Monday, April 5, 2010

The Induced Justification of Over-Consumption

Capitalism, especially in the last three or four decades, has endeavored to ingrain a relentless, and ever expanding desire for consumption as part of human nature. It has become instinct, at least in the opulent consumer societies of the global north and increasingly in large cities worldwide, to consume without thought, without analysis, without awareness. Almost no thought is given to what happens to product waste after consumption, beyond the general misconception that everything is alright if we recycle, and zero thought is given to what has to happen before those products are purchased off the shelves and into our homes. A staggering statistic is that we keep only 1 % of the stuff we buy for longer than six months, which means that 99 % of what we buy is discarded within six months of purchase. Is that not an incredibly revealing fact about what our society has become? Without wanting to oversimplify, today's culture in the global north is nothing more than a culture of consumption, a culture of sterility, decadence, and consumption.

A while back I was talking to a friend at work, a friend named Diana. Diana has a great love for birds and weekly she goes out with a net and catches pigeons to remove the wire and filaments that get caught around their talons and can cause them pain and even losing fingers or an entire foot over time. She also collects small donations at work to buy bird food in order to feed the smaller birds that get outmuscled by the pigeons. I have to say honestly that she is someone who genuinely loves nature. But like the majority of people, Diana is largely unaware of the bigger picture and of the effects of our over-consumption and massive waste.

We were talking a couple of months ago about the incredible waste that our restaurant, Red Lobster, generates on a daily basis, even as an individual unit, without recycling any of it, because it is too expensive to do so. We mentioned how it was completely unnecessary for the printers to be programmed to print extra copies of each bill, even when a print copy is not requested, and an extra one even after the bill gets paid. On a daily basis, even just from our restaurant, this adds up to a lot of wasted, unrecycled paper quickly. I keep the waste paper bills to either bring home for recycling, or to reuse them as notepads for my orders at work. Diana saw me doing this one day and she mentioned how she did it as well, and that became a nice thing in common, a small point of solidarity between us. My initial impression was that Diana was, at least to a small degree, an environmentally conscious person.

So when the idea came to me and some of my friends this spring to start a small community collective, for healthy local mainly vegetarian eating, and anti-corporate, anti-agribusiness, anti-packaging, and sustainable living, I immediately thought of Diana as someone who might be seriously interested in joining our endeavor. At first she seemed slightly interested, but the day after I had originally talked to her about it, she showed up to work with three plastic bottled water. I told her she really shouldn't do that, that she should equip herself with a long-term re-useable stainless steal water bottle, that she should not burn plastic away and feed the petroleum dependency. And I told her that when she went home tonight she should take 20 minutes to watch a small documentary entitled The Story of Bottled Water.

The next day she did the exact same thing, her water again in three disposable plastic bottles. I said it nicely but I was upset, and I asked her why, and she started counseling about how tap water wasn't healthy. I told her that she was wrong, that tap water is in fact perfectly fine and healthy in most cases, especially here in Canada, and that if she is skeptical she should simply buy herself a Brita water filter to fill her newly purchased planet friendly stainless steal water bottle everyday. She responded by saying that she used to have a Brita filter, but that the charcoal filter left black sediment in her water, and that because of that and because of the fact that she wasn't comfortable with tap water, that she needed to find a solution that she was happy with. I told her she needed to find a solution instead that made the planet happy. This is a prime example of the general public's typical attitude of indifference and egotism, and the ignorance and unwillingness to compromise, make sacrifices, or disrupt their personal comfort. As the Diana situation shows, she found herself with various 'inconvenient' options and was faced with a dilemma, so I'll just keep drinking bottled water for now until I find a solution that makes ME happy, ME, never mind ecosystems and sustainability.

Then about a week ago, I stopped by for a poutine on Queen street, and my girlfriend and I noticed the girl at the front counter preparing dozens of cheese curd portions into small plastic cups, covering them with plastic warp of course. Noticing that this process was just blatant petroleum waste, I asked if they reused the plastic cups afterwards, and she responded "yes we do, but they're biodegradable anyway." Oh! well, case closed then, no cause for concern here. People only consider what is in front of them, what they can see. No consideration is given to how the plastic cup was made; that petroleum had to be extracted, an extractive resource which is very energy intensive, that animals and ecosystems may have been damaged in the process, that indigenous or rural farming communities may have been driven away, displaced from their traditional lands, that additional petroleum was burnt probably transporting the resources halfway across the world to be manufactured, and that more energy was burnt during production creating even more waste from a factory where workers are probably exploited and underpaid. The biodegradable plastic cup scenario is just another typical example of indifference and lack of awareness, and a lack of desire to even become aware in many cases.

The message in short would be that the green 'revolution' is bullshit, that green technologies produce only sugar-coated offsets and together with biodegradable products, recycling, and 'fuel-efficient' vehicles serve as justification for our continued over-consumption, and that the public uses all this as an apology to congratulate themselves on how well they've done.

Ideas that only appear to do good things on the surface are counter productive, and dangerous. We have to apply the real solutions which are not difficult to establish and already at our disposal. We have to establish a universal culture of awareness and accountability.

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