Tuesday, 16 February 2010

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

You may recall that, immediately after 9/11, in the shock of the aftermath, George Bush went on American TV to urge US citizens to go shopping, to keep the US economy going. The whole thrust of a perpetually ‘growing’ economy must not be allowed to be put at risk.

The BBC is currently running a TV series, called The Virtual Revolutionabout the virtual world and electronic communications – and where it has all got us to. The third programme, ‘The Cost of Free’broadcast on 14 February, was particularly looking at e-commerce. The rapidity with we have become accustomed to this is extraordinary, given the initial ‘free’ ideology of the Web, which excluded commercial applications. Back in its early days, Google was an academic search engine . . . and then it worked out how to make money: ‘Adwords’.

As one speaker on the programme put it: the ‘product’ produced by Google is not the information displayed on your screen; the ‘product’ is your eyes looking at that information, and your hands on the mouse or keyboard responding to it. Every time we use Google to search, every time we put personal information on Twitter or Facebook, every time we send an email via googlemail, every time we make a purchase online, we supply raw data to the vast e-machinery that tracks our every move and preference. When we go to Amazon and look at a book, the page tells us, ‘we have recommendations for you . . .’ or ‘other people who bought this book also bought . . .’

You may have noticed that these days Google has moved beyond the sponsored advertisements at the top of your results page, and on the sidebar. Even as you start to type in your search terms, it is now anticipating what you might be looking for and offering you sample answers. These are based on statistical analysis, and if you click on one of the offered search strings, you will also get targeted adverts that have been paid for by auction – the highest relevant bidder gets the best slots. That’s how Google makes its money – and lots of it. It now has a near-monopoly on internet advertising. Is this how we want out personal data and our information controlled?

The speaker quoted above also said:
‘the more I respond to what is offered, the more I accept proffered suggestions to help me deal with the vast excess of information, the more I become like someone who is like me . . . I become more prototypical . . . I become less myself.’
Of course, we are offered tailored advertisements that are more likely to result in a sale, more likely to seduce us into consuming more, more likely to tempt us with products and services we might otherwise never even have known about. And all these searches, all this data-gathering, all this analysis . . . they all rely on many, many huge banks of energy-hungry servers, using electricity round the clock, emitting a great deal of CO2 into the atmosphere (the current estimate is that the sum total of all the servers running the internet and its services is roughly equal, in terms of carbon emissions, to the global airline industry).

Google’s original mission statement was ‘First do no harm’; and yet, in order to make money out of the research and development that produced such a step change in internet searching, it has ended up joining in the general harm caused by our global overconsumption. Our ‘environmental footprint’ – the overall impact we have on the planet – is a wider issue than our carbon footprint. It’s this that gives the result in terms of ‘how many planets’ we need. In 2006 (published in 2009), for instance, humanity’s global footprint was 1.4 planets. This figure is recalculated annually, but always lags about 3 years behind because of the time it takes to gather and collate all the data. In 2006, the averaged UK footprint was about 3.4 planets – this average figure hides regional differences.

If you want to know your own environmental footprint, there are various online calculators that will help you. The simplest (and crudest) that will give you a broad ball-park figure may be found at the World Wildlife FundThey also have an interesting report on the ecological footprint of British city-dwellers. A much more detailed, pencil-and-paper, calculator may be downloaded from the Living Witness Project – but you have to do all the calculation work yourself!

Another way of thinking about our overall ecological impact is to frame it as an annual income/expenditure budget – each year the earth produces a certain amount of resources that we consume. If we consume more than that in a year, we go into ecological debt. We go into debt every year, and the date has been getting earlier each year – it’s called Earth Overshoot Day. Humanity’s first Earth Overshoot Day was 31 December, 1986. This day has gradually moved forward over the years, and now our rate of overshoot stands at 40 percent more than the planet can renewably supply. In 2009 the date was 25th September. If we keep going into debt every year, starting every new year with an increasing deficit, this only leads in one direction.

