09 April 2008

Food for thought - Buy Now Pay Later

This is an excellent read taken from:

Souter, F. (2006) Buy now, pay later. The Age Good Weekend.
June 10. 2006

We’ve upgraded to plasma TV’s, we’ve gorged on supersized meals, we’ve shopped ourselves stupid – and damn the cost to the environment. But how much longer can the planet endure our rampant over consumption, asks Fenella Souter
Some years ago there was a story in the New York Times Magazine about a group of Ethiopian refugees from remote villages starting new lives in Minnesota. Soon after the men arrived, they were given a house to share and left with a supply of groceries. When their carers came back a few days later, they found the groceries sitting in the cupboards untouched. The Ethiopians hadn’t realised the brightly labelled cans and cardboard packages contained food. The next day, keen to educate them, their minders took them to a supermarket. The young men marvelled at the bright lights, the wide aisles, the breezy music. They gleefully cruised up and down the aisles, but pulled up short in front of two long walls packed with cans and bags and boxes. They now knew what cans were for and that pictures were a clue, even if they had no idea what many of the pictures showed, but they were baffled by these. Did people in America eat cats and dog? “Oh heavens no” the American laughed, perhaps a little uneasily. “That’s food for pets” The Africans stared in amazement, unable to comprehend such abundance.
I know how they feel, sometimes I stand in my local supermarket at the head of the toiletries aisles – there used to be only one – or the other soft drinks aisles or the great halls of frozen foods, and wonder how we moved from the aproned local grocer, with a few cans of IXL jam, sugar, flour and Sunlight soap on the shelves, to this, in a matter of decades. Who thinks up all this stuff? Who buys it? The average large supermarket now sells about 35, 000 different items. Eight of ten new lines fail but still they come, whether we want them or not. Chilli Tim Tams, Vanilla Coke. Pasta sauces in their infinite variety. Cleaning products for jobs we didn’t know existed. Its consumer driven, we’re told. The “educated and discerning modern consumer” wants choice. Heavens. That much? Supermarkets, department stores, electronics stores, malls, boutiques, arcades, markets and discount barns. We’re gorging ourselves on “stuff”, and still hungry, as Andrew Denton once so perfectly expressed it, for” added newness.” I dare say those Ethiopian refugees are now consuming as busily as everyone else, hankering after a plasma TV or agonising over lime-scented versus Norwegian-pine grout cleaner. Perhaps they even have a cat dining on Gourmet terrine. It doesn’t take long to get into the swing.
As the late economist J.K Galbraith observed the individual serves the “industrial state” not by supplying it with savings and capital but by consuming it products. “On no other matter, religious political or moral, is he so elaborately and skilfully and expensively instructed.” In 1967 when Galbraith wrote that, people might have felt uncomfortable, indignant even, about being well-oiled cogs in the wheel. Now we pay to carry corporate advertising on our backs,, our heads, our feet; we usher into our schools, our transport; we paint it on the grass at the MCG.
The “hidden persuaders” have not only come out of hiding; they’re applauded as visionaries. In May, Australian business man Mitch Davis’s revolutionary idea of placing real advertisement in video games was front page news, reported as breathlessly as Fleming and Florey discovering penicillin. Davis had his stroke of genius while playing the popular car crime game of Grand Theft Auto – “for research”. I’m driving down the street in the car,” he was reported as saying, “and there are (ads) all over the place and they were all fake ads and I thought, Oh my god what if they were real ads? It would be phenomenal.” In his book Culture Jam: How to reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge – and Why We Must, Kalle Lasn, founder of the anti-consumerist Adbusters magazine, likens modern consumers to the Manchurian candidate. In the 1962 movie of the same title, reprised recently, an American soldier captured in the Korean War is shipped to Manchuria and brainwashed to become a robotic assassin. He’s programmed to kill the US president upon a predetermined verbal command. “The modern consumer is indeed a Manchurian candidate living in a trance,” writes Lasn. “He has a vague notion that at some point in his life, experiments were carried out on him, but he can’t remember much about them. While he was drugged, or too young to remember, ideas were implanted into his subconscious with a view to changing his behaviour. The Manchurian consumer has been programmed not to kill the president, but to go out and purchase things on one of a number of predetermined commands. “Slogans now come easily to his lips. He has warm feelings towards many products. Even his most innate drives and emotions trigger immediate connections with consumer goods. Hunger equals Big Mac, Drowsiness equals Starbucks. Depression equals Prozac. And what about that burning anxiety, that deep, almost forgotten feeling of alarm at his lost independence and sense of self? To the Manchurian Consumer, that’s the signal to turn on the TV.”
