of few things… I can’t believe it because I love shopping. I have trained myself to indulge in a particular kind of shopping – anything second-hand or sold for charity gets first call on my spending – but it’s still shopping.’ There is a heart beating underneath that fetching outfit from the Oxfam shop, it seems.

Nonetheless, even if Hill resides at the humane end of green thinking, the one thing she clearly buys is that we’re all victims of an addiction – consumerism – that is wrecking the planet.

To that end, she puts forward a six-part list of principles on which to judge how we use resources. The things we buy and use should be sustainably sourced; goods should be designed to make their materials easy to reuse or recycle; nutrients – whether derived from food waste or human excrement – should be recycled again and again; all energy should be renewable; we should ‘stem the flow of stuff’, for example, by making things last longer; and new technologies shouldn’t make things any worse.

None of these principles are terribly objectionable, in and of themselves. After all, nobody is pro-waste. If we can find ways to reduce waste as a means of improving the productivity of society, that’s a good thing.

But Hill’s principles have plenty of problems, too. For example, at this moment in time the cheapest forms of energy are fossil fuels like coal and oil. In fact, if we are going to really think about ‘stuff’ as Hill demands, we should also recognise just how fantastic fossil fuels are and how they have been a major factor in the creation of the wealth we enjoy today (even if that wealth isn’t exactly shared evenly). These fuels are not ‘sustainable’, though. There is a finite amount of them, even if what we can extract constantly seems to keep pace with what we use.

Renewables might well be the future (along with nuclear power), but to dramatically shift away from fossil fuels would harm human welfare, not help it. That’s because renewables are more expensive and less reliable than fossil fuels – for now. That raises a question: what’s the alternative if renewables are not up to the job? Hill floats the ‘radical’ possibility that in order to conserve energy, it should be rationed. That outlook is a disaster. In order to provide a decent standard of living to everyone on the planet, we are going to need lots, lots more energy. To suggest anything else is to accommodate to poverty.

‘Cradle-to-cradle’ design – where stuff is made with an eye to it eventually being recycled – also sounds like a good idea. But it can also be a complete distraction from making something as good as it can be for serving its purpose. So Hill notes that using composite materials – like mixtures of plastics and metals – might be a good way to improve the safety of cars, but then she frets that this might make them more difficult to recycle. Surely in this instance, ensuring that passengers have the best chance of surviving a crash is more important than the danger that a small quantity of plastic or metal might end up in a hole in the ground.

Despite Hill’s concerns about how our material age is a diversion from personal relationships and community-building, there is a recurring theme in the whole discussion about waste, design and resources: the obsession with stuff seems to be at the expense of people. Whenever we put the conservation of resources ahead of finding a more efficient way of providing goods and services, we make people worse off.

For example, take the Kafkaesque world of recycling in Britain today. In the good old days, we put stuff into one bin and, once a week, some council employees would take it away. Now we have to put that waste into a panoply of different, garishly coloured containers, following an often-confusing set of instructions about what rubbish goes where, in order that multiple groups of workers can take it away at greater cost every two weeks. Our homes become storage centres for waste and, if we put an item in the wrong bin, the rubbish might not get taken away at all. If we persistently get it wrong or refuse to play along with this bizarre ritual, we might even get fined. Given that domestic waste is actually only a small portion of the total waste produced in the UK, it’s not even doing the environment much good, either.

We need a smarter view than Hill offers in her six principles. When we consider the balance between the environment and development, there are often trade-offs. For instance, like Britain in the past, many cities in China are smoggy, polluted places. But the possibility of getting off the land and into towns, with proper jobs and a variety of material and social opportunities at hand, seems to be a higher priority for millions of Chinese people than clean air.

As societies develop, cleaning up the air, water and land that the initial dash for growth may have messed up becomes more of a priority as the cost of the clean-up become more readily affordable. So London’s air is now sweeter than at any time since Shakespeare was alive and the tap water is a match in purity for the posh, bottled stuff. We can manage to juggle these various desires because we have already enjoyed economic growth over centuries. Imposing restrictions on growth to fit in with the notion of ‘sustainability’ – rather than balancing economic growth, welfare and our immediate environment as we try to now – is actually inhumane.

The green outlook is an extremely pessimistic, simplistic and prescriptive one. Pessimistic, because it assumes that we won’t find new resources, or better ways of using them, that allow us to sustain material development into the future. Simplistic, because it obsesses about one concern – summed up in the idea of ‘saving the planet’ – rather than trying to pursue development in a rounded way. Prescriptive, because it will be those dinner-party guests and their ilk who’ll be micromanaging our lives. Indeed, they’re doing it right now with their bossy rules and regulations about precisely how we must throw out the stuff we don’t want anymore.

Ideas like economic growth and material development are worth defending against those who obsess about ‘stuff’. Because if we don’t, if we accept their low horizons, it will be humanity that is stuffed.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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