Blessed are the consumers (part 1)
One of my first memories as a child is of the working forge across the road from our home where rag-and-bone men and other deniers of the 20th century could take their carthorses to be shod. A couple of days ago I was driving with my son through an ultra-orthodox enclave, where the regular upkeep of roads is evidently far too temporal an issue for the local council to be bothered with, when I realized that I had a puncture. I have been changing wheels for over 35 years on an array of semi-roadworthy vehicles that generally departed my ownership straight for the great carpark in the sky. But this was the first time I was shodding my precious Volvo, purchased 3 years ago after I was finally persuaded that as, of the 150 cars in the firm’s fleet, my faithful Mazda (of blessed memory) was the only one built in the second millennium, it just had to go.
Opening up the boot (trunk in foreign English), and raising the floor, we found suitable cavemen drawings explaining without resort to Swedish idiom, what we had to do. But there was one thing that captured my interest. My son who – being of the new generation that knows how to work things out from cavemen drawings – had a much better handle on the situation, produced a pouch containing a pair of white cloth gloves and a large plastic bag. The pictures on the plastic bag led us to understand that the gloves were to protect my lily- white hands as I wrestled with the jack and crippled wheel while the bag was for the offending wheel. This was presumably to protect the seldom spied underfloor of my boot (trunk) from annoying dirt. My first thought was “How bloody ridiculous”. My second thought was “I wonder what they put in the back of a Bentley – a cocktail cabinet to take your mind off things while they airlift a new tire in by helicopter?”. It was only on the way home, wearing the daft gloves to prevent my grease-ridden hands ruining the steering wheel, that I got to thinking about the utter absurdity of it all. Modern life, that is.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am fond of Charles Dickens. Probably because of the socially reduced circumstances of much of his youth, Dickens loved to send his characters out on the open road. From the moment of his debut novel, the wealthy Samuel Pickwick and his friends would bundle up and climb atop a horse-drawn coach to be bounced around and exposed to the elements through a long winter’s night of travel. Less than 200 years later, in western countries at least, a run-of-the-mill factory worker can climb inside his motor car in the middle of winter, turn on the heater to shut out the cold and arrive at his destination in a fraction of the time, protected from shock by a suspension system and, if not choosing the same enclaves as me, suitably inflated pneumatic tires. It is fair to say that any person in modest employment today lives in greater bodily comfort than a King 200 years ago.
That in itself is wonderful and may the rest of the world catch up soon – but there is a dark side and my white gloves are a small pointer.
Most of my generation were raised to consider frugality a virtue. Just as it took me until past my 50th birthday to be persuaded to succumb to an elevated motor experience (I justified it on long-term financial grounds that my wife refuses to believe), I have – to this day- never owned any product of a certain fruit company, be it pod, pad or phone. The reason is simple – I have never felt I needed any one of them, and that is my litmus test. Apart from that I buy most of my clothes in the above-mentioned enclave where you can get any colour you like as long as it is black, grey or blue – which is good enough for me (I have a Christian Dior tie, still in its box, lying in my wardrobe, that was a gift several years ago).
If modern economics is to be believed, when I finally get to the Pearly Gates, the only slim chance I have of being admitted to Heaven will be thanks to the pleas of those poor Chinese and comfortable Belgians who make all the bits for my no-longer-Swedish Volvo. It appears that my frugality has been depriving the world. And when you have a population that has grown in the space of 85 years from 2 billion to 7 billion and shows no signs of slowing down in the immediate future – that is a lot of world to deprive. Evidently, while I was sleeping, somebody tampered with the Ten Commandments. We are now told: Forget the Sabbath day to keep it commercial; Covet thy neighbour’s SUV; Honour thy children’s credit card bills.
When they are not talking about destroying Europe with austerity, politicians and economists are talking about expanding demand. Germany has to inflate to save the Euro, China has to open its economy to more foreign investment and concentrate on consumer demand, India has to grow, not just for itself, but to import from the west and taxes or debt have got to finance the growing social security costs of stubbornly aging populations. So our Fridges die after 5 years, our cars are replaced every 3 years (over my dead body), our mobile phones are outdated by the time they leave the factory and manufacturers come up with things you didn’t know you didn’t need like white gloves (why white for heaven’s sake?) and body bags for dead tires buried in the bottom of your car…
To be continued