Wednesday 20 April 2011


My daughters joke "Daddy, what do you love most in the world - apart from us?"

They know the answer. It's my iPod - that little square of metal and plastic that holds my music and connects me to the virtual world. In a weird way they're right - I do love that little gadget. I take it everywhere with me, I feel panicky if I think I've lost it. I've had it so long, I don't know what I'd do without it.

That worries me - that feels like addiction. Am I addicted to stuff?

One of the challenges I feel when talking to people about peak oil and climate change is that they're both a bit intangible to people. Peak Oil? "There's still petrol in the pump when I want to fill up the car. The media talks about "millions of barrels a day" - surely that's going to last for years?" As for climate change, I was heartily sick of people saying to me "so much for this climate change eh? Ha ha ha" when temperatures plummeted last winter. Like it or not, there are many, many people out there who just don't see it as a real issue. And I can't take them somewhere and say "look, there it is, now do you believe me?"

But "stuff" - yep, it's there, we can see it, we can touch it. My God, there's a lot of it out there, and we're all addicted to it. We've had stuff like never before. I took a walk one lunchtime last week. I popped into St Peter Mancroft, the church opposite the Forum in the centre of the city. There were a couple of people there, enjoying the quiet and coolness of the air. I then went to Chapelfield shopping centre, and the contrast couldn't have been more extreme. The place was rammed; full of people shopping, window-shopping or just wandering around. You'd never have thought there was a recession on, from the number of full shopping bags people were carrying around. It felt very much like the sacred space of a modern consumer religion.

So what's the big deal? Who cares - surely it's great that we can buy whatever we want, whenever we want it? Where's the problem in that? Stuff's a really tricky one, as I'm very conscious that I'm not immune to the lure of it all. I like shiny stuff and gadgets as much as the next man. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and talk about why I think there is a problem, and why it is that stuff is so central to the Transition story.

Stuff uses valuable resources, and on our crowded planet in the 21st Century, much of those resources come from countries where the people are disenfranchised, or where labour practices are well below the standards we set for our own country. I don't think we should accept that other people should have to live in poverty or work in a sweatshop or an unsafe mine or factory just so that we can have the latest thing for the least amount of money possible. And that's before we say anything about the terrible environmental degradation caused by the untrammelled extraction of minerals and the chemical run off from factories. So called "free trade", globalisation and the intense competition between multinational companies have driven prices of consumer goods down to levels unimaginable even when I was a child, and I think it's unacceptable that one part of the world has so much when the rest has so little. OK, that might sound a bit, I don't know, liberal, a bit hippy-ish, a bit socialist even. But actually, I think it's more about fairness than anything else. I don't want people to live in virtual slavery or the planet to be destroyed to keep me in the consumer lifestyle I've become accustomed to.

Our consumer economy has also created a culture of longing, of desire for the latest and most ephemeral of goods, and a culture of unhappiness when I have less than someone else. Someone told me yesterday that the average family replaces their TV every year. Every year? Why? I don't recall such a quantum leap in telly quality every year that would render last year's box obsolete. When kids get mugged for their smartphones, and shiny celebrity culture promotes "Celebrity Diet" products (google it if you like, I don't want to "sponsor" a link to the site!) that just doesn't seem healthy to me.

And finally, and most obviously, stuff creates waste. Mountains of the stuff. A lot of it goes to landfill, a lot gets recycled, some goes to incinerators. Some of it goes to developing countries where the toxic heavy metals and plastics enter the food and water systems. I could go on, but Kerry is going to talk about waste tomorrow so I go there.

So, for all these reasons, and a host of others, stuff is a key transition issue. If we really want to transition to a low carbon society we need to tackle both our desire for stuff, and the ubiquity of it. Across the UK, transition groups including Transition Norwich are looking at ways to reduce the dependence on stuff, to increase our ability to share, to reuse, recycle and make new out of old. Norwich Transition Circles and Carbon Conversations have been talking about reducing our use of stuff as part of personal carbon reduction. In Bungay, the Sustainable Bungay team run Give and Take days, and this success is mirrored across the Transition Network. At the recent Spring Scheming in Norwich, we talked about a scheme where common tools (drills, lawnmowers and the like) could be held in a pool as a community sharing scheme.

And finally, if you want to see a great and succinct overview of our society's use and abuse of stuff, see the wonderful Story of Stuff videos. It's no accident that the link to this website is a permanent feature of our blog under the "links we like" section to the right of these posts.

Picture: Book from the girls' book box! Don't ask...

No comments:

Post a Comment