There is no point in fixing the mess we made through past mistakes if we repeat those mistakes in the future.
There is no point in fixing the mess we made through past mistakes if we repeat those mistakes in the future. If we clean up what we’ve already spoiled but allow overconsumption, a throwaway culture, widespread inequality and short-term thinking to continue, we’ll just make the mess all over again.
Our biggest mistake was to be persuaded by a stupid kind of fear – the fear that we needed to consume more and more, not to make ourselves happier but to impress others, to escape the shame of ‘failure’. Traditional societies valued people on the basis of what they did, what they achieved. We respected a farmer for the hard work and food they produced, a doctor for their learning and the healing they provided, a manufacturer for the quality of the goods they created. But over the last 100 years that changed radically. As our productivity improved dramatically because of new technology we were suddenly able to produce much more than we needed to live comfortable lives. But rather than work less, we were encouraged to buy more. At first this meant more useful and productive goods like washing machines and fridges, but quickly it didn’t matter what we shopped for, as long as we shopped. Products were designed to have shorter useful lives so we’d throw them away and shop again. And we were persuaded to desire products with little to no real use, so long as we parted with our money.
We moved from consuming to make us more contented (fed, clothed, warmed, entertained) to consuming to make us less contented (we were trained to be ashamed of what we owned if it
wasn’t the newest, biggest, most expensive version and then we were trained to want things we didn’t have any real use for and so would quickly throw away). Instead of valuing each other on the basis of who we were and what we did, we were encouraged to value each other purely in terms of what we owned.
Why? Because the more we shopped, the more of our income went to the people who sold things and the more we threw away the more we had to shop. And the people who were selling changed from being small local businesses into giant multinational conglomerates, so fewer and fewer owners were making more and more profit from more and more customers. New technologies (most often created in publicly-funded universities) gave us access to new and better products and these big businesses made enormous profits which made the economy look healthy, so we went along with it.
But this economy wasn’t healthy. It created widespread poverty and inequality in an era of plenty, it burned its way through resources much faster than it replaced them, it created the idea of ‘waste’ (previous generations didn’t throw away valuable materials) and polluted the environment. And to achieve all this it had to persuade us to feel shame if others were shopping more than we were, so it coerced us into working much longer hours than we needed to and made us feel constantly inferior to others, harming our mental health.
So to avoid the environmental threats we face we need to do things differently. We need to shop less but better. Better food, but without a third of it ending up in the bin. Better clothes that last longer. Better-engineered household goods which can be repaired and upgraded. We need much more balanced ways for us to spend our money – more leisure, less stuff.
None of this is about misery or sacrifice or seeing our quality of life decline – it’s just quality will actually mean quality, not quantity.