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Consuming Passions

Everything that can be done to bring the age of heroic consumption to its close should be done

by Jeremy Seabrook

The age of heroic consumption is surely drawing to a close. The inspiration of those whose principal virtue is the money that permits them to lay claim to a disproportionate share of the earth's resources is being by-passed in a world where a population of 9 billion must be accommodated by 2050.

The price tag on the possessions of the wealthy -- their £10m mansions, £5m yachts, extravagant couture and priceless jewels, their private jets and lives apart from the great majority of humankind -- are rapidly losing their power to enchant the rest of us. In an age when scientists, humanitarians and moral leaders are exhorting human beings to look to our impact upon the earth -- and not solely in relation to the carbon footprint -- it has become obsolete to gaze with breathless admiration upon individuals dedicated to the proposition that a whole world should be dying of consumption, and not just the 1.6m who perish from tuberculosis each year.

The greatest threat to global stability comes not from the poor but from the rich. This startling proposition runs directly into another received idea, which is that the risk of disorder is a result of excessive materialism. What we suffer from is not a surfeit of materialism, but a deficiency of it; for if we truly valued the material basis upon which all human systems depend, we would exhibit a far greater reverence for the physical world we inhabit. If materialism means respect for the elements that sustain life, then we are gravely wanting in it. What is sometimes referred to as "materialism" is actually something else: perhaps a distorted kind of mysticism which believes we can use up the earth and still avoid the consequences of our omnivorous appetites.

This is why the gross consumers of the age will be scorned as the pitiable destroyers of the sustenance, not only of the poor of today, but of everyone's tomorrow. It is natural for people to want to do the best for their children, but this is generally interpreted as leaving them a private monetary inheritance; but if the other side of this legacy is a befouled world, the enjoyment of today's privilege may become the curse of the future. In any case, there is a great deal of humbug in pious concern expressed for our children's children, since this rarely prevents those who give voice to such tender sentiments from living as though there were no tomorrow. "Live the dream" has become the cliche of the hour; although it requires no great wisdom to understand that dreams realised soon turn to ashes.

Everything that can be done to bring the age of heroic consumption to its close should be done. This means the promotion of a different understanding of wealth. The myriad aspects of a truly rich and fulfilled life should be rescued from the tyranny of money. Perhaps we have not entirely forgotten that the most joyful and exhilarating of human occupations derive from self-reliance, self-provisioning, not only in the basic goods that sustain life, but also in satisfactions that arise from the cost-free resourcefulness of ourselves and others.

This is why the A-listers, the celebs, the fat cats, the big spenders, the conspicuous consumers do not represent a "lifestyle" to be emulated at all costs, but serve as warning of the spectre of depletion and exhaustion awaiting us within a short space of time. When Thorstein Veblen wrote his Theory of the Leisure Class at the end of the 19th century, he saw "conspicuous waste and show" as a replacement for "earlier and more primitive displays of physical prowess". Even his caustic insights could not anticipate the degree to which the ornamental inutility of the very rich would lead them to become pioneers of planetary demolition.

Of course, downgrading the exploits of the major culprits in ransacking the earth is easier said than done. Cultures are not, as journalists and politicians sometimes suggest, to be discarded or "changed" at will. But sooner or later, a reduction in the abuse of the elements of life will be forced upon the world. If it proves impossible to take preventive action in this regard, we shall soon enough be overtaken by events -- oil wars, water wars, even more brutal conflicts over land than we have already seen, food wars, social disruption, rioting and breakdown, such as the World Bank has already detected in some 37 countries in the last two years, will be the form in which the relentless plunder of the planet will resolve itself.

Just as the age of heroic labour -- the Stakhanovite idea of selfless dedication to the building of Communism -- perished, so heroic consumption -- that equally selfless dedication to sustaining capitalism -- has also had its day. Stakhanovites were so called after a coalminer in the Soviet Union in 1935 who exceeded his work quota by 14 times the fixed level, producing 102 tons of coal in six hours. This became a kind of "spontaneous" official policy in the construction of socialism.

How laughably old-fashioned this now sounds. And how swiftly things that appear immutable can change. It should be our ambition to ensure that the work of predatory individuals upon the fruits of the earth comes to appear as archaic and futile as the sacrifice of human energies in the Soviet Union to release the resources which, according to Marx, "slumbered in the lap of social labour".

Heroic consumption, unlike heroic labour, requires no official sponsorship. The incentive to get rich is so deeply embedded in capitalism, that it has been seen as an expression of human nature itself. The first task in achieving a decent security for all people on earth is to affirm the distinction between human nature and the nature of capitalism.

Human beings want, above all, to survive. The moral and social elevation of the wealthy and their profligacy suggests that they are prepared to sacrifice even this hitherto imperishable goal for the sake of transforming the beauty and value of the world into a wasteland. Enslavement to a reductive, diminished version of what it means to lead a rich life is still bondage; and when it must be protected by razor wire, guns, security guards and impregnable barriers, these become the very symbols of that unfreedom.

Jeremy Seabrook is an author and journalist specialising in social, environmental and development issues.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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