A very useful resource is Pat Murphy’s book Plan C: community survival strategies for peak oil and climate change. Pat Murphy, the executive director of The Community Solution, co-wrote and co-produced the award-winning documentary The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.  ‘Plan A’ is ‘business as usual’ – nuclear energy and non-conventional fossil fuels, often combined with denial of anthropogenic climate change. ‘Plan B’ is ‘clean green energy’ – this is business as usual by other means, also known as the ‘technology will save us’ option, preserving consumer values. ‘Plan D’ is ‘human die off’ – or, at least, drastic population reduction by highly unpleasant means – often espoused by people who believe that it’s already too late. So, ‘Plan C’ is ‘curtailment and community’ – we need to reduce our consumption by vast amounts, and we need relocalisation and local community action to enable us to do that. Murphy includes a chapter on ‘Kicking the Media Habit’, removing ourselves from the temptations and seductions of advertising.

Interestingly there has now (15 February) been a call from the thinktank Compass to ban all advertising in public spaces, and Jackie Ashley has used her Monday column in The Guardian to comment on it.

Lots more useful data, analysis and opinion is available in the Worldwatch Institute’s 2010 report, which focuses on consumerism and a transition to sustainability: State of the World 2010: transforming cultures from consumerism to sustainability. One of the contributing authors, Gary Gardner, has a chapter on ‘Engaging Religions to Shape Worldviews’ in which he writes:

“It is difficult to find religious initiatives that promote simpler living or that help congregants challenge the consumerist orientation of most modern economies.” (p.26)
Among Quakers we certainly claim to espouse ‘simplicity’, but I wonder how much we really do to help each other, and others, to resist? Gardner goes on to suggest that a 'mindful’ approach to consumption
“would also address directly one of the greatest modern threats to religions and to spiritual health: the insidious message that the purpose of human life is to consume and that consumption is the path to happiness.” (p.27)
- this in spite of the fact that there is already plenty of research that shows with great clarity that increased consumption does not make us happier. George Monbiot’s commentary on this covers a number of these issues in his inimitable style!

And if you haven’t yet come across Annie Leonard’s wonderful animated film, The Story of Stuff, do watch it online, and spread the word about it.

Reviewers have pointed to these same themes in the movie Avatar - humans exploiting an Edenic forest world for commercial gain, and ruining it in the process. Writing in The Guardian, Adam Roberts sees in the film a clear echo (‘plagiarism’, he calls it) of Ursula le Guin’s 1976 novel The World for World is Forest. Long out of print, this moving and insightful novel is, belatedly, due for reissue in July this year.

Al Gore, in his latest book, Our Choice: a plan to solve the climate crisis, has a large-typeface bold quote that says: ‘Virtually every Pavlovian trigger discovered in the human brain is now pulled by advertisers’. However, this is nothing new, unfortunately – it’s just that electronic media make it more pervasive now: Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders in 1957. It sold more than 1 million copies, and that was in the days when you had to walk down the street to a real-world physical bookstore in order to buy it! Packard explores the use of consumer motivational research and other psychological techniques, including depth psychology and subliminal tactics, by advertisers to manipulate expectations and induce desire for products, particularly in the American postwar era. Excerpts are available online.

This brings us back to Gary Gardner’s suggestion – the practice of mindfulness, in our whole life, including in relation to our patterns and habits of consumption. To take this seriously becomes a profoundly subversive act. The triggers that the advertisers so cleverly use can only work because we live so much of our lives unawarely, ‘on autopilot’ – ‘asleep’ as the Buddhists would say: we need to ‘wake up’. The diligent practice of mindfulness constitutes that ‘waking up’ – it undermines the automatic dimensions of behaviour, makes us more alert to unconscious patterning. Daily prayer or meditation, undertaken regularly and faithfully, is one of our important tools in refashioning our unsustainable way of life.

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1 comment:

  1. I am reading 'The Cloister Walk' by Kathleen Norris at the moment. In a section called 'The Difference' the subject of consumerism comes up:

    "To eat in a monastery refectory is an exercise in humility; daily one is reminded to put communal necessity before individual preference. While consumer culture speaks only to preferences, treating even whims as needs to be granted (and the sooner the better), monastics sense that this pandering to delusions of self-importance weakens the true self, and diminishes our ability to distinguish desires from needs. It's a price they're not willing to pay."

    "But in a consumer culture, monastic people must be vigilant, remaining intentional about areas of life that most of us treat casually, with little awareness of what we're doing. One year at the American Benedictine Academy convention, an abbot, speaking on the subject of 'The Monastic Archetype', suddenly dropped all pretence of objectivity and said he was troubled by the growing number of cereals made available for breakfast in his community. 'How many kinds of cereal do we need', he asked, 'in order to meet genuine health needs without falling into thoughtless consumerism?'" (p 32)