Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Do we love ‘things’ not enough, rather than too much?

The usual criticism of materialism, whether from an environmental or a spiritual point of view, is that we are too much in love with material ‘stuff’; and either that is bad for the planet, or it’s bad for our souls – or both.

But perhaps the problem is really the opposite – we don’t love our things enough. We pick them up and discard them, we throw them away and get a new one, we don’t like the colour or the style any more. We buy too much food and then throw it away because it’s gone off – only people who have never gone hungry can do that so carelessly.

We used to have students from developing countries spending three months at a time at Woodbrooke. Those who came from the tropics and sub-tropics would be warned to bring warm clothes, but if they were coming in our winter they had no idea what ‘cold’ meant. So we would take them to the Oxfam shop to get warm sweaters and coats. They were curious about our charity shops – why had people given away these perfectly good clothes? Well, we would reply, perhaps they don’t fit any more, or they’ve gone out of fashion, or . . . and we would see the expression on their faces and start to feel the obscenity of our throw-away culture.

There’s a song by Randy Newman called I Think it's Going to Rain Today that contains the words:

Tin can at my feet
Think I'll kick it down the street
That's the way to treat a friend

If we loved our things, we would see not only the object in front of us but also the minerals or metals mined out of the Earth; the wood or fibre grown in the Earth’s soil; the insects and birds that lived in the trees when they were growing; the wind and the sun and the rain; the billions of years old dead flora and fauna that make up our plastics and our dye-stuffs, as well as providing the energy that fuels the extraction, processing, manufacturing and transporting of our goods. We would also see the labour of our fellow humans who mined and dug and tended and felled and machined and packed . . . we would see that every object contains the whole world.
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
George Eliot, Middlemarch
If we practised mindfulness about all our things, if we were truly thankful for every thing, we would not lightly discard the labour of our sisters and brothers around the world, the material gifts of our Mother Earth.

So let’s go back to that old but serviceable mantra: reduce, re-use, recycle – and expand it a bit.

Before ‘reduce’ comes REFUSE: refuse to buy what you don’t need; refuse the seduction of the advertisers telling you, ‘it’s new, it’s better, you want it, you need it’. Don’t buy goods with excessive and unnecessary packaging – this includes reducing our consumption of processed, packaged food, instead buying raw ingredients and cooking properly.

Then comes REDUCE: even those things that you do truly need – food, clothes – reduce the waste, the excess; cherish each thing, see the whole world in every item.

Then there’s one that doesn’t start with an ‘R’: take care of what you’ve got. Polish your shoes to make them last longer, wash your clothes carefully, be mindful not to break things carelessly.

Next comes RE-USE: re-use something you have, rather than getting something new; and if you don’t need it any more, give it to someone who will use it – that way the labour and raw materials that went into its making are respected. Give it to a friend or to charity shop, preferably one in your local community, rather than putting it in one of the endless plastic collection bags that come through the letterbox; or sign up to your local Freecycle or Freegle.

If something is beyond re-use, there’s a step before recycle: REPAIR. Repairing brings something back into use rather than rendering it back to its components and raw materials. It’s patching and darning and mending clothes, it’s having your shoes repaired, it’s learning how to mend and fix things, skills that many of us have never learned – time to start.

And there’s yet one more before recycling: UPCYCLING – this is using something no longer needed to make something useful. The traditional craft of patchwork is a good example. So is making a garden shed out of old doors picked up at the dump.

And if it’s really beyond all of these, take it to a recycling centre (or put it in your Council's kerbside collection) from where it will be reduced to its component materials and re-manufactured into something new. If it’s organic it will be composted and ‘made’ into new growing plants.

And if you must buy something (apart from food, that is): first try to buy second-hand, or make a request on Freegle or Freecycle. Or, if suitable, see if you can borrow it via one of the exchange sites set up to do this, such as Streetbank if it exists in your area. Second-hand or borrowed reduces the total embodied carbon (the CO2 emissions that went into the making of the item) that your life is responsible for. If it has to be new, then apply as many as possible of the LOAF principles: Local, Organic, Animal-friendly, Fairly-traded.

This all starts to seem like a lot of complicated rules (and we could dream up a whole lot more) but really it all goes back to mindfulness and loving the whole-world-in-every-thing.

Other resources:
 - If you haven’t already seen it a million times, watch the short (20 minutes) video of Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff; if you’ve only seen it once or twice, it’s worth watching again to be reminded
- Download the free pamphlet by Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts called The New Materialism
- For an institutional/economic bigger picture see the article by Terry Slavin, in The Guardian: Time to turn capitalism 'inside out'

The seasonal message, of course, is: and apply all this to Christmas! And what better New Year’s resolution could there be than to expand our practice of mindfulness?
PS: Addition a few days later: for another slant on all this, see George Monbiot's trenchant and angry piece in The Guardian of 11 December - On the 12th day of Christmas ... your gift will just be junk: ‘Every year we splurge on pointless, planet-trashing products, most of which are not wanted. Why not just bake them a cake?’

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much for these thoughts, to which I need to give much more consideration...

    May I suggest another 'resource' worth considering: Carol Craig's "The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives" a book only just published (November 2012)? The last chapter, entitled "Hope", finishes with a list of 11 practical suggestions.

    Drawing on a wide range of research and thinking and written from a non-religious perspective, it is the first of a series of short books intended to "stimulate and communicate new thinking and new ways of living". They have much wider applicability than the project title "Postcards from Scotland" - - might suggest.