Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Stuffocation, asceticism and economic growth

We privileged quarter of humanity live our lives surrounded by too many things. Way more things than we need to live a full, harmonious life, reaching our full potential. I'm minded of this as I work my way through my late mother's clothes and books and ornaments - so many objects accumulated... Most of the clothing that I'm giving to charities was bought in the early 1980s (shoulder pads being the height of fashion then). My mother had four wardrobes full of clothes; my father has just one (and a chest of drawers). And I daren't go into the attic...

Watching the Robert Peston's BBC2 documentary about British retail yesterday, the economic model of the UK became clear. Retailers (food, clothing, furniture) became smarter and smarter over the post-war decades, tempting consumers to buy, buy, buy - turning wants into needs, generating desires, which could be gratified immediately thanks to easy credit. It was extremely interesting hearing Stanley Kalms (now Baron Kalms of Edgware), life president of Dixons Retail saying that the retail boom of 1992-2008 was unsustainable. "I was amazed at the ease of obtaining high amounts of credit. You could see customers walking out of the shop with a thousand pounds' worth of equipment, no deposit, no interest for 12 months... but in my heart I knew it could not possibly last." The bankers in league with the retailers, the boom driven by soaring house prices.

"Spend, spend, spend - women were the worst at it, buying stuff you don't want, you open the cupboard, everything falls out, seven pairs of shoes you never wore" said Stuart Rose (now Lord Rose of Monewden), former executive chairman of Marks & Spencer. My mother was not into shoes; rather, she had a large number of skirts, dresses, blouses, twin-sets, jackets and coats. Maybe she was making up for the austerity years that followed the war and the scrimping and saving when her sons were growing up. It all must go; there's too much clutter.

We're surrounded by it. Books belong in bookcases. But everything else must follow William Morris's golden rule: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

If we all lived life this way, our houses would be emptier by half than they are. Don't buy anything you won't find truly useful, or that does not add to the aesthetic pleasure of your life. Out will go the decorative figurines, the holiday souvenirs, the tasseled scatter cushions... Yet someone makes a living, making these things.

"Truly useful". The average household power drill in the US is used for less than eight minutes in its lifetime. Borrowing or sharing makes more sense here; the sharing economy, powered by the internet, will move society in this direction. And the internet, by making information accessible to an unprecedented degree, will reduce demand for reference books.

Cutting back on buying stuff will hit the economy. Yesterday I blogged about the automotive industry - if we all drove small cars and kept them (like my father) for well over 20 years - demand would wither and with it the jobs of the workers in factories that keep churning out ever-bigger cars. Car factories would make fewer cars, the economy of scale would go into reverse, prices would rise, as cars get pricier so they are treated better and end up carrying on for six or seven decades like the late-1940s cars on Cuba. The Far East's looms would stop spinning if everyone thought twice or more about buying that new shirt or blouse, or repairing old clothes. How much do we really need to attain true happiness, and maximise the potential that our life has offered us?

An ascetic life, pared down to the essentials (for me, an elegant, spacious zero-energy house on Warsaw's fringe, a well-equipped kitchen, tasteful simple furniture, cherished books, no more clothing than needed and two-wheel transport) multiplied by two billion inhabitants of the developed world - would crush economic growth.

Growth? One sector that's growing nicely is self-storage. Can't bear to part with things you no longer need, nor give you pleasure? Box them up and pay someone to store them! There's a self-storage warehouse in West Ealing by Jacob's Ladder footbridge, always busy whenever I pass.

In the old days, there'd be antique, bric-a-brac and junk shops (in descending order of poshness and price). Trouble is, there's a tidal wave of antiques, bric-a-brac and junk everywhere - all can be bought and sold on eBay (Allegro in Poland); in the 1960s, things were rarer and more valuable and could raise the tone of your dwelling. Today, it's all been downgraded to junk - unless you really know what you're looking for. My mother knew Chinese porcelain - I neither know anything about it nor want to know anything about it. I know old cameras - but then again, these have gone the way of everything else - what was once a highly prized classic bull's eye Zeiss Contarex is now an old camera that's not even digital. Surrounded by this stuff I hardly know where to turn.

But then... are we consumers moving in another direction - away from things - and towards services and experiences? Who'd impress you more at a dinner party - an immaculately-dressed person, or a scruff who's just returned from the wilds of Borneo?

The motto of the Millennials - YOLO (You Only Live Once) suggests that stuff will become less important than experience. Stuff's cheap. If not new stuff, 'pre-loved' stuff from charity shops. Not wearing it? Give it away. Make a charity happy. Make a charity shop customer happy. Feel good within yourself about how charitable you are. Win-win-win. Not great news for retailers and manufacturers, but then recycling is so much more virtuous than the slash-and-burn of the late 20th Century consumption model.

Let's apply our consciousness to our consumption process. Buy with awareness of what it is that we are buying - and why we're doing it.

This time three years ago:
Heroes on the wall (for my father)

This time five years ago:
Tax dodge or public service?

