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Dying of Consumption


George Monbiot

The

modern industrial economy works like this: resources are dug from a hole in the

ground on one side of the planet, used for a few weeks, then dumped in a hole on

the other side of the planet. This is known as the Creation of Value. The

Creation of Value improves our quality of life. Improvements in our quality of

life make us happier. The more we transfer from hole to hole, the happier we

become.

Unfortunately,

we are not yet transferring enough. According to the Worldwatch Institute, we

have used more goods and services since 1950 than in all the rest of human

history. But we still don’t seem to be happy. Indeed, over the same period,

25-year-olds in Britain have become ten times more likely to be afflicted by

depression. One in four British adults now suffers from a chronic lack of sleep,

and one fifth of schoolchildren have psychological problems. Over the past 13

years, mental health insurance claims have risen by 36 per cent. American

studies suggest that between 40 and 60 per cent of the population suffers from

mental illness in any one year. The World Health Organisation predicts that by

2010 depression will become the second commonest disease in the developed world.

Unless we start consuming in earnest, we’ll never experience real joy.

At

this time of year the rate of consumption rises dramatically. To make ourselves

happier, we move resources from one hole to another as quickly as possible. My

local authority reports that the amount of rubbish people take to the dump

increases by 12 per cent in December and January. Curiously, however, the

incidence of depression also seems to rise. Calls to the Samaritans increase by

eight per cent between Christmas and New Year’s Day. But the figures are

misleading. The more depressed we are, the more we spend on anti-depressants and

alcohol. The more we spend, as any economist will explain to you, the happier we

become.

A

few Christmases ago, I was given a kettle, which now leaks. I could mend it, if

only I could tighten the base. But one of the screws has a star-shaped slot with

a spike in the middle, which is designed to prevent repairs, as no available

tool will fit it. My kettle was for Christmas, not just for life. So I will

throw it away, and help to build an earthly paradise by buying a new one.

From

the dumps and incinerators in which our broken presents, our discarded fairies,

our uncomposted Christmas trees and unrecyclable packaging are deposited,

goodwill spreads inexorably. Among other benefits, the disposal of rubbish

supports the medical profession. Babies born within three kilometres of toxic

landfill sites, according to research published in The Lancet, are more likely

to suffer from abnormalities than babies born elsewhere. Incinerators release

dioxins and heavy metals, which cause cancer, birth defects and endometriosis.

This creates jobs and increases the flow of money in the economy, adding to the

sum of human happiness.

Though

the UN’s figures seek to suggest otherwise, British people are surely happier

than people in poorer lands, because more of our needs are met. Indeed,

advertisers help us to answer needs we never knew we had, by revealing that our

lives are less satisfactory than we thought. When I was 18, male face creams

came onto the market. Until that point, we boys had no idea that our skin was

ageing prematurely. Since then, men have been introduced to many of the

improvements that women have enjoyed for so long. We have discovered that we are

uglier, spottier, fatter and more inadequate than we could ever have imagined.

And, by moving more resources between holes in the ground, we can do something

about it.

The

consumer society serves the poor better than anyone else, as it both exposes the

grottiness of their lives and kindly provides the means with which they can

escape from it. In some cases, as a report by the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux

revealed earlier this month, the interest on their happiness rises to as much as

1800 per cent a year, spreading good cheer among the many thousands of people

the loan recovery business employs. As the banks and manufacturers, shops and

economists remind us, our quest for happiness is boundless.

As

always, of course, and particularly at this time of year, someone tries to spoil

the fun. And, predictably enough, the greens are moaning that the planet is

dying of consumption. People, they say, are being pushed off their lands by the

digging of holes, the felling of forests and the growing of cash crops;

ecosystems are being poisoned and resources exhausted; the Earth is overheating,

because so much energy is required to move its components from one hole to

another. But I would ask them this: isn’t the death of the planet a price worth

paying for the happiness we now enjoy?

 

 

 

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