Until Ed Balls’ response to the Autumn Statement yesterday, the most disastrous political speech of 2013 was Boris Johnson’s lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies last week. The Mayor of London didn’t actually say that poor people are stupid, but to some ears – not all of them intent on hearing evil – he gave the impression of doing so.

He also came pretty close to saying that “greed is good” – though what he actually said was that greed is “a valuable spur to economic activity.” Plenty of people disagreed with him – but few more starkly than George Monbiot of the Guardian:

“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 and cartoon characters and elevator music. It seeks to persuade us not to see and not to feel. It seems to work.”

‘Greed versus guilt’ pretty much sums up the Guardian view of the world – and it might be an idea if prominent Conservatives didn’t play along with it. Our opponents will always see us as the bad guys, but there’s no need to make it easy for them.

What’s interesting about George Monbiot though, is his willingness to turn around and start firing on his own side:

“Christmas permits the global [b*******] industry to recruit the values with which so many of us would like the festival to be invested – love, warmth, a community of spirit – to the sole end of selling things that no one needs or even wants. Sadly, like all newspapers, the Guardian participates in this orgy. Saturday’s magazine contained what looks like a shopping list for the last days of the Roman empire. There’s a smart cuckoo clock, for those whose dumb ones aren’t up to the mark; a remotely operated kettle; a soap dispenser at £55; a mahogany skateboard… a ‘pappardelle rolling pin’, whatever the hell that is; £25 chocolate baubles; a £16 box of, er, garden twine.”

Most middle-class lefties would reserve their contempt for the spending habits of ‘Essex man’ and similar types. George Monbiot, however, is as hard on Hampstead as he is on Hornchurch. Good for him.

Then again, what right does he have to criticise anyone for what they choose to do with their money. If we want to splash our cash on a load of old tat, that’s our business, isn’t it?

Yet, there is a tension between conservatism and consumerism. If conservatives believe in conserving things, then shouldn’t that apply to the increasingly expensive resources used to make the disposable goods that we buy? As Monbiot points out, something like a “a tonne of gold embedded in electronics is landfilled in this country every year.”

He goes on to highlight what he describes as “a most instructive row… within the Conservative party”:

“Back in August… the environment minister Lord de Mauley urged people to repair their gadgets rather than junking them. This, he argued, was necessary to reduce the amount of landfill, in line with the European waste directive. The Telegraph reported that ‘the proposals risk alarming businesses that are struggling to increase demand for their products’. The Tory MP Douglas Carswell demanded to know ‘since when do we need government to tell us what to do with broken toasters? … having ruined our prospects of economic growth, the Eurocrats now seem to be giving us advice on how to make do and mend. The sooner we leave the European Union, the better.’”

I like and admire Douglas Carswell, but our rubbish still needs to be dealt with whether we’re in the EU or not. The answer to his question – “since when do we need government to tell us what to do with broken toasters?” – is since the state became responsible for their disposal.

Toasters that aren’t built to last don’t just evaporate into thin air. If they aren’t repaired or recycled then someone has to dig a big hole and bury them. London doesn’t have much room for big holes, which means that its rubbish gets buried further afield.

I doubt that many Conservative MPs would volunteer their own constituencies for that honour.

10 comments for: Heresy of the week: George Monbiot has a point, we ought to question consumerism

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