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Trashing the planet for a talking piggy bank

Date

George Monbiot

Daft presents ... designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.

Daft presents ... designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.

There's nothing they need, nothing they don't own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a silver-plated ice cream tub-holder; a ''hilarious'' inflatable Zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or - and somehow I find this significant - a Scratch Off World Map.

They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the 12th day of Christmas they're in landfill. For 30 seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.

Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that, of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1 per cent remain in use six months after sale. Even the goods we might have expected to hold on to are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (wearing out or breaking quickly) or perceived obsolescence (becoming unfashionable).

Useless ... Terry the Swearing Turtle.

Useless ... Terry the Swearing Turtle.

But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine T-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped iPhone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog. No one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.

The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production. We are screwing the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers.

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smartphone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility. Forests are felled to make ''personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets''. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and by the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.This boom has not happened by accident. Our lives have been corralled and shaped in order to encourage it. Governments cut taxes, deregulate business, manipulate interest rates to stimulate spending. But seldom do the engineers of these policies stop and ask, ''spending on what?'' When every conceivable want and need has been met (among those who have disposable money), growth depends on selling the utterly useless.

The solemnity of the state, its might and majesty, are harnessed to the task of delivering Terry the Swearing Turtle to our doors. Grown men and women devote their lives to manufacturing and marketing this rubbish, and dissing the idea of living without it. ''I always knit my gifts,'' a woman in a TV ad for an electronics outlet says. ''Well you shouldn't'', replies the narrator. An ad for a Google tablet shows a father and son camping in the woods. Their enjoyment depends on the Nexus 7's special features. The best things in life are free, but we've found a way of selling them to you.

The growth of inequality that has accompanied the consumer boom ensures the rising economic tide no longer lifts all boats. In the US in 2010, a remarkable 93 per cent of the growth in incomes accrued to the top 1 per cent of the population. The old excuse, that we must trash the planet to help the poor, does not wash. For a few decades of extra enrichment for those who already possess more than they know how to spend, the prospects of everyone else who will live on this Earth are diminished.

So effectively have governments, the media and advertisers associated consumption with prosperity and happiness that to say these things is to expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule. When the world goes mad, those who resist are denounced as lunatics.

Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for God's sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don't.

Guardian News & Media

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59 comments

  • Absolutely brilliant. Possibly the best opinion piece I have ever read. This should be mandatory reading and discussion material for all school students, let alone our dubious economists and disgraceful politicians. When will we finally recognise the unsustainable utter madness of our current paradigm?

    Commenter
    km
    Date and time
    December 13, 2012, 9:05AM
    • Never, unfortunately ! Our brains have been parked within our fat behinds.

      Commenter
      EHHH!
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 9:29AM
    • Well said!!And as Ozzy Osbourne said,we are going off the rails on a crazy train!

      Commenter
      Blackheart1916
      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 4:10PM
  • No, please don't write me a poem - I'd rather not waste my time or pollute my mind with the sort of turgid rubbish 99% of people produce when they sit down to be "creative".
    But don't give me a swearing turtle either - especially an ugly one.

    Commenter
    MerriD
    Date and time
    December 13, 2012, 9:14AM
    • I think the article is getting at 'it is the idea that counts'. Stop being so petty and just enjoy your relationships with people. I wouldn't bother writing you a poem because you seem like a grinch saying things like that. But I am a writer and my girlfriend does enjoy the poetry I give her for events so I think the suggestions here are definitely worth taking on board.

      Commenter
      Hater
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 10:24AM
    • @Hater

      Indeed it is the thought that counts. That's why I'll be giving everyone thoughts this Christmas. I don't know if I'll make it to Christmas lunch after I present my unique gifts, but I'm hoping Maccas will be open somewhere on the day - just in case.

      Commenter
      Malik the magic sheep
      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 12:00PM
    • Yes, it IS the thought that counts. If you have practiced writing, by all means make the effort because I would know you have put some thought into it. But if the only thought you put into it is 30 minutes one week before Christmas to dash off a text or email, that's just as superficial as buying a piece of plastic and heavy metal rubbish without a thought as to whether I'd like it. And at the same time, you're telling me I'm supposed to feel good about YOUR smugness in "not buying into the materialistic mindset".
      Call me a grinch if you like but it's not the amount of money you spend that matters - it's the amount of thought.

      Commenter
      MerriD
      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 12:31PM
  • Interesting, another article in this paper today, about travel to Asia for the purpose ( among others ) of purchasing cheap, knock off DVDs, being no longer viable due to the internet, drew dozens of comments.
    Illustrates the essence of this article beautifully.

    Commenter
    EHHH!
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    December 13, 2012, 9:23AM
    • Think of it this way.....The only human civilisation that buried itself under all it's own crap!

      Commenter
      5612
      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 9:26AM
      • This is exactly how I feel about the gifting of junk - sorry, 'novelty' - gifts and useless trinkets at Christmas. Last year I took a stand and gifted homemade goodies that went down a treat and this year will do the same.

        Commenter
        Lulu
        Date and time
        December 13, 2012, 9:32AM

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