A few weeks ago I came across www.storyofstuff.com. As soon as I saw it I emailed the link to my entire email contact list; it is brilliant and very accessible to kids over the age of about 10 and anyone not versed in green perspectives.
In a simple, straightforward 20 minute presentation the lunacy and consequences of rampant consumerism are laid bare. The presenter of the video, Annie Leonard, outlines the five stages of our linear economic system, from extraction to disposal, with lucid and incontrovertible analysis.
The Linear Economic System:
1. Extraction – 2. Production – 3. Distribution – 4. Consumption – 5. Disposal
The first fundamental flaw in the system is the very fact that it is linear, that is, it rests on the assumption of limitless resources and limitless disposal options. But as we all know neither of these assumptions is true.
Some illuminating statistics include:-
USA has 5% of the world population but uses 30% of its resources and produces 30% of the waste.
On current consumption patterns we would need 3 to 5 planets just to keep the linear system running.
1/3 of the Earth’s natural resources have been used up in the last 30 years.
The system is driven by consumption. Products are made as cheaply as possible and are designed not to last (whether by design or by fashion). People are accorded value and status as consumers. Furthermore, the system did not arise by chance but by design; quote Victor Le Beau, retail analyst and advisor to the US post-war government:
“We make consumption our way of life, convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at ever accelerating rate”
Endless consumption is fuelled by Built-in Obsolescence; technology that cannot be viably repaired or technically upgraded and by Marketing – the supreme driver of consumption. Marketing knows no boundaries and creates Perceived Obsolescence where people come to believe that what they have is not good enough.
The system is also a hidden system where we only see the products we buy, and briefly use; we are never shown anything about the other four stages and, most importantly, about the externalising of the cost of the product. How can a radio be sold for $4.99, with all the extraction, production, distribution and disposal attached to that product? Answer: because we don’t pay the real cost – that is born by the low wages, poor working conditions and environmental degradation everywhere else along the line.
The cycle of spend and consume is brilliantly demonstrated by an ever faster spinning wheel of working, watching ads telling us to buy more, shopping, then working longer…and so on (spending less and less time on any meaningful activity). Chomsky once famously wrote about ‘Manufactured Consent’ but consumerism is almost as much about ‘Manufactured Discontent’ – discontent about one’s personal/consumer life, not society of course! The average American is thought to be exposed to some 3000 ads a day, something that 50 years ago barely existed. And all those ads are essentially telling us one thing – that what we have is not good enough – we must have the latest fashion, gadget, toy, game, car… So whilst consumption in the West has doubled in the last 30 years, happiness measures have plateaued and fallen in many countries – especially the most consumerist.
In the consumerist world people acquire value by ownership, whether it be land or commodities – we have rights as consumers; but increasingly less as citizens or workers.
On the disposal stage of the cycle, one particularly crucial fact is raised, which is that though recycling is good, for every one ton of waste saved by recycling there is still an average 70 tons of waste in the production process! So by all means reuse, repair and recycle, but above all RESIST. Resist the pressure to buy what you don’t need and resist this crazy system that is destroying the planet!
There are solutions of course, the fundamental one being changing from a linear system to a closed loop system; involving such principles and practices as zero waste, green chemistry, renewable energy and local living economies.
Like in the outstanding new film ‘The Age of Stupid’, the point is made loud and clear; we must curb our consumption dramatically and find a sustainable and equitable driver for the economy.