I think I’m supposed to start this whole process with ‘I’m Hannah, and I’m a Consumer’.
A bit of me wants to say I never was hugely good with formulae though (there’s a reason I went with history and literature, rather than maths and physics, regardless of how fascinating I find the floaty, existential and philosophical end of both those subjects) – plus I hope that my previous post also actually says this, even if it doesn’t use the exact phrase. As I’m doing this for Lent, though, and to reflect not just about how and what I buy, but also about how that works in relation to my faith, maybe I should treat the opening phrase as a piece of liturgy rather than formulae, and to use it as a part of the process of reminding myself that I really do want to think about and engage with this issue, and not just be stubborn and hide from it.
I want to own my consuming, rather than it owning me, so let’s start by acknowledging that while I’ll be reading Consumer Detox for a limited period of time, for anything I learn from it to take root, I’m going to have to continually engage with these ideas and challenge myself on a regular basis. When you come at it like this, having a phrase that reminds you of this isn’t such a bad idea.
As Mark Powley points out in the first chapter of this book consumerism thrives on ignorance – on the fact that we don’t know where our things come from or who made them. Part of the power of This American Life’s recent episode about the Apple factory was the fact that a relatively ordinary guy who likes Apple products went to China and met some of the people who make things for Apple. Apple aren’t going to be the only company who are ‘guilty’ of this kind of production practice – but because someone went there and started putting faces and stories together with the products they own, lots of other people have started thinking about what they’re buying and whether they’d be willing to pay more to have a piece of technology produced in a more ethical environment, and Apple are having to start to responding to this challenge.
Looking at it from a biblical perspective (because part of this Lenten process is about engaging my brain with my faith in a way that will, hopefully, reflect better in my daily life), Powley points out that the Exodus shows the difficulty of making this transition from ignorance, of being trapped in a system that owns you, to a place where you’re free to live your life as a citizen in a society you have a share in, where you’re informed and your participation has the potential to have consequences. No, I’m not equating physical slavery with contemporary consumerism in a like-for-like equation – at least, I really don’t want to be and I’m sorry if it seems like I am. But the story is paradigmatic, I think, of the way that it can sometimes be easier and seem like you get a ‘nicer’ life. The Israelites in the desert moaned to Moses about how they had nicer food back in Egypt (Numbers 11: 4-5). I can just imagine Moses wanting to hit himself around the head with his own staff in frustration. How is anything better than getting to leave slavery and be a participating citizen in your own society – even if getting that society set up is a real struggle?
I had a half day from work today to go and listen to the historian Hayden White give a lecture (he was talking about about history, literary techniques and the nature of truth, which isn’t really hugely related to this post…). He’s a guy who never fails to make me think, and who often says things that seem so obvious that I wonder why no one has ever said them before. He said, in the second part of the session: “I don’t believe in closure,” pointing out that the thing that postmodernism does is to strip away the illusion that anything can be wrapped up in a confident fashion. There is always, but always, a loose end that can be pulled on and something you thought was solved just starts up again.
So much of the stuff I have read and listened to over the past couple of months has been speaking to me about how life is acually uncertain pretty much all of the time (even though that uncertainty is much less dangerous for some than for others), that everything is always changing, and that part of being a responsible human being is about being aware of this and facing up to this – always being willing to be challenged about who you are and how you’re engaging with the world. And it’s hard – being alert and engaged and making critically informed decisions is, frankly, exhausting, and sometimes you do just want to sit back for a bit, have a snooze, and then go and buy a new pair of converse trainers, because they just looked so ace on David Tenant when he was in Doctor Who.
It’s obviously not as simple as not buying Apple products (to go back to our earlier example) – they’re not the only culprit, and is it really better to just stop buying something and be a part of increasing the risk of putting a lot of people out of work (as the extreme result of LOTS of people taking that action) – or is it better to try and challenge ourselves to think of better ways to make things and to be willing to save harder and spend a little more to have the things we want – to inconvenience ourselves a bit as we try to contribute to making a fairer world.
On my own, me choosing only to buy fairtrade chocolate isn’t going to stop the spread of chocolate whose production doesn’t provide the cocoa growers with a living wage. But if I think and talk (and write) about what I’m choosing and why, and join with others in choosing to be an informed and conscientious consumer there’s a much better chance of the world becoming a better place. I might have to give up stuff I like, or have less of it as I make certain decisions, but I want to choose wisely and effectively – to make a difference, however small, through the way I exercise the freedom I have to choose. I want to be able to know enough to choose, in the immortal words of Captain Jack Aubrey, ‘the lesser of two weevils‘.