Monday, 5 January 2009

Draft Article for Sublime (comments?)


There are (in very broad terms) two sorts of human culture.

One is pure; perfectionist, idealised, utopian, iconic, archetypal, an eternal symbol of some superhuman ideal or desire. Freud wrote that our technology makes us prosthetic gods; achieving ancient Olympian fantasies in modern forms (such as private jets, cosmetic surgery and weapons of mass destruction). But it isn’t only the lifestyles and culture of the elite, this is also the territory occupied by iconic image brands; Chanel, Coca-Cola, Nike, Apple, Ferrari and so on.

The other is ramshackle; the muddle we seem to have got ourselves into, or (as the postmodernists put it) a Bricolage; something made from whatever happened to be handy. Like London, a city without a street plan, ramshackle culture is held together only by a loose consensus; that it seems to be ‘the way things are done these days’. Into this category we might include most of everyday life; travel on the metro, family mealtimes, reality TV. There are plenty of brands in this category too, notably the internet brands which grew out of a new folk culture consensus; like eBay, Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube.

The world of “green” (ie environment and ethics) divides in the same way. The ramshackle; for instance leftover food turned into a stew, the charity shop, the make do and mend culture, Freecycle. The pure green is present in idealised eco architecture and design, in NGO campaigns and – unfortunately perhaps – in ethical consumerism …. We probably need both sorts of green culture. But I would argue that it is a bit of a disaster that ethical consumerism in particular ended up going the ‘purist’ iconic route.

We do need a kind of purity of purpose, a recognition that things really do have to change. And it seems that message really has got through, particularly when it comes to climate change. Paul Ray’s study of American values which he repeated last year (March 2008, sample 2000, Fieldwork by TNS), underlined just how strong the mandate is for quite sweeping reforms:

87% agree that “We need to treat the planet as a living system.”

81% “Corporations must take more responsibility for their impact on global warming.”

62% “The earth is headed for an environmental catastrophe unless we change.”

75% “People need to work for the good of the planet, for it is our only home.”

56% “Our materialistic way of life can be replaced by a new, more hopeful one.”

But the dangerous fantasy of pure green is that we can ‘turn back the clock’ to a time of natural grace, when people lived in harmony with each other and the land. The trouble being that in (ramshackle) reality we all live in a vast, interconnected global industrial complex. We do our best to hide this troubling fact; so successfully in fact (having exported our factories to China) that we kid ourselves we live in a post industrial ‘info’ age. But there is nearly nothing we can buy that doesn’t represent thousands of workers, thousands of miles, a production line of billions of items. This is literally a life support system that we are hooked up to. A modern city like LA has roughly 2 days supply of food.

In this way many (but by no means the majority of) people have escaped what Adam Smith described as “the trouble and toil” of labouring to provide ourselves with food, shelter, transport, the tools of our trades and any luxuries on top of that. But with this progress comes a critical dependency; we are far from being able to feed, warm, clothe ourselves on any kind of scale. We are wobbling at the top of a pyramid of progress. At its base is the division of labour.

The division of labour is thought of as a modern industrial invention. Actually it is mentioned by authors back to Plato. The Code of Hammurabi, the surviving ancient text of Babylonian law mentions specialised occupations including merchants, brokers, bankers, mercenaries, landlords, agents, prostitutes, judges, scribes, tavern keepers, builders, shipbuilders, sailors, craftsmen (such as rope makers and potters), apprentices, physicians, veterinary surgeons, barbers, concubines, maid-servants, temple-maids, gardeners, farmers, herdsmen and shepherds, field labourers and ox-cart drivers. Ever since we have had cities, or probably towns, people have specialised in their occupations and many hands were always involved in something as simple as an item of clothing; once you allow for the mining and manufacturing of the tools of agriculture, for weaving, dyes, for making the boats or carts… and the whole supply chain.

What the public seems to want – or at least what it has been offered until now – is green, purist absolute goods. Representing in many cases what is left of small scale production. Fair Trade is a noble example, and is responsible for millions in improved wages in developing world agriculture. But what concerns me is that the strength of such purist ‘brands’ as this blinds us to how marginal this is within the global industrial complex. Especially if people feel they have done their bit, made their sacrifice at the temple, and can now get on with life.

The average spend on ethical goods in the UK equates on average to one bag of Fair Trade coffee and a pack of organic corn per family per week.

What we really need to tackle is the other 95%. Sugar is a case in point. The sugar industry runs to more than 145 million tonnes a year, is a major (major) user of water, and in terms of workers rights, according to Brazilian NGOs such as Rede Social, little has changed in the last two hundred years – with hard labour, slavery and appalling levels of fatality. According to a WWF report in 2004 sugar may also be responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop “due to habitat loss, intensive use of water for irrigation, heavy use of agro-chemicals, as well as discharge and runoff of polluted effluent associated with the industry.” Tate and Lyle have (commendably) actually gone FairTrade as far as their UK retail sugar goes, but this is a tiny fraction of the sugar we consume in all the manufactured foods we eat.

What is required – to create sustainability on a true global scale – is to deal with all the global ramshackle legacy of the invisible industries like sugar. There are moves incidentally to create a voluntary code of responsibility in sugar – but how to support that, or connect it with consumers, outside the fairtrade niche producers? This is a very different sort of audience engagement task than selling purist 'green goods'. It requires mass education in the real process of how things are produced. If you want a great example of what I mean check out the online documentary “The Story of Stuff”. This process of education to support real reform may be starting; in the UK at least we now value of animal welfare when it comes to buying chicken, in Holland the country has passed zero waste legislation: both the result of popular TV documentaries which lifted the lid on issues and got people into real world change, beyond purist ‘ethical’ consumerism into a kind of new common sense.


john dodds said...

Terrific stuff John - wry, intelligent and impassioned.

Only crtique would be a little clunkiness in the third paragraph whih to me broke up the flow. I did a quick edit to the middle of it. I'm, a pain I know.

The world of “green” (ie environment and ethics) divides in the same way. The "ramshackle" green being the charity shop, the make do and mend culture, leftover food turned into a stew, Freecycle. The "pure" green being idealised eco architecture and design, NGO campaigns and – unfortunately perhaps – ethical consumerism …. We probably need both sorts of green culture. But I would argue that it is a bit of a disaster that ethical consumerism in particular ended up going the ‘purist’ iconic route.

John Grant said...

Thanks John D, got this in the nick of time as they were going to press today. How's tricks? :J

ps am deep into a project that's involved researching global agriculture and am actually feeling quite purist & not nearly so 'wry' or 'intelligent' as you put it :)

Oh well there are two sides to every story.

john dodds said...

I'm bearing up and realising it's long overdue that we meet up for beer/coffee/world saving.

As for your wryness - that was to do with your post modern asides.

Layla said...

Didn't know Holland has gone zero waste!! great to hear!! :))

Well, as an everyday-consumer, I don't feel so 'pure' or 'zero waste' trying to find better and more 'zero waste' ways... :))
(possibly affordable ones too..)

And the efforts of 'mainstream' and other non-organic 'big players' to enter the organic market have been quite strong, they wanted to influence US and EU legislation on this etc! (and in some cases have.. :(

Not sure if you've met other 'garbloggers' around & The Rubbish Diet blogs...? Definitely nothing 'pure' about trying to go zero waste, lol!! :)
/or to eat healthy.. every meal is a compromise, sort of.. :)/

I do agree there's a tendency to buy organic coffee, recycle the odd tin, and think you've done your bit.. Well, that's actually where the fun really starts happening.. :)

So let's hope people AND shops AND producers will be energized to go beyond recycling and cheapest products on sale and look deeper into things too..