Sunday 8 November 2009

Consumption and public space

I got made redundant last week. Only temporarily, I hope, but for a few months at least we’re going to be enjoying even more reduced circumstances than usual.

I’ve been surprised at the feelings this leaves me with regarding my role as a consumer and what is says about my place in society. Leaving the job centre on Thursday I walked along Gentleman’s Walk, looking at the shops and the coffee bars and all the people still filling the streets on their way to buy stuff. And I was aware that I’m not, for now at least, one of those people. Norwich has felt like “my city” for most of my life, but at that moment it felt like it belonged to those other people, not me.

Then last night I took the kids to a firework display in Long Stratton. There were some fireworks, but no bonfire (health and safety, presumably). But what there was lots of was stalls selling unnecessary plastic objects (hook a duck, get a prize). My three children were with me, and spent most of the evening hassling me for more money to buy more stuff. I hated every minute.

It seems to me I have three powerful reasons to try to consume less. One is that, especially now, we can’t really afford it. Another is that I want to help create a more resilient, low-carbon economy, and buying tat from China doesn’t help. And the third is that for a long time I’ve felt a distaste for it all: I really don’t enjoy either unnecessary plastic objects, nor unnecessary positional goods.

I’d rather be producing than consuming. There’s a pleasure to trying to do useful work in the world. There’s a pleasure, that I’m just beginning to discover, to being here at home (the picture is the view from my window as I write) raking leaves or gathering firewood or baking bread (when I get around to it).

But our public spaces are mostly about consuming. The centre of Norwich is a temple to that insatiable hunger for tat. The public celebrations of bonfire night – Samhain, the end of summer and the closing in of the nights – are now just about more tat. It seems to me that, if we’re going to make the move away from consumerism attractive, we’re going to have to give attention to creating new public spaces that celebrate community rather than consumption.


  1. When I read an honest, real and direct post like this Tully (which I can relate to personally), it increases my resolve to be in Transition. Thank you.

  2. Thank you from me too, Tully (I second Mark's comment!) I hope you will find on this week's journey that it's not all about stuff in the city's public spaces, although it can feel that way. Go for a walk round the city centre without the kids (we all know what kids can be like). There are so many good things that are easier to spot in your own slow time. Look at the Forum - one of its great achievements is that it's much more about socialising, being part of a community - and being seen to be part of a community - than it is about stuff. And there are lots of other places in the city where just strolling around and being part of it is all that matters. Enjoy the journey!