24 red pepper oct/nov2007
The seductive depiction of alternatives to resourceintensive, polluting and unhealthy consumerist lifestyles is almost certainly critical not only to meeting current commitments on climate change, waste management and environmental regulation, but also to building any more substantial opposition to the economic governance of our times. This is not to claim that consumerism is without its gratifications, nor to insist that its pleasures are ‘false’ in relation to some presumed ‘truth’ about human needs. It is to claim, rather, that the ‘other pleasure’ to consumerist pleasure is currently so marginalised that any choice and decision in the matter has been more or less eradicated. The choice not to be identified and exhorted as a ‘consumer’ is precisely what is denied in the current era of ‘choice’. In this article I attempt to counter this marginalisation of ‘other pleasure’ by supplying a sense of it in a sample of key areas. A theme running through my arguments is that it is important both to defend the progressive dimension of a certain nostalgia for the pleasures that have been lost or pre-empted through the advance of consumerism, and to be alert to newly emerging green sentiments and attempts to live differently in response to the humanly and environmentally destructive aspects of what is currently presented as progress.
Going slow Consumer culture glorifies speed. The bid to do things faster, and thus reduce time spent on any given activity, is at the heart of the consumerist dynamic, whether it be a matter of information technology or of physical transport. The ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ have become more or less synonymous with those of saving time or speeding up, to the point where it would be thought grotesque for industrial designers to promote product innovations on the grounds that they allowed their users to proceed at a more relaxed pace. The tacit assumption in this association of human advancement with increased speed is that the faster we or our communications travel the more exciting life will become – and the fuller and richer our experience shall be. Speed is convenient – and can be thrilling. But it is also relative. Charles Dickens describes fields, trees and hedges rushing past ‘with the velocity of a whirlwind’
All too often, the case forgreen politics is presented in a waythatsuggests a dutyratherthan a pleasure. KATESOPERargues that, on the contrary, doing the rightthing ecologicallycan bring its own sensual rewards. She points to signs ofa growing desire to go slow, go easy– and even go without. Butthese alternatives are up againsta ceaseless pressure to consume and an intensified workethic oct/nov2007 red pepper
for those travelling by chaise at 15 miles per hour. Our immense adaptability to changes in speed suggests there is no ‘natural’ human need to go ever faster and that we could, in principle, adjust to a different tempo and even come to enjoy much lower speeds as quite exhilarating enough. The demand for speed is relative in a rather different respect, since how fast we want – or ‘need’ – to travel (or to communicate) is itself a function of other aspects of an overall way of life and pattern of consumption. The affluent modern lifestyle is a structure of interconnected modes of consumption, each one of which is integral to the whole and reliant upon it. But for that very reason, too, shifts in consumption in one area will always have knock-on effects in others and thus influence the overall structure of existence. Were more people, for example, to shop by bike or bus rather than car, it would encourage the return of high street retailers rather than out of town supermarket shopping, and fewer small stores would be forced into closing because of parking restrictions in town centres. Were we to reduce the working week or the workloads expected of employees within the working day, it would bring with it a relaxation of the speed at which goods and information were required to be delivered or transmitted. Were airfreight to be severely restricted, it would have a major impact on the sourcing of perishable goods and significantly reduce the mileage travelled by many articles of everyday consumption, with benefits for consumers, the local economy and the environment. On present trends air flight will contribute to more than half of the UK’s share of greenhouse gases by 2050. Yet the UK government is currently set to carry out the biggest single programme of aviation expansion ever, aiming to supply facilities to allow a growth in passenger numbers from the current 25 million annually to 82 million by 2030. This air flight-friendly policy contrasts with the rather little cultural or economic encouragement given to us to favour rail or ship for longer distance journeys. Air fuel tax is still low enough to make flying with budget airlines the cheaper option on most of the standard routes. Recommendations to travel overland or oversea are still regarded by many people as quaintly out of date, and involving more time or money than they can afford or want to spend. Yet some longer journeys by train take little more time than flying when journeys to and from airports are added on, and provide an altogether richer and more engaged experience of the countries through which one is travelling. An ecological pricing and taxing policy could make these modes of transport as affordable as air travel. To judge by the enthusiasm that has greeted The Man in Seat Sixty-One website (www.seat61.com), which provides exceptionally clear and detailed information on all
Thechoicenotto be identified and exhorted as a ‘consumer’is denied in thecurrentera of‘choice’
aspects of rail (and rail-ship) transport throughout the world, the interest in travelling long distance by train is considerable and increasingly sought after both for its pleasures and for its greener credentials. The massive CO2 emissions caused by the
ever-growing aviation industry are compounded by those resulting from the expansion of car use and road freight. The sheer speed of road traffic is also responsible for bringing a premature and horrific end through death and injury to the experience of many of those who use it. And vehicle emissions constitute the single most important source of toxic air pollutants in industrial societies. As the Slow Speed Initiative points out, traffic also kills communities, since parents’ fear of accidents makes streets no-go areas for their children. It has, therefore, also had a serious impact on the way that children play and pre-empted many of their pleasures – including freedom to escape from adults for significant periods of time. But it is, of course, not only children who suffer. For most of human history, as the Living Streets campaign points out, in addition to children’s play, streets also comfortably accommodated the full range of human activity: they were the place for socialising, public meetings, entertainments, demonstrations and social change. Today, however, they have become traffic corridors, cutting swathes through local communities. And since urban space and the road system generally is now organised around the expedition of the car rather than the traveller on foot or bike, it is only through the provision of parks, pedestrian precincts and other car-free amenity areas that other activity can really prove relaxed and enjoyable. Speeding traffic has been a major cause of decline in community life in the 20th century, and research has shown that the higher the traffic volume, the less time people spend outside – and the lower the likelihood they will interact with neighbours. Freed of cars, streets could become places of leisure providing for the positive enjoyments of ambling, loitering, gossiping and passing the time of day. As it is, even in those ‘public’ but all too often privately owned and policed shopping-mall areas where there is at least protection from traffic, the more ‘disreputable’ (non-shopping) elements are under continual surveillance and regularly moved on. Nor is seating supplied lest non-shoppers take advantage. Where proper provision is made, however, to walk or to cycle is also to enjoy sights and scents and sounds and the pleasures (and benefits) of physical activity and forms of solitude and silence denied to those who travel in more insulated and speedier ways. Obviously, no one could rely exclusively on these modes of transport, but certainly many more could do so for many more of their journeys than they currently do – and arguably with considerable gain in enjoyment and well-being. Sustrans, for example, tells us that, ‘Young people, if asked, would choose to walk or cycle to and from school. They realise the benefits it brings