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Live Better, Buy Less


new internationalist
issue 160 - June 1986

Live better, buy less
You may not care about what disappears down your sink, or what
you use to blow your nose. But Bob Bennett believes that thinking
about these things can make you happier. Here he explains his case.

WOULD you be angry because the local Parent Teacher Association had provided your neighbourhood primary school with all sorts of expensive desirable items - let's say a new climbing frame, a swimming pool, extra computers, a video camera? What could be wrong? Aren't we all familiar with the notion that it's natural to want the best for our children? But who should we count as our children? And what if the best for mine means the worse for yours?

Not 10 miles away from this prosperous suburban school is a city school, serving a dilapidated inter-war housing estate. Its resources are meagre; its parents are poor; its children are smaller, often lethargic or hyperactive. Already their life-chances are diminishing.

A teacher visiting the well-off school from the city school was unexpectedly angry at its taken-for-granted material advantages. Her anger came from despair that teachers and parents alike - kind and well-meaning people - could remain so oblivious to the needs of their neighbours' children. They maintained their comfortable lifestyle by choosing to go on not knowing. What happens when this pattern is repeated worldwide?

In Western cities in winter, shops, markets and chain-stores glow with an abundance of summer fruits and vegetables - tomatoes, lettuces, cucumbers, satsumas and pineapples, lemons, strawberries, mangos and avocados, peppers and aubergines. We may grumble at the price, but we don't question how and why such luxuries appear. Not only do we not ask, but those of us with jobs and money increasingly demand an unfailing supply of such high-quality items. Such a cornucopia means pleasure and health. Dallying over what's on offer gives us a sense of control in our own lives.

Yet our good food may spell the end to the precarious self-sufficiency of human beings on the far side of the world. It is their land and their labour which grows our food. And they work to make videos and stereos, cameras and camping-gear, micro-wave ovens and barbeques. But a complex world trading system ensures that almost none of the profit goes back into the pockets of those who grow or make such goods.

If we do see these connections and choose to remember them, what can we do? How can we live so that we can remember the millions, even in the over-developed countries, who are excluded from the benefits of consumerism through unemployment or low pay? Certainly there can be no return to the apparently innocent pleasures of buying whatever we can afford and want.

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  • Boycotts are an effective means of stopping big companies acting wrongly in individual cases. But they do not divert such manufacturers from their long-term goals.

  • Convenience good and foods are wasteful and destructive of resources. So avoiding them helps save the environment. Some think, however, that the energy spent avoiding quick and easy consumer goods could be better spent fighting those who make them.

  • Using public transport, sharing cars for some journeys and jointly owning vehicles will cut costs and lessen the environmental damage caused by acid rain. Others see no viable alternatives to owning a car.

  • Consuming less can be a way of opposing the massive differences of wealth that exist between rich and poor. However, the frugal lifestyle needs to be combined with political power if it is to alter the economic relationships that exist between developed and developing countries.

But neither can we think that deliberately reducing our consumption could have any effect on the market. Without a shift in the fundamental economic and political patterns any change in consumption patterns can be turned to the advantage of those with power. Switching demand - by buying cotton handkerchiefs instead of tissues - does not help the powerless. It would just mean that demand for wood-pulp would fall and the market for cotton increase. Jobs might be lost in one place and gained in another, with very little overall change.

Some people might say that effort put into changing our life-styles is a self-indulgent waste of time. But they would be mistaken. Some lifestyles do cause more pollution and damage than others. It makes sense to me to refuse aerosols and disposable goods, explaining why when I can, and to use recycled paper products and biodegradable cleaning materials. Travelling on foot or by bus, train or bike does diminish the demand for fossil fuels. Buying second-hand appliances, furniture and clothes gives a new life to what otherwise would be wastefully discarded. Eating seasonal and local food is also less exploitative.

All these frugal measures are not of direct help to the poor. But if you can afford 'better' then you can use the money you would otherwise have spent to help produce the political and economic change that is necessary for world justice. There are plenty of places to start - from Traidcraft and development projects, through to opposing nuclear weapons and campaigning against the arms trade, and on to Greenpeace and liberation struggles in the Third World. They all need money more than multinational corporations do!

A less consumerist lifestyle is also a sign that I accept that world justice means taking a little less for myself. It is a signal to those people I see every day - those I work with, my neighbours and my family - that I see the inequalities that surround us, and that I want to play a part in ending them.

I know that my high standard of living is made possible by the low wages paid to the Third World peoples who make or grow the things that I - as an employed person - am easily able to afford. By consuming less I am reminded of the inequalities which make my lifestyle possible. And I am kept aware that it serves the interests of the powerful to hide these inequalities from me. In the comfortable and affluent world I inhabit my acquisitiveness is deliberately cultivated by advertisers without any mention of the real costs of the goods that I am invited so pleasurably to consume.

Deliberately keeping my so-called needs' lowered is a positive act and not a sacrifice. It prevents my identity becoming inextricably intertwined with my possessions. It's easy to let your belongings absorb more of your time and energy than your friends. If this happens, all spontaneity, all joy and all genuine affection gradually disappear from your life. Objects become a substitute for affection. When you get depressed you go out and buy something. And every relationship starts to be based on calculation: what will I get from them? And what will it cost me?

The work involved in owning and maintaining endless consumer goods is also a worry rather than a delight. It is easy to spend all the time being anxious lest your latest hi-tech gadget is stolen, or your house is broken into. And friendships cease to contain the simple joys of borrowing and lending as your possessions become too valuable to be trusted in another's hands.

In contrast, by living more simply we rediscover how to share and how to recognize and celebrate our interdependency with other people. Above all it affirms that our humanity is not based on what we own but on what we do. It is when we make and act that we feel empowered. Not caring about your neighbour's children and purchasing your lifestyle off-the-peg from the shops is a poor second to the fun and freedom of creating conviviality, solidarity and social justice.

Bob Bennett, a father of three and a teacher, has lived in Nigeria for four years.

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New Internationalist issue 160 magazine cover This article is from the June 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
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