Goods have become so abundant; suppliers are now “giving” them away. Buy two for the price of one, supersize me, buy now, pay later (how true that’s proving). In one quarter last year, America produced four times as many goods as it sold. Rampant consumerism has become do rampant we can’t actually consume much of the stuff we buy. Despite an obesity epidemic, Australians still manage to throw away 3.3 million tonnes of food annually. We now discard up to a quarter of the nation’s food supplies, mainly because people buy too much. I had visions of the mildewed zucchini, limp carrots and half-eaten jars in my own fridge as I read the report by the Australia Institute think tank, stating that, in 2004, Australians spent $5.3
billion in food we didn’t eat. The breakdown is enough to give you indigestion: $2.9 billion of fresh food, $630 million in uneaten take away food $876 million of leftovers, $596 of unfinished drinks and $242 million of frozen food. That represents more than 13 times the amount donated by Australian households to overseas agencies in 2003.
Overall the Institute calculated, we waste more than $10 billion a year on products and services we don’t use. The young, the rich and people with small children are the worst offenders, assuming you consider it an offence. Many of those surveyed don’t. We buy clothes that “ come all the way from China” and wear them three or four time, seven at most, according to some studies – or maybe not at all. Over time, we throw away virtually the entire contents of our houses.
As “skip dippers”, or urban gleaners, attest dump bins outside supermarkets and shops are brimming with wasted food and goods: a two- kilogram bag of oranges with one bad orange, a box of jars of pasta sauce with one broken and the others with smeared labels – too much trouble to wipe clean. Don’t worry there’s plenty more where that came from. In an Australian Institute survey of skip dippers, one supermarket worker said staff weren’t allowed to return to the shelves any item that had fallen to the floor, even if it were boxed and undamaged. It had to be discarded. Far less than one imagined goes to charities, sometimes because it would dilute “brand value” for people to be able to but it in an op-shop. A local hairdresser, surveying a ridiculous gallery of hair-care products, tells me suppliers are constantly discontinuing lines, rebranding or repackaging. “What am I supposed to do with all the old ones?” he asks them. “Bin them”, they say.
Unsold furniture – all those forests, all that petroleum – and other big items are dumped because it’s not worth the cost to ship them back to their overseas manufacturers. Must-have gadgets turn from beloved toy to toxic electronic junk in the blink of an icon. According to the Sydney-based Total Environment Centre (TEC), there are 25 million discarded mobile phones in Australia which will probably find their way to landfill. On average Australians change them every 18-24 months. Mobile phone recycling schemes- voluntary for the supplier has been a dismal failure, says the TEC. Less than 4per cent are recycled. One customer said that when he asked his phone shop if they recycled, the assistant laughed and said “We chuck it away. That’s our recycling.” There is no general recycling scheme for computers, despite the fact that cathode-ray tube monitors contain about two kilograms of lead. Dell is the only IT company that will collect and brand of IT goods, working or not, for a fee. Some companies, like Hewlett-Packard, will take back their own. An estimated 1.6 million of these toxic beasts are now sitting in unlined landfill and more than five million are in “storage” – that is, gathering dust in the back of a cupboard or an office basement. There are moves to introduce extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, where manufacturers take more responsibility for the life and death of their goods, but resistance is strong and the complications challenging. But of course it’s not just waste at the end of the cycle that should give us pause. It’s all the resources used to produce our goods, so many of them unused, in the first place. The inescapable conclusion? There’s too much stuff.
My grandmother used to babysit me when I was a child. On long rainy days – we had back then – she’d let me “go through her things.” What strikes me now is how few things, she had. Almost all the clothes and shoes she and my grandfather owned – one or two sober suits, a few deliciously silky dresses, housecoats – fitted into a narrow “lowboy” . The coat hangers rattled on the rail because there was far more empty hanging space than there were clothes. A chest of drawers held the rest. A brush-and-mirror set and my grandfather comb sat on the top, alongside a clothes brush, a box of face powder and a mother of pearl jewellery box. The tiny kitchen, from which my grandmother turned out meals for sic children, was simple yet adequate. The bathroom had a cabinet as big as a sheet of paper. The laundry had a copper and a wringer. Only in the outdoor lavatory had gadgetry made inroads, with a musical toilet roll that cranked out The Blue Danube. Rhubarb, spinach and tomatoes grew in the backyard. In the mornings my grandfather would take me to throw grain and scraps to the chickens and collect eggs from the henhouse.
While my parents were lower middle class, I suppose they weren’t regarded as poor. Nor did they live in the country; the house was in Willoughby, on Sydney’s North Shore. They lived as many suburban couples of their age lived post-depression and post-war: modestly and as much as possible on their own resources. They kept things. They re-used them. They repaired them. They made do with what they had. I dare say if they had more money they would have bought more things, especially my grandmother, straining and sweating as she hauled steaming linen out of the copper, but the absence didn’t seem to occupy them. Were they happier than us? I don’t know. Certainly they were treading more lightly on the planet. We don’t tread now. We trample, averting our gaze from the trail of environmental disaster blazed by our profligate “neediness”.
