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Environment (Deep End)

Ten days ago we were still putting presents under the Christmas tree. Now, we’re sticking a fair few of them in the bin – or, failing that, the back of a cupboard, up in the attic or some other place of no return.

If you find unwanted gifts irritating, then spare a thought for George Monbiot, who isn’t just cross about his own, but everyone else’s too:

“…a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a ‘hilarious’ inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World wall map.

“They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.”

Monbiot touches upon the concepts of “planned obsolescence (breaking quickly)” and “perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable)”, but points out that some of the things we now consume have reached an entirely new level of uselessness:

“…many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped i-phone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog: no one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas Day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.”

“The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness…”

Just as you think Monbiot’s about to give us a proper telling off for buying this rubbish, he blames the forces of global capitalism instead:

“This boom [in pointless consumption] has not happened by accident. Our lives have been corralled and shaped in order to encourage it. World trade rules force countries to participate in the festival of junk. Governments cut taxes, deregulate business, manipulate interest rates to stimulate spending.”

No doubt, more could be done to internalise the social and environmental costs of its production, but the real reason why people buy this tat is because they want to. Strange as it may seen, Terry the Swearing Turtle does not owe his existence to the manipulation of interest rates, but to a culture of instant gratification and shameless vulgarity.

One might concede that advertising and the other tools of crass commercialism play a part in shaping this culture, but at the heart of it is an ideology of pleasure-seeking self-centredness that can’t just be blamed on greedy corporations and their friends in government.

Consider the case of a different class of consumer product: illegal drugs. These too have no utility and, indeed, do all sorts of harm at every stage in their life cycle. However, instead of encouraging their production and consumption, governments devote considerable resources to interrupting supply and curbing demand. As for those wicked corporations, they might want to sell us crack, smack and cannabis, but they’re not allowed to. And yet despite the non-involvement of all that marketing and lobbying power, drug use has flourished – and has done so primarily because (a) drugs provide short-term pleasure and (b) drug users feel no moral compunction to restrain themselves.

Exactly the same principle applies to the plastic trash we buy at Christmas: it’s my life, it’s my money, it’s making me happy right now, so never mind the consequences.

15 comments for: Heresy of the week: Social liberalism is bad for the environment

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