Even though it was the 80s when greed was good, Nanna was always a little uncomfortable about Madonna and the ‘material girl’ thing. She couldn’t see it as irony. She was Madonna’s age, but she was bringing up small children rather than swanning about in pink satin and stilettos. She felt the singer’s evening gloves and diamonds mocked her as she slobbed about in a sweatshirt with baby vomit on its padded shoulder. (It was the 80s.) The nonsensical premise of the video – that the girl who could have anything preferred a bunch of daisies to diamonds? – well, fugetaboudit.
Richard Denniss’ new book Curing Affluenza, however, has me rethinking materialism.
Denniss makes the argument that if we were true materialists, we would not be trashing the place – our home planet – as badly as we are. The terms materialism and consumerism have become synonymous, but they’re anything but. A materialist values the physical accoutrements of life. From a watch to a pair of shoes to a chair, a materialist would treasure, repair, reuse, give away thoughtfully or recycle his or her possessions. But as anyone who has tried to donate perfectly good used furniture to a charity will know, even charities are consumerists now. That heirloom bookcase can be rejected on the pretext of a little chipped veneer. If it can’t be pushed out the door at a good price immediately, it’s no good to a charity that doesn’t have the resources to do the repairs to realise a fast profit. The bookcase is off to the dump.
Last Christmas I bought three ridiculously flimsy and useless flying fairies for little girls in my family because: 1. they turned up in my Facebook feed; 2. they looked so cute and so very different; and 3. I am as big a sucker with as little judgment as the next overindulgent nanna. To my nieces and nephew who tried to get the wretched things to work, only to find that all those moving parts and the USB charging technology were impossible, my sincere apologies.
To the young Chinese workers whose deft fingers put all those silly parts together for a pittance, my sincere apologies.
And to mother earth, in whose bowels those fiddly plastic mayfly toys will lie intact for hundreds of years – my most sincere apology of all.
But as Denniss says, feeling guilty about buying trash and then trashing it is unproductive. The only way we’ll save Mother from our Affluenza (“that strange desire we feel to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know”) is to change our whole cultural approach to stuff. To become material girls, and boys, all over again and label “consumerism” as so last century.
Denniss argues it’s culture, not economics, that drives consumerism. It’s just nuts to believe an uptick in GDP is good, if it’s based on the sale of manufactured goods the legacy of which is “the harm … done to the natural environment in order to enable their brief and often useless lifespan”. Humans have proved their ability to change culture again and again. We gave up believing that burning a virgin or two would bring a good harvest or that that the earth is flat. Perhaps we can begin to believe, as my grandparents did, that anything we own should be nurtured to longevity rather than sacrificed, at untold cost, to our mania for new shit?