Monday, February 23, 2009

When is enough enough?

I spent the last week in Hong Kong again. It's a shoppers' paradise - apart from the city-sized Habour Mall, there are hundreds of mini-malls everywhere. The only people who did seem to be enjoying themselves in the malls were the enormous 2-dimensional pictures of models. Everyone else looked down-trodden and faintly panicked. Actually, even the models didn't look like they were having fun - they literally and figuratively looked down on the shoppers - as if thinking "this lot are fugly!"

What I find particularly disturbing about this rampant commercialism is that a large proportion of the models are caucasian. Now it's bad enough being told that you're not young enough or attractive enough (which is the implicit message of most advertising), but to be told you're from the wrong ethnic group and NEVER have a chance to change that, is pretty miserable. Sales of skin-lighteners are high in Asia. Ironically, the West has a big market in self-tanning lotions. No matter where you live, advertisers are telling you "You're the wrong colour!"

The one product I did purchase was a book called Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More by John Naish. The book's central premise is that we are all making ourselves miserable by continually striving for more, be it more stuff, more work, more food, more happiness or more productivity. We need to overcome our evolutionary programming before we exhaust the planet's resources and drive ourselves bonkers.

It's probably a message you know already. I've read it in similar books, and I think gradually it is starting to have an impact. Now more than ever in my life I have enough money to buy what I want. Except I'm spending less. There was a point where I would go to Manchester town centre every weekend. And I used to spend hundreds of pounds a month on DVDs. Now I'll maybe buy a computer game once every couple of months instead. I rarely buy new clothes - and if they get torn, I get them mended rather than buying new ones. I'm not commuting from Bristol any more so that's a lot of money saved on train fares. I live in a town centre so I shop for food on a daily basis, which means I don't end up buying too much food once a week and then having to throw much of it away. Shopping just doesn't do that much for me any more.

One interesting question which Naish's book raises, however, is, what would happen if we all stopped consuming as much? The author isn't able to fully answer the question, and nor is he able to find any economist or politician who can. He notes that the government sends out contradictory messages - advocating sustainability, but at the same time being wed to the capitalist system which requires us to keep making more stuff and buying more stuff in an ever increasing spiral.

I suspect that we might be about to find out what will happen if we stop buying stuff (at least on a smaller scale). In the short-term it'll mean a loss of jobs. But what will those people do instead? What will all the ex-advertisers, ex-fashion designers, ex-manufacturers of new furniture, new cars, new televisions, new everything do if we decided that what we had was good enough? Maybe in some enlightened future age we will be able to put aside our collective acquisitive natures - but until it is genetically altered out of us - I doubt it.

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