Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Story of Stuff

Yesterday I watched The Story of Stuff, an Internet video/film about the wastefulness of our throwaway consumerist society. It left me feeling a bit grumpy, because while it scores some good points, it ultimately disappoints. Yes, it's crazy to build our material civilisation on the constant stimulation of wants to be satisfied, and to trash natural resources to make stuff that we don't really like, only to throw it away to replace it with more stuff. Yes, there are lots of little insanities in that too. But when George Bush (and Tony Blair, for that matter) responded to the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks with an instruction that we should go shopping, they weren't just being crass or stupid.

Actually, our material well-being in the economic system that we have constructed really does depend on people carrying on buying stuff. If they stop, the whole edifice really does crumble. Unless we keep spending (and borrowing, for that matter) we can't get paid wages to buy the things we really do need - not just stuff, but also food, shelter, and even education, health care (which in civilised countries, the government buys on our behalf using taxes that it raises on economic activity ultimately premised on people buying stuff).

So calling for more recycling, less waste, and less conspicuous consumption, is nice but misses the point. Ditto pointing out that stuff doesn't really make us happy -- the point is that without the stuff and the buying, as we are presently organised we can't have the other things that stop us being really miserable. We can't move to a material civilization not based on the production and sale of stuff without a major change in the economic system - to one based on production for need, not production for exchange. That's a really, really big deal - not a little one that can be satisfied by recycling your glass bottles, or even making stuff in a less wasteful way in the first place. So far there are no good precedents for this - the most re-distributive social democratic societies are still premised on lots of making and selling. Only the Soviet Union seems to have tried another way, and that can hardly be characterized as an unqualified success.

Capitalism really does require perpetual growth, and on a finite planet. The borrowing from the future is not an accidental misdemeanor, it's fundamental to the way the system works. Ultimately this is not going to have a happy ending. But unless we can think of a way to step off the moving treadmill without trashing the means by which we sustain our lives, we can't write a different ending.

6 comments:

Joss said...

interesting thoughts Jeremy! Thanks.

It actually reminded of an article I wrote that explains why the European Union is needed more than ever ... to some extent, both articles are related. Especially when you say that "our material well-being in the economic system that we have constructed really does depend on people carrying on buying stuff. If they stop, the whole edifice really does crumble."

http://blog.cannycloud.com/why-is-the-european-union-needed-now-more-than-ever/

Ori Pomerantz said...

Without production for exchange, I'd have to be a semi-competent farmer, doctor, builder, and furniture maker.

I'd rather be a competent instructor and instructional designer, and have competent farmers, doctors, etc.

Charlie Pottins said...

I am not sure about this Jeremy.
I had been making a list of stuff I had paid for and could probably do without.
I thought I might start with Trident and the Royal Family though I realise scrapping both would initially lead to a rise in the unemployed.
I am sure a cheaper deterrent would do such as an alarm and a shotgun for scaring burglars.
And there are plenty of old ladies round here who could open charity events or parliament for the mere price of a glass of sherry or even a cup of tea and biscuits.
I also think too much of the burden of consumerism is being born by the better-off countries and individuals. Instead of the US and EU countries taking in each other's washing we could be selling stuff to people in Africa if they had the money, and I suppose they could turn more of their fertile land over to growing food for themselves rather than us buying whatever they export (they only use the money to pay off debts).
Also if the authorities built decent homes for people to rent that would create a lot of jobs to offset any loss to the property industry.
But I guess these all sound like crazy ideas, and they are not even original.

Charlie Pottins said...

I am not sure about this Jeremy.
I had been making a list of stuff I had paid for and could probably do without.
I thought I might start with Trident and the Royal Family though I realise scrapping both would initially lead to a rise in the unemployed.
I am sure a cheaper deterrent would do such as an alarm and a shotgun for scaring burglars.
And there are plenty of old ladies round here who could open charity events or parliament for the mere price of a glass of sherry or even a cup of tea and biscuits.
I also think too much of the burden of consumerism is being born by the better-off countries and individuals. Instead of the US and EU countries taking in each other's washing we could be selling stuff to people in Africa if they had the money, and I suppose they could turn more of their fertile land over to growing food for themselves rather than us buying whatever they export (they only use the money to pay off debts).
Also if the authorities built decent homes for people to rent that would create a lot of jobs to offset any loss to the property industry.
But I guess these all sound like crazy ideas, and they are not even original.

Jeremy Green said...

Ori, I think the distinction is really between production for exchange at a profit, and production for use. That doesn't mean just producing things for your own use. Markets and exchange are much older than capitalism, and the division of labour is older than both. A non-capitalist society wouldn't condemn you to being an indifferent farmer, but it might affect the distribution of rewards between you and the farmers.

Ori Pomerantz said...

A non-capitalist society wouldn't condemn you to being an indifferent farmer, but it might affect the distribution of rewards between you and the farmers.

Farming is hard work. Why would the farmers do extra work to produce food for me, unless there was a profit in it for them?