Consider Christmas. It is yet again on our threshold.
Once a religious high holy day it is now a mere vestige of itself- a holiday if you will. It has become the high holy day of something different altogether- consumerism.
It is wrapped in the vestments of religious and secular imagery. Somewhere the baby Jesus (and not the funny 8 pound 6 ounce one described on Talledega Nights), three wise man and Mary appear as part of a cute narrative that has become fused to Santa Claus, a religious construct, now completely absorbed by those that sell.
The Christmas season has become the nexus for selling and more importantly buying. (The politically correct of course would strip it of any remaining meaning by calling it a holiday season).
The success of the Christmas season is tied to sales figures. Nowhere is this more evident than in the US with its Black Friday and the mad dash to buy. Apparently sane people line up overnight to buy the cheapest wares, turning at least temporarily insane, when with elbows up they dash in, engorging themselves on hunks of plastic and wires and textiles that provide them somehow with respite and validation before going back to their normally sedentary coach ridden lives punctuated only by the rata tat tat of the shooting range and occasional trips to Golden Corral and their chocolate fountain.
The efforts of many have turned the Christmas season into a giant holodeck (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodeck). There’s the Coca Cola’s polar bear; a Charlie Brown Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and the creepy Grinch. While it may not have been the artists original intents these “traditions” have all been welded to become the outward manifestation and the fluffer to make sure that we get into and stay in the Christmas “spirit” which of course means to buy.
Consider this since 2005 the total amount spent on the US Thanksgiving weekend has increased $27.8 billion, only slowing down but not decreasing during to the great recession, to the $59.1 billion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Friday_(shopping)) in 2012. That’s a 113% increase in 8 short years.
As Canadians we should not be too smug. The streets are busy and the stores are full. According to BMO’s Holiday Spending Outlook survey Canadians are expected to spend about $674 on gifts in 2012 versus $583 in 2011 (about a 16% increase) although the Deloitte Holiday Outlook Survey 2012 presents a more tempered prediction of 1-2% in increased overall sales.
If we ever wonder why the amount of waste we generate never stops increasing this (and the rest of the year) should be a big clue as to why.
It goes much deeper than that however. We buy more things than we need to replace things that don’t last.
The consumer products that we buy are designed to “break down” or put another way their obsolescence is planned. Although not a big fan of conspiracy theories, the assumption that secret groups of Dan Brown inspired Knight’s templars or the like are planning our futures, the Light Bulb Conspiracy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5A1UeV5mC_w) is one worth watching and exploring. It attempts to trace the birth and roots of the birth of consumerism. It tells the story of the light bulb and how it was redesigned to have a shorter life so that people would have to buy more and more often.
It is now almost always cheaper to buy something new than to repair it. You hear that over and over again. Planned obsolescence was very much planned.
It got its start during the Great Depression when Bernard London proposed obsolescence by legal obligation- or basically obsolescence would be the law. It went nowhere. A crucial twist saw planned obsolescence by seduction where everything is “a little newer, a little better…”. Brooks Stevens, an influential industrial designer of the 1950s, used this approach to great success. It has as they say snowballed from there.
While it is unclear if the original intent was to make a superior product inferior it has turned into that and used to feed the holy grail of growth. And so it goes. In many ways our consumer driven society is built on great dishonesty and disingenuousness that has corrupted the moral fibre of ingenuity and industry. Superior products are eschewed in favour of more inferior products that will feed the treadmill of consumerism that in the end creates great mountains of unnecessary waste.
Somehow this needs to change. There need to more advocates of a durable society that values goods that don’t necessarily need to last forever but at the very least don’t have their obsolescence literally programmed into it or made with weak thread.
Somehow to make any real environmental difference we have to understand the impact of consumerism. You can’t have rampant resource usage and environmental benefit at the same time. Tackling issues that society has put forward such as climate change is going to need a lot more than fuel efficient cars and homes. It is going to need less of both. Ultimately it is going to require less of us as well.
Judging by its actions society is not prepared to consider any of that just yet. Consumerism is an addiction. It feels one of our most basic needs and that is the gathering of resources, no different than that of the squirrel gathering nuts, although our path has gone so far beyond what we need.
For now it’s just sugar plum fairies and boxing day sales that come earlier and earlier.
This really isn’t a tale of humbug however. There is much that we can give and receive. Goodwill and cheer cost nothing and charity very little. They warm the heart in a way that stuff can’t. Their impact can last days, months, decades and longer. They don’t go out of goes out of style (or create waste).