From bargain basement junk to T-shirts to car engines, “ Made in China” is now the label du jour. Most Chinese can’t afford the goods the country produces but our consumption is choking them – literally. China is now ravaged by suffocating dust storms because of the degradation of vast areas of grassland. According to a recent article in New Scientist, the country is now second only to the US in the league of the World’s most polluted nations – and is catching up fast. Sixteen of the world’s most polluted cities are now in China, 3
thanks to its army of coal-burning power stations. Another 500 or so stations are on the drawing board. China emits more sulphur dioxide, the source of acid rain, than any Country in the World. A news report in April showed a shiny new mall opening up in Beijing; the first of its kind, panted the American reporter, thrilled at the spread of the American way of life. Yet of the people of China alone – leaving out the rest of the Third World – were able to start living at a First World standard, it would double the human impact on the world. And who’s going to say they can’t?
Oil is in crisis, yet 90 per cent of our transport uses it, it’s the lifeblood of heavy industry, and petroleum-based products – plastics, clothing, solvents, coatings - are everywhere. Water too, is running out. The world now grows twice as much food as it did a generation ago but uses three times as much water to grow it. Two-thirds of all the water drawn from the environment goes to irrigate crops. Rainwater isn’t providing enough, so farmers are going underground – in countries ranging from Ethiopia to Pakistan, Spain to Australia. In India, for instance, millions of farmers are now tapping into underground reserves and tow-thirds of India’s crops are irrigated with underground water, according to another recent New scientist article. Fifty years ago in the north of India’s Gujarat region, farmers lifted water from open wells dug to about 10 metres. Now tube wells are sunk to 400 metres and they still run dry. Electricity is used to pump water to the surface. One solution has been “rainwater harvesting”, better management of rainwater. But that, of course, assumes there is a rainfall to harvest. As that article noted, most of us have no idea of how much water it takes to grow our food. One kilogram of rice requires between 2000 and 5000 litres. It takes 11,000 litres to grow the feed for enough cow to make a quarter-pound hamburger. A teaspoon of sugar requires 50 cups of water to grow it. You could fill 25 bathtubs, says New Scientist, with the water that grows the 250 grams of cotton needed to make a single T-shirt.
Restraint used to be a virtue. Somewhere along the line it became a vice. The idea of consuming less is so heretical these days, it’s not fit to be broadcast. When the people behind Adbusters approached TV networks in North America to screen ads for Buy Nothing Day – one day out of 365 – the networks refused them air space. The ads, said the TV executives, ran counter to their interests. Can we shop until we drop? Consume like there’s no tomorrow? It depends who you ask. In 1991, Lawrence Summers, former chief economist of the World Bank, Pooh-poohed the so called environmental “doomsayers” with this omniscient statement “There are no … limits to the carrying capacity of the Earth that are likely to bind at any time in the foreseeable future. There isn’t a risk of an apocalypse due to global warming or anything else. The idea that the world is headed over an abyss is profoundly wrong. The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.” In other words, thanks to smart humans, technology and the rejuvenating effects of market forces, Earth has an infinite “carrying capacity”. All technology has to fix – and this is now, not at some distant Armageddon – is global warming, global dimming, polluted skies and rivers, poisoned oceans, melting ice caps, lost species, razed rainforests, toxic waste, toxic food, salination, scarce resources, famine, drought, killer cyclones and a few other little things here and there shouldn’t be a problem.
Fifteen years on from Summers’ assessment, most impartial scientists are acknowledging that not only is there an abyss, we’ve raced to the brink of it in record time.
Australian scientist Tim Flannery is one of the hundreds of experts now screaming “Fire!” to a mesmerised audience still wolfing down popcorn and enjoying the show. He argues there are very real limits and that our way of life has to change. Right now. Wake up and smell the crisis! In The Weather Makers, his recent book on climate change, he warns that we’re still doing far too little and that most of the technological fixes being mooted – pumping carbon dioxide into the oceans depths or burying it underground, or relying on hydrogen to save us – are as practical as the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. Meanwhile things are going horribly pear-shaped fast. In 1961, says Flannery, there was still room to manoeuvre. The worlds population was three billion and they were using only half the total resources the Earth’s global ecosystem could sustainably provide. The watershed came in 1986, when the population tipped five billion and, “such was our collective thirst for resources that we were using all Earth’s sustainable production.” “Ever since,” continues Flannery, “we have been running the environmental equivalent of a deficit budget … by 2001 humanity’s deficit had ballooned to 20 per cent … By 2050 … the burden of human existence will be such that we will be using – if they can still be found – nearly two planets’ worth of resources. But for all the difficulty we’’ experience in finding those resources, it’s our waste – particularly the greenhouse gases – that is the limiting factor. ”Two planets? That’s something money can’t buy.
