Archive for the ‘over-consumption’ category

Everything has a biography

May 10, 2010

All commodities have a biography – the coffee and tea we drink, the fuel for our car, the clothes we wear, the toys that children play with, the packaging that is discarded.

The biography of all those things includes what they are made from, how they made and under what conditions, and how they are traded and marketed. What happened to the earth and the sea where the raw materials came from? Who made the things I bought and what is their life like? The end of life for all those commodities is a part of that biographical journey – will they be recycled, added to landfill, or discarded on the side of the road or in the bush.

We could be tempted to see our food and our clothes and the energy we use, as only existing where they are with us, but they have histories and futures and to deny those would be a lie. Environmental degradation, sweat-shop labour, and manipulative marketing are all part of the life story of a great deal of what gets bought and sold.

A news story I was reading yesterday reported on the latest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where still 800,000 litres of oil a day leaks into the ocean from an exploded rig. The report reflected upon the ongoing ramifications of another famous oil spill over 20 years ago. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker leaked over 50 million litres of oil into the ocean off the Alaskan coast. Twenty years on, the ongoing costs are enormous – tons of oil still under the ocean bed, herring and fish stocks that never recovered, local fishing villages gripped by alcoholism and domestic violence that rose along with the unemployment rate as the local fishing industry perished along with the sea birds.

The sins of heavy industry are not the only ones – there are lesser known, ongoing stories, in which we play a part too.

In Cote de I’voire, where a large proportion of the world’s cocoa beans are grown, poverty is endemic, with children, many of them from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, held in forced labour in places where there are no clinics, no schools and no electricity. They know little of the future of the cocoa beans they work long days to harvest. The issue of child trafficking and cocoa is complicated – ingrained poverty, cocoa trading by large transnational corporations, the varying advocacy efforts of fair-trading co-operatives. It is a complicated web of contingencies, often with no clear flows of cause and effect, but laced with plenty of injustice and misery. The chocolate we consume joyfully and readily has a biography too, and it is a shady one.

But must I spend my days wracked by guilt? After all, to function socially where I live, and to earn a living and contribute to society, I need some things – clothes, tools, books, transport. And I need to eat. Constantly researching and worrying about the origin of the things I buy is wearying, and seems almost pointless – a lonely drop in a large ocean. There are other drops but they are never enough to change the tide. Ignorance is easier.

Resignation is an option too. Human history, amongst other characteristics, is one of harshness and exploitation, of one group’s power over another, of earth and sea constantly changed. Perhaps this is life on our lonely planet.

This seems inadequate though. Dissatisfying, lazy, weak even. What if we just resigned ourselves to the fact that if a child gets sick, they might die. What if the East Timorese had resigned themselves to never being free. What if a girlfriend beaten up resigned herself to the fact that it will just keep happening. Resignation is what people do when they’re leaving somewhere, and even though we will all die at sometime, most of us are staying for the moment. If we never sought change, our humanity would be diminished.

I can’t change, know or understand everything. But ignorance and resignation would be too lazy a response.

* I first read about this concept of biographies in a 2005 Arena Magazine article called “After Affluence”, written by Kim Humphrey

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Rusty brown dog?

March 26, 2010

I do have a dog. He is rusty brown and his name is Arthur. And he is a good companion on our late night walks together.

My rusty brown dog is reliable and friendly. He listens in to me, seemingly without his own agenda in mind, and he is easy to please. One thing about dogs is how content they are. They make a big deal about small things – a stick, a biscuit, a trace of a smell they sense in a prickly bush. They don’t worry about what other dogs think of their body shape – they don’t mind being fat or skinny or not having curves in the right places. They don’t watch television, they don’t ask for lollies. They don’t gossip about other dogs and they don’t have hip clothes. They don’t check the price of their shares, plan for retirement, or search for friends on facebook. They are glad to see us when we get home.

I read a book once which listed all these things we could learn from dogs, like being loyal and never pretending to be something you’re not, like not passing up the chance to go for a joy ride, and that when someone’s having a bad day you should just sit quietly by, and nuzzle them gently.

I was also reading another book about dogs and humans, and how we ended up forming such an alliance. Who needed who first? It may well have been that the dog-human relationship was based on mutual survival. In early human times, we needed each other. They needed us for protection. We needed them to help us hunt. And having some closer affiliation with another member of the animal kingdom was comforting, and the alliance with the dog became relational as well as practical.

In a more modern world, maybe we still need each other just as much, but for survival in a different way. From where I sit, much of the modern world endures what some call a ‘social recession’ – broken relationships, outrageous consumption, financial stress, greed, depression, fear of strangers. 

A fascination with wealth and continual gathering of possessions is a central part of our culture, and it makes me terribly uneasy. The uneasiness is compounded by the knowledge of a world in which so many people suffer from not having enough of the basics for survival – food, water, shelter and medicines. It is an uneasiness that surfaces at children’s birthday parties, on reluctant trips to suburban shopping complexes and not surprisingly, emerges a lot at Christmas. There is a nagging inside that searches for a simpler but better life that might have been lost somewhere and a wariness of an overriding greed that is seldom recognised. I suspect that not only is too much consumption unfair, it erodes many of the good things about human life and living in community. In a way, we all miss out.

The apparent contentedness of the dog reminds me of that inner struggle, and how it might be different. Can we take a dog for a walk and learn from his contentment – he smells the air and plants. He wags his tale and gives a doggy smile to his family, and then he does the same for strangers too. When he comes home and sleeps, he needs no hi-tech entertainment or alcohol, just some companions and a home.

And rusty brown? Brown does not belong only to my dog Arthur. Brown is the colour of long dusty roads, the earth, of skin, and brown paper bags. It is the colour of rust, of chocolate and bread and brewed tea, of old bottles and tree trunks, of worn out and old things. And it’s the colour of recycling and nature. It is a good companion for green in the symbolism of sustainability.

We are different species’, but the simplicity of my rusty brown dog reminds me of what life could be. The people I know who aim to live as simply as they can – to use less resources, to focus more on relationships and justice and compassion than on material acquisition, contribute more to a saner world than they could ever imagine. Often they have more time to be with neighbours and families, and to help out at local schools and community projects. They use less resources and create less waste. And they give things away – money and time, to projects that alleviate poverty close by and far away. Often they seem more satisfied too, more content, more aware, even as they live honestly with the limitations of their own actions and the knowledge of a world in strife.

It makes sense really, that simple living has a lot to offer our current times. Our world is faced by an environmental crisis requiring massive change to the way we consume resources, and poverty and inequality are a persistent reality. If we are critical enough, most modern western societies are diminished by genuine concerns about health, well-being and community. That social recession just won’t go away. The actions circling around simple living bring some genuine alternatives on a number of fronts  – less resource use, generous sharing, more time and intent for rebuilding often fragmented neighbourhoods. No doubt these actions and attitudes also involve struggles and dilemmas, and it seems, an amount of courage. It sounds like a movement suited to our times.

My rusty brown dog reminds me of these ideas and actions and hopes. Perhaps they are just what we need, not only for survival, but for a life worth living.