Sunday, May 04, 2008

tomorrows chip wrappers

Society never attempts to solve a problem by simply going back to the state of affairs before the problem occurred. Change is a kind of spiral - sometimes moving quickly away from a previous situation and sometimes back towards it only to veer off sideways to something new.

We are a disposable society (I'll skip over who 'we' are so that I can get to the point). This is our current self-view: we buy new stuff, we use it a bit and then we dump it and buy something else. Assuming there was a time when we didn't do this: what did we do then? It seems that we got stuff mended and tried to keep it going as long as possible. A mend and make do society then.

So what is the answer we come up with to our disposable lifestyle? Not mend and make do certainly. These are seen as signs of not being able to afford new and latest and have negative connotations. A look around stately homes preserved by the National Trust will tell you that this attitude certainly didn't pervade the very well off in previous eras. There is a furious pride in keeping things, not just collecting and preserving, but things for every day use. There were whole towns of people whose lives were spent in specialist vocations of building, mending, tending to, adjusting and personalising everything from furniture to vehicles, from jewellery to ironmongery. My guess is that there was much less thrown away simply because a use would be found for just about everything.

The current answer to our guilt is to recycle. This seems good on the face of it: no point dumping something that doesn't rot in a landfill site - might as well collect it, sort it and make more of the same from it. But hang on. There's a huge difference between re-using a jar for this year's pickle that you used last year for jam and taking that jar, transporting it off somewhere, grinding it up, melting it down, remoulding it, repackaging it, transporting it somewhere else and then putting something else in it. That's a massive amount of effort and impact on the environment. What we are doing is deceiving ourselves into thinking we are not throwing stuff away because we put it in a different coloured bin or take it to a recycling site. It makes us feel better about buying new stuff and this is reinforced by marketing with a green tint: not only do we recycle but we buy stuff from companies that do a bit for the environment as well.

We should always be suspicious of what governments say - they are only around for very short amounts of time and have no long term vision except where it happens to tie in with short term gain. We should always be suspicious of commercial organisations - they will do or say anything to push up profits. We should be wary of pressure groups - their existence is justified by there being a problem that can be solved by getting us to act and they play on our fears. We should be wary of the media - it is either taking a standpoint and justifying it or, if it is trying to be neutral, it is very easily distracted by the sensational and picturesque.