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Monday, 4 October 2010


Mass production is inseparable from mass purchasing – a process maintained by the marketing of desire, complemented by the credit that subtracts deferment, lest we cease to play our essential part in the process by claiming – subversively – to be replete.
Thus until now has our world revolved. Many have been the diagnoses. The unintended consequences of industrialization were recognised even as it sprung from the inspiration of its inventors. It was in England, including Birmingham - cradle of industrialization - that the arts and crafts movement emerged at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Many have been the nostrums that would allow us to keep the benefits of our inventive genius without the aloes of dispiriting wage labour on production line, call centre, warehouse, depot or in the field - agriculture, aided by enclosure, being one of the earliest sectors to be mechanised. Initially the making and selling of material commodities had been the focus of this process - the all enveloping process by which humans would make even dreams into commodities. Was there ever such a conundrum as the mass marketing of ‘individuality’? How do you attach the flavour of uniqueness to a product that’s made in millions by machines; persuade the world to buy something that makes them feel exclusive, though never, in their making, touched by craftsmen - except to make the original jigs? How do you lie without being untruthful?
I recall being fascinated with the ingenious way advertisers' wordsmiths and image smelters invented ways to square this circle – so it that it seemed to make sense. One device was the oxymoron. “Free gift”. The other thing was to use long words which impressed people who didn’t understand them at first, like ‘synthetic’ for ‘fake’ - the strangeness of the word, not the euphemism, was what counted; or saying things in the customer’s face - 'added sud-booster!' in detergents because, although quite unnecessary, consumers didn’t trust a liquid that didn’t behave like soap; or ‘home-cooked’ to describe cake-mix bought off the shelf, with the reassuring slogan 'you add the sugar!'; or the seductive juxtaposition of a slogan and an image –a couple in soft focus beside an azure sea – to sell a holiday. 'Enjoy paradise together'. No lies told about the serried loungers of those similarly persuaded; indeed a kind of truth. The consumer does the rest, selecting the dream from the reality, taking home snaps and memories that omit and select. My step-father spoke of the sale of dreams many years ago, before he entered television, and was working first for Coleman Prentice and Varley, where he met my mother, and was head-hunted to Hobson Bates, giants of the advertising industry in the 1950s. He was impressed by the Esso campaign - which over-50s will still remember so effective was it - to 'Put a tiger in your tank'. Accompanying that slogan were a number of 'giveaways' at petrol stations; stickers for drivers to display in their cars – 'I’ve got a tiger in my tank' - as well as wiggly tiger tails to tie on their aerials. “It’s a breakthrough” he told me “the first time the industry's got the punter to do their advertising for them!”
Years later when our children would balk at us buying them clothing without logos, usually trainers, T-shirts - not least because they were far cheaper - I’d say
“Look. How about asking the shopkeeper to pay you for displaying all that advertising”. By then Naomi Klein, and many others, Vance Packard most famously, had explained how this worked, but knowing makes no difference. We are all, even when we understand how it works, caught up in the process. Some people’s dreams – their room 101 of desire – takes a little longer to figure; requires a shrewder hustle.
When change comes – irresistible and inevitable change – those who can exploit it are those who have thought through, or sense intuitively, what they want despite the great persuasion that drives consumerism. These may be individuals, they may be families, villages, communities and indeed populations who might somehow escape the galloping crescendo.
What do you want from your life, your job, your community? What aspects of these things do you really want to maintain through the changes that are coming, are indeed happening now? Because so many of us live so unself-consciously, consumerism intervenes on the back of a sales campaign to seduce us, hustling our desires, telling us what we want, tapping into motives salesfolk understand better than most of us know ourselves.
The greatest obstacle to unending consumerism is self-knowledge separate from those inserted in us by the promoters of our hopes and fears. The spectre of sustainability is anathema to consumer society, since it's a philosophy, even a faith, able, unargued, to pervade our every action and thought - the idea that humans only need so much, that there can be sufficiency, satiation. That may sound simple. It isn’t. Sustainability is still a frail idea, assailed from every quarter by those who perceive it as impossible, impractical, subversive, sentimental, idealistic, toxic to all they hold dear. Yet sustainability, because so many people do find it a sound and desirable idea, is the prime target of the agents of consumerism. Everything that is unsustainable – carbon based energy, mass tourism, urban expansion planned obsolescence, population growth for a start – can be sold as sustainable when it is not.
[10 Nov 2010 - Ed Gillespie, Co-founder of Futerra, develops the argument on sustainability]
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A 1998 review: This study looks at the problem of collectively managing shared resources. Because of the book's unassuming nature and rather formal scholarly tone, it's easy to pass it over as just another academic work. But together with such books as Herman Daly and John Cobb's For the Common Good, Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce and Vandana Shiva's work on restoring the commons, I consider it one of the more far-sighted and genuinely significant works to emerge in recent years on environmental resource management.
Ostrom uses the term "common pool resources" to denote natural resources used by many individuals in common, such as fisheries, groundwater basins, and irrigation systems. Such resources have long been subject to overexploitation and misuse by individuals acting in their own best interests. Conventional solutions typically involve either centralized governmental regulation or privatization of the resource. But, according to Ostrom, there is a third approach to resolving the problem of the commons: the design of durable cooperative institutions that are organized and governed by the resource users themselves.
"The central question in this study," she writes, "is how a group of principals who are in an interdependent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically."....
Back to the future: February 2011: Changing the way we eat conference in Manhattan

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Simon Baddeley