Shortly before Christmas, I had dinner at a Thai restaurant located near Canary Wharf. The cocktails at this establishment are more well regarded than the food, and the service is more infamous than famous, facts which the proprietor may have been trying to ameliorate by leaving a brightly packaged Christmas cracker on each placemat. I opened mine and found a hat made of paper which was thinner than a 1000 Franc note, a joke which was dreadful even by Christmas cracker standards and a small green blob of plastic which was no larger than the tip of my thumb. It took me a moment to discern that the blob was a goat. I sat the pathetic animal facsimile beyond the edge of my plate and looked at it.
Since I had plenty of time to kill before my order arrived, I mentally audited the contents of the cracker. The goat required the extraction of oil and the refinement of petrochemicals, which probably involved a shipment from the Middle East to China. Trees had to be grown to provide the paper content. Still more chemicals were mixed for the dyes and inks. The wrapper had something of a metallic hue, so perhaps some ores (such as bauxite) were extracted from the ground and refined. Materials criss-crossed the globe until the cracker was assembled, again, likely somewhere in the Far East, and then shipped to Britain. It was all done to create the bargain end of the bargain end of Christmas crackers. And for what purpose: it hadn’t even raised a smile, rather, it was only something to deride.
Adam Smith gloried in analysing these types of interactions; in his “The Wealth of Nations”, he performed a similar analysis regarding the production of a pin. A pin, unlike a Christmas cracker, is actually useful, as any tailor will tell you or anyone who needs to press the reset button on a Microsoft wireless mouse. In this instance, rather than satisfying some requirement, these interconnections serve no good purpose. I shudder to think of the carbon footprint involved.
This leads me to austerity. Admittedly, it has become a contentious word. It raises ire among both the right and left who want to quibble over its implications, in particular, as to the restraint or lack thereof of state spending. However, as a society, we should be embracing austerity as a cultural feature in order to strike down the endemic waste that permeates Western Civilisation and which makes us utterly immoral.
The Christmas cracker is a relatively harmless example; however I encounter a more serious illustration of waste nearly every day. I usually arrive back home around 4:30 PM, as I work flexible hours: at that time, I often see parents picking up their children from a local school. A sizeable proportion of the vehicles used are Land Rovers and other SUV’s. Judging by the absence of mud stuck to their tyres or the sides of the vehicle bodies, it is unlikely that these are being used to drive their children over rough terrain to rustic cottages. Rather, the sparkling chrome trim on the vehicles and the designer outfits of the drivers suggest that it is a status symbol. These clog the parking spaces and small, winding streets of my town.
At this point, it’s best to cast aside personal irritation, step back, and do another audit. There are not only the fuel consumption considerations, but the amount of metal, rubber, leather and plastic used in the creation of each vehicle, and the plethora of components that wing their way around Europe, America and Asia before arriving at the assembly plant. These behemoths are generally relatively new: it is rare to see an old-style Defender with dents in it. Therefore there is also the disposal of the predecessor to be taken into account, whether it is sold on as used, melted or turned into scrap. All told, the loads being created, destroyed, and transported hither and yon are not calibrated to a particular utility, rather, it is a luxury.
“Luxury” can be found in something as mundane as office work. For all the ballyhooed talk about the imminent arrival of the paperless office, I am still bombarded with brochures and bulletins on a regular basis. Marketing materials are expected to come in nice folders which use glossy paper. Our establishment is judged less upon what it can do and the excellence of its previous research than on how it presents itself. Think again about the trees felled, transported, processed, the inks made and used, the number of times that test copies needed be thrown out, the transport costs for all involved.
My grandfather was acutely sensitive to such waste. One day, he was stuck in traffic with my mother; apparently he told her, “You know, some of these people, they could have stayed at home.” Quite. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, our technology should liberate us from the need to be in the office all the time. Taking that principle further, we should rely more on electronic forms of presentation, rather than consuming more paper. We should use modest means to transport ourselves and our families, using only what is absolutely necessary. We can skip the Christmas cracker: just bring the food out before I am ready to collect my pension cheque. All told, we need austerity, the kind which cuts into the consumption that arises out of irrational compulsions, or more accurately, the kind that counteracts consumption provoked by vanity, stupidity and greed. Unfortunately, however, our modern consumer society and economy is largely based on vanity, stupidity and greed. One need only look at a cosmetics advertisement to see the point illustrated further: “Because you’re worth it”, women are expected to believe that a particular skin cream is going to turn them into a facsimile of a Hollywood starlet, no matter how much logic may dictatate this outcome is unlikely. Fashions, designed to be throwaway by their very seasonality, are just as wasteful. I recall taking my girlfriend shopping for shoes along the King’s Road in London on a Spring afternoon; we had ransacked a dozen shops and she had tried on and discarded a large number of pairs which looked acceptable. I asked her why she was being quite so discerning as it was unlikely that anyone was going to be staring at her feet; using myself as a test case, I said I certainly wasn’t going to be casting a gaze in that direction for very long. She told me I was missing the point, and that women dress for other women. No homoerotic implications were intended, rather, her statement was competitive in nature. I couldn’t help but think about the societal construct that had not only driven her to this length, but had also created a vast infrastructure to support it, all of which implied damage, and creating ever more damage, not just to the planet, but to the self-image of individuals. This is never going to make us healthy or happy.
A bracing, purging austerity should cut deep. It probably should slash even deeper than the regime which existed in Britain during the Second World War. While we rightly look back on our forebears as knowing how to shun excess, there was waste even during that period. For example, young ladies used to use gravy and eyebrow pencil in order to give themselves the appearance of wearing silk stockings. We need a dramatic break, which stands astride history proclaiming loudly, enough!
Of course, the avatars of our modern state would be horrified by such a change; their task is to spur economic recovery as soon as possible. The British Value Added Tax cut in 2009 was not intended to restrain the appetite, but to sharpen it. However, we are at a unique point of self-awareness as a society: we realise matters have simply gone too far, in banking, in debt, in faith in the market. We may merely need to extend this consciousness just a bit further to find a better way to live.