3 June 2003
“We read a lot about how corrupt the decision makers and the corporations are. We read very little about the responsibility that we all share to the state of this world. Aren’t we the ones who don’t want to change our lifestyles and who would go absolutely ballistic if petrol (or access to other goods and services at a cheap price) was restricted ? Isn’t it also the consumerism in which we all play an active role that creates these “small minded and utterly unprincipled men and women” that like you say rule us?” – A reader.
My last essay prompted the response above from a reader in New Zealand and given that most of the articles/news pieces that appear on ICH are about the actions of ‘our’ governments and businesses, and none about what our responsibilities as citizens are , it goes to the very heart of the issue and it’s something that I do feel very strongly about. It’s also a very complex problem because we are all products of the systems we live in and the pressures on us to conform (and consume) are immense. And these pressures take many forms, some not so obvious as others.
But I think there are two issues here; one is what I regard as our universal responsibility to our fellow humans based on justice, human dignity and respect for human and civil rights, that one hopes we all subscribe to. The second is interconnected to the first but is more difficult to disentangle because it affects us at the most ‘mundane’ level of existence, and that’s our ‘lifestyles’.
I for one, don’t wear a hair shirt as the saying goes, nor do I live in a cave halfway up a mountain but I don’t own a car (though I have in the past) and I consider that my ‘needs’ are modest. I don’t have a credit card or massive debts. But I like to read books, listen to music and go out to eat and get high, go the movies and the theatre and so on. I don’t buy an awful lot of clothes and virtually no ‘gadgets’ (aside from my essential laptop). I think I live ‘within my means’ and at a modest level of consumption. All in all, I think I live a reasonably modest but rich and rewarding life nevertheless. But of course it all depends on what you mean by rewarding.
Where the two issues intersect is where it gets complex. So for example, every time I read a book a tree is being axed or every CD I buy consumes oil. The food I eat is probably subsidised by the EU at the expense of a farmer in the developing world. Every time I see injustice and do nothing, I’m contributing to the perpetuation of injustice.
Yet of course, the dominant culture would like nothing better than for me to take on the responsibility of the state of the world thus exonerating themselves for theirs. This is not to say that I don’t have a responsibility but what exactly does it consist of?
Perhaps the issue of the environment is one which is the closest to most of us because it effects us on a day to day basis. Most of us in the developed world are aware of the garbage ‘we’ generate and as the places to dispose of it shrink, producing less of it is something we are all called upon to do something about. Yet I don’t control the production process. When I was I kid, milk got delivered in glass bottles and my Coop milkman would pick up the empties everyday and they would be recycled. It was even delivered by a horse-drawn milk wagon would you believe (and this in London of the 1950s, early 60s). Today, I buy my milk in plastic containers which go into a rubbish tip somewhere. Virtually every food product I buy comes shrink-wrapped in various forms of plastic. Of course I can go to my local street market and get my tomatoes in a paper bag. When I go to the supermarket I could take a shopping bag with me instead of getting a ‘free’ plastic bag at the checkout. But to what degree does this have an effect?
It’s only recently that (some) corporations have been forced to realise that their responsibility for their products doesn’t end at the factory gate. Increasingly (in the EU anyway), manufacturers are being forced to accept the fact that not only the design and manufacture of their products should meet some kind of environmental standards but that once it’s reached the end of its useful life, disposing of it is also a responsibility that they have to shoulder at least part of the responsibility for. So for example, cars have to be made of components that can be recycled. Fridges have to have the CFCs removed before being trashed.
Obviously, all of these developments have a cost and the manufacturers are reluctant to carry that cost. There’s two ways of handling it. One is to get the consumer to pay for it and also to reduce the cost of manufacture. But increasingly, the developed world is exporting manufacture to countries with low wages, no worker protection, no environmental protection, no taxes. In short, countries or ‘zones’ of cheap, exploited labour and invariably in countries with authoritarian regimes, where workers have no means of defending their rights. Is it a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’?
Over the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of so-called socially responsible investing, boycotts of products made in sweatshops in the developing world; demands for more energy efficient buildings, guarantees that the raw materials are not stolen from environmentally fragile locations. In short, there is a growing awareness of the fact that we consume too much and that our standard of living depends on the super exploitation of workers and their environments in far off lands.
Yet of course, the economies of the developed world depend almost entirely on artificial levels of consumption. Products last only so long. Fashions change from year to year. We are caught up in a process whereby ‘happiness’ is defined in large measure by consuming, and consumption is a drug upon which most of us have come to be dependent. We visit, in our millions, cathedrals of consumption, shopping malls. We get in our cars and worship on freeways going to no particular place. A couple of years ago I was in Dubai when they were having a week-long ‘Festival of Shopping’ in what is reputedly, the largest mall on the planet! (I didn’t go.) And breaking such a powerful and socially acceptable addiction as consuming is not easy. We buy, feel ‘happy’ for a second then the feeling passes and we have to go and buy again. Legal crack-cocaine. It’s made all the more difficult by the fact that our jobs, pensions, in fact everything we have, depends on maintaining a system of constant consumption and replenishment.
As with war, injustice, prejudice, exploitation, altering the social and economic system we live in, is the most difficult objective we face, as it has been throughout history. Most of the 20th century’s struggles centered on precisely these issues and for the first time in history, on a global scale. And, as the struggle widened and deepened, so too vested interests, both economic and political, stiffened their resistance to the demands for change. It’s no accident that the scale of suffering and oppression increases in direct proportion to the level of opposition to exploitation. Propaganda systems have become very sophisticated and all-embracing. Breaking out of one’s ‘comfort zone’ like breaking any addiction, requires strength and courage. It requires support and compassion as well as understanding. Relating my life to that of a person in Malawi or Mozambique means that I have to identify with that person but I can’t even relate to the coke-head who lives down the street let alone someone thousands of miles away! I have to see that he or she is exactly like me, with the same desires, needs and feelings. But most of us have never been to Malawi or Mozambique and if we have, it’s unlikely we lived with them in their villages or ate the
ir food. Our experience of poverty and starvation is more likely to have been relayed to us via Bob Geldof or some other bleeding heart liberal. Once more, humans are transformed into victims which makes it impossible for us to identify with them because victims are, per se, not human ‘like us’.
How then, does one break the cycle? Not easily is the obvious answer. Yet to say that it’s impossible would mean that opposing those who rule us, is pointless, which clearly it isn’t (I wouldn’t be writing this essay and you wouldn’t be reading it if it was). We may (and do) disagree over how to oppose those who exploit and oppress and we may (and do) disagree over what should replace the irrational system we live under. In addition, like everything, there’s no guarantee of success over any given lifetime, but that’s the breaks. And on the other hand, I don’t think anyone should feel guilty because they not ‘on the frontline’ of opposing the ‘system’. You only live once and you make choices (within limits) about how you live it.
Finally, has there been progress? You bet there has. Have there been setbacks? You bet there have. But compare the invasion of Iraq by the Brits in 1919 with the latest imperialist adventure. The one in 1919 took place without most of the world even knowing it had happened, let alone voicing opposition to it. And ironically, since the end of the Cold War, it has actually been a lot easier for people to voice opposition to imperialist adventures than before, if only because they can’t be ‘red-baited’ or marginalised quite so easily. Consequently, finding common ground between peoples is, in many ways a lot easier to do now. What is proving difficult (and in my opinion, the central issue confronting us) is articulating an agenda which on the one hand, unites us and on the other, offers a genuine way forward.