This time six years ago:
Warsaw's woodlands in autumn

This time seven years ago:
Still here, the early snow

This time eight years ago:
Another point of view

6 comments:

dr Marcin said...

An ascetic life... - would crush economic growth.

Mike, all of that reminds me something and is descriptive of a dilemma between the "to have" or "to be". Here on this blog, there's a documentary of yours of that enormous flooding that occurred at the ours rural deep hole on Boże Ciało of 2010 . So, a point is, that I do remember, as it might happened today, to what extent for me there was a happiness in that misfortune that that flooding was happened. Then in my basement (approx. 30 sq mtrs. or 323 sq feet), I had some of a big lumber-room, there. Some of the old, useless or partially damaged chairs, tables, wardrobes, PCs, high-fi... numbers of miscellaneous and other stuffs... collected mostly thru decades and possessed just only to possess'em. So, things came to such a point that there become gradually to be a lesser and lesser space to have a motion there. Obviously, there was always on my agenda to step down there and make some of a selection of those possessions and what was just ordinarily useless or unneeded to throw it out into a garbage or what was worthwhile then to keep it. And I pondered and pondered and pondered to do it until... that "Doomsday". And... once, a thunder has shoot from an entirely bright firmament... and it took of almost an hour whilst I had a problem out of my brain. Next day, it was just only to order a huge container... and to get to clean of all of that rubbish. While it has happened, I was entirely shocked, depressed, broken-down and beaten-down due to an intense, range and a power of devastations. Thought, that more than less (and rather, more) I've lost what me and my wife have had.... But, as only as trauma and emotions have become more and more calm and as fast as it was possible to bring an order within all of that, then more vividly some of a rationale has to be switched-on.... And, some times later a conclusion has being drawn on for me that perhaps the Providence (for believers) or the Mother Nature (for ecos) evidently just wanted to help me in a bringing my basement into an order. So, The Day After...? Have I signalled to an economy of any of a bigger demand or needs... just because to cover of all of that losses? No, nothing happened like that. My the only one need was to buy and install of a new stove/water heater (central heating and warm running water), just because a previous one was destroyed by a flooding and due to that that its reasonable usage period was due and exceeded fixing it became too expensive and might cost of some on 80 per cent of a new item. A moral usage period of the previous stove was estimated on some of ten years after a purchase, while a flooding damaged it at the eleventh year of exploiting. So, an insurer agreed to cover of the all of spendings of purchase and instalment of a new heater. Jolly for me. The basement was totally cleaned, a new heater appeared on now there's a plenty of room down there.... So, now, I have no a dilemma if "to have" or "to be". A conclusion is... a less you have a less you cry. But, okay, what's up with that economy? A distinctive question just for the PhD degree... :) Well, so I (but frankly sayin' - my insurer) bought a heater, after all... The Providence (for... okay, okay... everybody knows for whom) or the Mother... (yeah, yeah, yeah... we know Her) has also helped to rise the GDP of... the French economy (a producer of my heater)... All the very best.

Russell Towlson said...

Great article Michał, no surprise there.
Hope to see you back in Warszawa soon!

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Dr Marcin:

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away :-)

Taking decisions - the triage process when faced with junk is tough. For our parents' generation, it was simple - hoard it all, one day it will come in handy. War, occupation, communism - every smallest thing has value. But in today's disposable society? As my sister-in-law once said, half of Britain's deficit with China is buried in landfill sites across the UK - crushed plastic toys, broken electronic gadgets not worth repairing, cheap decorations.

@ Russell

Thanks - Back mid-December!

dr Marcin said...

But in today's disposable society?

... there's a totally forgotten tradition called "garage sales" or... (how the Brits name it?) yeah, of course, the Jumbles What has happened with such a noble institutions like the Goodwill Stores, the Salvation Army...? O... yeah, who cares on that? So, this is so easy to throw (better if not into some forests, brushwoods, lakes, rivers or alike... or brought nearby neighborhood's fences...) it out into a litter container. Think, you do remember about of such huge heaps of a trash that begun to appear not so far from my house, on a representative street of Ursynów (Puławska Street at the Oligocene water intake) and some other places. Not heaving a TV-set table...? No problem..., here you go. Not heaving a PC's monitor...? Affordable there... just laying at an edge of that. Need some of the electric kettle...? Just help yourself... might be there.... Varnish plates....? On a stock... Hahaha Or maybe you wish to have a small fridge? Yes, there is, just delivered.... House appliances, building materials, food.... Everything.... That's the response on yours question so what about in today's disposable society. A consumption culture rises with a speed of the commercial ads appearance in the media... but... the only this sort of culture rises-up... the other totally lays down.

Michael Dembinski said...

Garage sale (UK), yard sale (US)... There's also eBay / Allegro. Trouble is, most people already have everything. The old-style CRT TVs and PC monitors - there must have been a billion-plus of these things built. I guess most have gone to landfill. Imagine what you can do with a billion old TV sets - can build a second Himalayas!

student SGH said...

Another story is that stuff we buy are not built to last, but to fall apart and prompt a customer to swap them for a newer piece. This underlies economic growth.