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.