Consumerism: Somebody Else’s Problem?

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What are the consequences of our addiction to convenience? How can we move beyond the belief that ever-increasing consumption is equivalent to progress? Ahead of the publication of Somebody Else’s Problem: Consumerism, Sustainability and Design by Robert Crocker, foreword author – Stuart Walker – considers why it’s time for a shift in priorities.

I was sitting on a beach in a sheltered cove in Greece. I was on one of the lesser visited islands and this place was quite secluded – a lengthy walk from the nearest road. The water was calm, the sky was blue – it was a perfect scene. One could imagine Odysseus dropping anchor in such a cove, and wood nymphs playing among the shadows of the tamarisk trees that came down to the sand.

The beach here was not the usual golden colour but a dark grey. I dragged my fingers through the sand, and picked up a handful.  The granules were blue-black schists, volcanic in origin, but amongst them were larger fragments – whites, turquoises, reds and greens. I separated these out, put them to one side, and repeated the process. Within a few minutes, without moving from my position, I had accumulated a pile of plastic fragments – bits of bottles, toys, wrappers, nylon ropes and other assorted junk that had been discarded in the sea and forgotten, and had ended up here, polluting and sullying this small piece of paradise.

In Britain, because of a long austerity program, funding to local councils has been severely reduced. This means there is less money to deal with the clean-up of our consumptive lifestyles. Perhaps one of the few benefits of economic recession is that one becomes aware of the things we so easily take for granted in more affluent times. It brings our reality into sharper focus and makes visible the real costs of our profligacy. This can be depressing but it is also a more honest picture of who we are and what we have become.

I live close to some of the most beautiful areas of England – the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District of Cumbria. When my wife Helen and I go hiking in these places at weekends, I am uplifted and restored by the sheer beauty of the moorlands and valleys, the mountain streams and the lakes, the misty mornings, the rain soaked mosses and the vibrancy of colour in the sunny interludes. But I am also appalled and disheartened by the amount of refuse on the roadsides; verges and hedgerows are often thick with bottles, cans, plastic, and packaging thrown from passing cars. Plastic wrap from hay bales – caught in branches and fluttering in the breeze like tattered flags – is also a common sight. Even in remote places – places renowned for their special significance and beauty – one cannot escape the blight of litter and waste. This is as true here as it is in a secluded cove thousands of miles away. This is the dark side of consumerism, and the curse of ‘convenience’, and it is devastating the planet. We are quite literally laying waste to the oceans, the lands, and the very air we breathe.

The critical and increasing pressures of contemporary consumption-based living are manifold – environmental breakdown, species extinction, mega-cities, population growth, resource depletion, climate change, mass migration from poorer to richer regions, and continuous war. These pressures are symptomatic of ways of living that are out of balance – ways that prioritise particular concerns to the detriment of others. Essentially, this is a question of values: what we choose to focus on and give precedence to, and what we choose to ignore. And so it is a moral concern – the morality of waste and the morality of the illusory, often misleading, messages of marketing and corporations whose vested interests are neither benevolent nor benign.

In modern times, and especially since the mid-nineteenth century, industrial growth, scientific and technological innovation, urbanisation, mass-production and mass-consumption have been key priorities of human development. Within a capitalist economic system that seeks continual growth, these priorities have exacted an enormous toll on people and planet. They have been accompanied by unprecedented and ever-increasing resource consumption and inordinate levels of waste. A rapacious commitment to the constant production of short-lived consumer ‘goods’ within a globalised corporate system that seeks rising profits with little or no consideration of the costs is, as is entirely to be expected, trashing the planet.

A primary factor in this contemporary condition is consumption. Our economies are perilously dependent on it, and corporate agendas constantly encourage it. Billions of dollars each year are channelled into persuading us to be dissatisfied, and the solution is always the same: buy something, buy anything, and buy more. Politicians endorse this agenda and news channels affirm its significance by continuously reporting rises in share prices and consumer spending in highly positive terms. We have all been enculturated to believe that ever-increasing consumption is a constructive and progressive achievement; we have accepted it as normality.

Robert Crocker’s important, fascinating and insightful new book, Somebody Else’s Problem, traces the history of consumption, and examines the basis of the modern phenomenon of consumerism. Robert looks at consumerism’s relationship to social behaviours, morality and deception; to waste production, its causes and effects; to sustainability; and to design. Today, this kind of critique is vital because consumerism is so pervasive and so commonplace; it is how we live. The very familiarity of its seductive veneer has the effect of masking its ruinous core. Robert’s systematic approach to this topic in Somebody Else’s Problem provides a clear, timely and thorough dissection of something we all take for granted. It is a wide-ranging examination that enables us to see properly, perhaps for the first time, something that has been in plain sight all along: this is quite definitely not somebody else’s problem.

Somebody Else’s Problem: Consumerism, Sustainability and Design by Robert Crocker will be published by Greenleaf on 25 November 2016. It is available to pre-order as a paperback at a special offer price of £19.99 (RRP £24.99; offer ends 25 November 2016). Hardback and e-book versions are also available.

This blog piece has been adapted from Stuart Walker’s foreword to Somebody Else’s Problem. Stuart is Professor of Design for Sustainability and Co-Director of ImaginationLancaster. He is the author of Design for Life: Creating Meaning in a Distracted World (2017, Routledge).

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