We find it almost impossible to imagine the end of us. But then so did the Mayans, one imagines. Or even the Romans, with their milder catastrophe. Perhaps in the midst of the decline there were speeches in the Forum about what great shape the franchise was in.
A little unrest with the Christians, a bit of bother with the barbarians, but nothing the empire couldn’t deal with by “growing the business”. In March, Telstra senior executive Phil Burgess gave the H.V McKay Lecture to an audience at the Institute of Public Affairs, Australia’s free-market think tank. His topic was “future-proofing” – the idea of acting now to avert future environmental crisis. Burgess, who announced early on that he believed “man was created to make the world a better place”, explained that it would be disastrous if governments were to step in. Far better, he said, to leave the job to the checks and balances exerted by the market. And anyway, the problems had been exaggerated. Using more energy, not less, was the answer because it would encourage growth. We’ll never run out of oil, he assured his audience, because historically, “as the price of oil increases … we find more of it”, and second, once the price goes up enough substitutes will be invented, just as coal replaced wood, plastic replaced copper piping.
Burgess cited Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed to acknowledge that careless use of resources had indeed led to the collapse of civilisations in the past but noted that “in nearly every case, critical decisions were shaped buy tribal leaders and ‘wise men’ who were undisciplined by markets and prices.” It was an interesting interpretation of Diamond’s work, given that the constant refrain in his book is that, “We think we are different. In fact, of course, all those powerful; societies of the past thought they too were unique, right up the moment of their collapse.” And Diamond has this to say about relying on technical fixes. ”All of our current environmental problems are unanticipated harmful consequences of our existing technology… What makes (us) think that, for the first time in history, technology will miraculously stop causing new, unanticipated problems while it solved the problems it previously produced? In other words, perhaps it could, but where’s the will to do so? Can we leave it up to the market and our new tribal leaders – corporations – to do the right thing? As we know, mostly they move at a glacial pace until forced to speed up.
Supermarkets, for instance, now trumpet their virtuousness in reducing the use of plastic bags; “Help us to help the environment!” “what they don’t mention, “ says one weary activist, “is that conservation groups were campaigning for that 20 years. It was only when the government finally threatened to make them introduce a levy on plastic bags, which would have been a bureaucratic nightmare for them, that they started doing something.” Twenty years is an awful lot of plastic bags. Still, Burgess would have found plenty of support for his position. It’s not news that free-market fundamentalism is now the driver of politics, economics and life in most of the world. It used to be merely an economic system; one way, among many, of measuring human progress. We’ve allowed it to become a one-size-fits-all religion. Indeed, as dispirited American left-wing cultural commenter Henry A. Giroux wrote recently, faith in it is so entrenched that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”
Yet there are people imagining something other than a growth economy. From Adbusters Kalle Lasn and his suggestions for culture jamming, to the late Pope and his criticisms of materialism. From American anarchist Michael Albet and his participatory economics, to Christian ecologist Bill McKibben and his revival of community and $100-a-family Christmases. From the Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton and downshifting, to Indian writer Arundhati Roy and her call to lay siege to empire “ by shaming and mocking it, depriving it of oxygen with our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness.” Dreamless? Hopeless utopians? Maybe but isn’t that what we need? A new dream that imagines a gentler, kinder future for the earth, that moves us from the loneliness of hyper-individualism to a search for fulfilment that doesn’t rely on things and more things, carelessly produced. That snaps us out of our Manchurian Consumer trance.
We can decide it’s all too hard. That we like things the way they are, and hang the cost. But do we really want the world to end not with an overloaded balance sheet? As Diamond writes, we do need to make choices, but of a very different kind: It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one’s core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival. At what point do we as individuals prefer to die than to compromise and live?” it’s a question we have to answer.

I also love these words from the Angry African. When you have time his site is awesome


Bel said...

Beautiful words. So powerful. Wow.

Anonymous said...

fantastic post.
Everything you said is so true, and we all do it, and dont even know it because its a part of our daily lives.
Time we snapped out of it! :)