Friday, February 2, 2007

Junk Shopping

Pathfinders column from the February 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Just on the off-chance that any of its readers retained the dimmest flicker of enthusiasm for the annual cash-orgy known as Christmas, the Independent determined to render it even more pointless and masochistic by itemising with Scrooge-like malice the stupendous waste involved in the whole exercise (23 December, 2006). Thus we learned that six million trees, enough to form a line from London to the North Pole and back again, would be dumped or incinerated, ditto a billion greetings cards, enough to go round the world five times, 83 km2 wrapping paper, and 125,000 tonnes of plastic packaging. 40 percent of all festive food would go in the bin, and 41 percent of all children's toys would end up broken in landfill within 3 months.

Britain is, of course, triumphantly at the top of the household waste European league tables, disposing of more than 27m tonnes each year, 7m tonnes more than Italy, and a whopping 17m tonnes ahead of Germany, which has a population 25 percent larger (BBC Online, 9 October 2006). An area the size of Warwickshire - 109 square miles - is already landfill and landfill space is expected to be used up by 2016. According to a survey by the Energy Saving Trust, Britain also comes gratifyingly top in energy wastage, apparently because we leave our lights on, our TVs on standby and our phone chargers plugged in (BBC Online, 23 October 2006).

Pursuant on the popular media theme that we are all feckless children who need strong governance, even New Scientist can't resist having a dig at us, with talk of our 'adulterous' consumption - endlessly deserting our possessions for the novelty of younger, flashier models (6 January). The average domestic power tool, we are told, has an active lifetime of only ten minutes before spending thousands of years rotting underground. To be sure, they dig a little deeper and expose, without ever using the word, the alienation at the heart of production and consumption, blaming mass-production for the fact that we have no personal relationship with made goods, they have no history for us, they embody no 'narrative'.

Paradoxically, we don't care about these goods, but we depend on possessing them to give us our sense of identity. They have the power to remake us which we ourselves lack.

Socialists know this syndrome by the infelicitous term 'commodity fetishism', yet even Marx could surely not have imagined the stupendous energy that capitalism was destined to pour into this large-scale Junk Production. With our eyes glued always on the latest model, we ignore the rising range of waste as it towers behind us to the far horizon.

Of course there is nothing wrong with encouraging individuals to take more responsibility over what they waste, but one can't help feeling there is an agenda of misdirection behind much of what the media tells us about ourselves, focussing as they do on the relatively minor waste output of the domestic household and ignoring or downplaying the staggering waste produced by the capitalist system of production as a whole. Statistics from the UK Department of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reveal the true picture for total waste in Britain in 2004. Of a total 335m tonnes of waste produced annually, 32 percent is construction and demolition, 29 percent mining and quarrying, 13 percent industrial, 12 percent commercial, and just 9 percent domestic (Environmental Protection webpage).

So while you're being guilt-tripped into staggering down to the rainswept recycling bins with your bags of bottles, you'll be pleased to reflect that the real giants of junk production are clinking glasses in Downing Street.

It wouldn't be so bad if the waste produced by capitalism was simply accidental, an unfortunate by-product of a less than optimal method of doing things. Defenders of capitalism might argue that a certain amount of waste is inevitable in any society of mass production, given that the huge economy of scale, together with the normal operations of a competitive market, can sometimes lead to goods becoming so cheap as to be literally disposable. Thus we find that it is often cheaper to buy a new computer printer than to buy a replacement ink cartridge for the old one, that new battery-powered toys and gizmos can be cheaper than the batteries in them, and that as far as clothes go, Huxley's injunction from Brave New World still applies: spending is better than mending. Even more worryingly, the nature of mass-production enforces a uniformity of taste on the consumer, which in turn creates the 'need' for aggressive marketing. Arguably, if society didn't produce mountains of crap in the first place, it wouldn't need to work so hard to make us buy it all.

What is particularly hard to take for a socialist, or indeed anyone who dislikes pointless waste of time, effort and resources, is the way much of this can be described quite reasonably as deliberate. A friend relates how he was taken on a tour of the R&D laboratory of a famous plastic biro manufacturer, there to discover company technicians destruction testing the pen shafts. The idea, he was told, was not to make the shafts shatter-proof, but to make them shatter at the nib end after a predicted period of use, thus allowing the manufacturer to put less ink in the reservoir tube and thus save money, as well as forcing the consumer to buy at a faster rate. Planned or built-in obsolescence of this sort is one of the most iniquitous features of capitalist production, a true crime against society and against the environment, and it is rife wherever manufacturers can obtain either a monopoly or a cartel agreement to avoid the competitive pressure to improve rather than degrade quality.

In the PC world, chip manufacturers regularly change motherboard configurations for spurious reasons, ensuring that upgrades or replacements are impossible, while software giants like Microsoft deliberately remove support for older operating systems. Mobile phones, now the must-have streetcred accessory, ape the fashion industry with new styles and features every year while only 10 to 15 percent of old phones are recycled. The media likes to upbraid us as individuals for our shallow consumerist habits, but the fact is that the manufacturing industries are doing everything they can to make us buy, again and again and again, fearing as they do that our natural tendency is to be conservative and make do with what we've got.

It's not hard to imagine, in a social system designed around production for use instead of sale, how common sense would be applied to the mountainous problem of waste. In the first place, people in socialism, having to work voluntarily to produce, would be hardly likely to design faults and shortlife spans into their goods. Nor would they need to produce a vast array of 'brands' of varying quality. Many 'comfort goods', gadgets, gewgaws, gimmicks, fads, fashions and fripperies would just not be made, nor the need for them felt. Most packaging would go, and there would be no point in advertising materials. Some mass-production would of course be maintained, but many more things would be likely to devolve to local production, thus reducing the phenomenal amount of transportation presently required, and re-imbuing goods with that personal 'narrative' which makes us value and care for them. Production would continue to be led by technological advance, but not by novelty for its own sake, and the design and costing process would take into account both durability, reparability, and the disposal process at lifetime end as part of the overall production footprint. In fact, socialism would aim for zero-waste by converting every waste stream into a recycled resource stream. Most importantly, a key feature of a use-led society would be that consumption is a shared process, and many things which we now consider personal domestic items might actually be used more communally, either through more communal living habits or through an extension of the library system to include things like power tools, films, jewellery, kid's toys, even clothes, thus reducing the overall need for production in the first place.

Capitalism can of course address the problem of waste to some extent, but it doesn't have the power to stop trying to sell, sell, sell. We however have the power to switch off capitalism and its power-hungry display of commercialism. Socialism is still on stand-by. We just need to press the button.