Why is that so many apparently well-intentioned people, as well as the huge bulk of the Western population who simply can’t be bothered to use their brains, think it’s acceptable to buy vast amounts of “cheap” consumer goods produced in the less developed world?
Whenever I suggest that perhaps it’s inappropriate to import cheap flowers from Kenya, cheap peas from Guatemala, cheap asparagus from Peru, cheap beef from Argentina, cheap chicken from Thailand, cheap clothes from Indonesia, cheap electronics from China and so on, people start lecturing me about how people in those countries need jobs to support their families.
I’m told it’s good that people in the less developed world now have “proper” jobs that bring them in the cash to improve their lifestyles.
I’m told that by opposing cheap imports, I’m actually trying to keep people poor, impoverished and starving.
What a load of rubbish, to put it politely.
The simple fact of the matter is that modern consumer capitalism is a linear system that progressively strips huge numbers of people and the environment of resources to create perks and luxuries for progressively smaller layers of people to consume,
The system starts by ripping minerals from beneath the ground, clearing trees to make way for intensive livestock and arable farming, stripping the seas of fish, and siphoning off water to maintain the industrial and agricultural processes.
When the wealthiest nations and corporations run out of cheap resources in their backyards, they simply take it from someone else. It used to be called colonialism or imperialism; today, it’s just business.
Actually, it’s theft. Theft from other people and theft from the environment.
Governmental and intergovernmental agencies happily acquiesce and connive with corporations in their rapacious plundering of resources because corporations are effectively governments.
Half the world’s biggest 100 economic entities are corporations, half are governments. The people who run the corporations are the same people who run the governments.
As far as they’re concerned, the resources are theirs. They have the money and power to exploit them, so therefore they own them.
The people who lived among, over and amidst those resources for centuries without over-exploiting them are almost meaningless. They don’t consume consumer goods, they have no real money, they have no real power.
All they have is resources that aren’t really theirs. Just ask any international trade agency or body.
Next, the system has to take the ill-gotten resources and turn them into goods, and that means having access to vast amounts of cheap, easily exploited labour close to the resources.
Surprise, surprise. By booting the people off the land that has supported them for generations and packing them off to the cities, the corporations have now found themselves a cheap, expendable workforce that’s easy to exploit and manipulate.
What else do the corporations need?
They need cheap energy in vast amounts, so it’s back to the environment to extract even more minerals that can be burned to produce the power to convert resources into goods.
They need ways of achieving greater and greater efficiencies, they need to make less into more to improve yields and they need to find shortcuts. That means pouring vast amounts of synthetic chemicals into the production processes to create new materials, “improve” existing ones and generally smooth the wheels of “progress”.
As the goods are pushed out the back of the factories, they had to be distributed to the consumers and again that means the corporations need a cheap workforce to package the goods, move them to market and then sell them to consumers.
But there’s a problem. Consumers have to be persuaded to keep buying more products, so the corporations have to keep pushing the apparent price down by passing the real costs to the people at the bottom and to the environment.
The corporations also have to persuade consumers that they really do need the latest products and not last year’s model, which is where fashion, planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. It’s all deliberately designed to make the consumer buy, buy and buy again.
It’s the fundamental underpinning of the entire system – consumption that grows year in, year out regardless of the consequences.
It means people no longer see themselves as fathers, mothers, brothers or sisters. They no longer see themselves as producers or makers, as custodians or guardians, as members of communities or societies.
Instead, people are now defined by their potential and actual consumption of goods. The more people consume and the more they could consume, the more valuable they are.
Even charity is now reduced to the financial gains it can generate for the giver, making a gift into an investment that will enable the giver to consume more.
And the more conspicuous the consumption, the better as it encourages consumers further down the line to aspire to consume more, too.
A flash new car is not enough, it has to changed for a better one every year. A big house is not enough, it has to be swapped for a bigger one every few years.
Consumerism is now a prerequisite for social recognition and the primary mode of self-definition in the west, and increasingly the rest of the world, too.
Even those dispossessed people at the very bottom are forced to become consumers. They have no choice but to try to relieve their misery by buying goods that offer a brief respite from their grinding reality.
It’s win, win, win for the corporations.
What really underscores the pointless futility of the whole squalid exercise is what happens at the end of the system.
All those non-durable consumer goods break, fail, wear out, lose their lustre or are replaced by the latest model. Then they’re dumped, discarded and thrown away.
The ultimate irony is that those non-durable goods are made of materials that last for generations of human lives, materials that include vast amounts of synthetic chemicals that eventually find their way into the foodchain and into people.
We pollute the air, land and water while changing the climate in ways that we can barely grasp, much less understand. The world is falling apart around us.
But the governments and corporations tell us it’s okay.
It’s okay to use plastic bags as they are cheaper, lighter and more efficient. It’s okay to buy flowers from Kenya because it keeps poor people in jobs. It’s okay to buy electronic goods made from minerals mined by children as they have a wage to support their family. It’s okay to send rubbish to China as the Chinese will recycle it for us.
And best of all, it’s okay because we can have whatever we want whenever we want it and at rock-bottom prices. Someone else, far, far away is bearing the brunt of the cost.
As people keep telling me, that’s all right then.