Community living & disposable cultures.
Saturday 18th October 2014
I am thinking about my role as a consumer while reading The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard – an essential read that should be on every school curriculum. It is an exposé on the West’s dire overconsumption from a sustainable and human rights point of view, critiquing many of the industrialised processes that we as consumers are not informed about, and lead to our waste being dumped on the doorstep of third world countries, toxic PVC ‘offgassing’ in our homes, and babies being born with over 250 toxins already in their blood. It’s the most disturbing read I’ve experienced in a long time, made all the more scary by the exponential march of what we are forced to term ‘progress’ with its inbuilt planned technology obsolescence, exploitative and cynical practices, human rights violations and moral vacuity.
Reading this book has got me angry – but this time in a good way. There are so many depths to the filthy system we are all trapped in and bound by to whatever extent. What is missing is the social self – the citizen of the local community. The idea of feeling a part of where I live has been on my mind a lot at the moment as I flit from one place to another. I don’t have a fixed abode as such as I am moving around California and have nowhere specific to return to in England. This is a fine situation that I have designed for myself as it allows total freedom but I accept that others may find it disconcerting or unconventional. They may not understand that this is exactly where I need to be at the current time.
I am enjoying slumming it in Oakland, a bosom of enterprise, creativity and the dispossessed. I have never seen so many homeless or hopeless people. Every wall I have seen in my fleabag hotel is pockmarked with dents and craters: scars from murders, scuffles and madness. You would not stay in a place like this unless you had no other choice. Which makes me wonder what the assorted vagrants that pass through are running away from or hurtling towards, that is so terrible that staying at this hotel is their best or only option? One cheerful long term resident gave me some advice to be careful after dark, as one block over is where “murders and injuries happen”. I took heed and wasn’t horrified. I am fascinated by this decrepit run down place, by far the most squalid I have ever visited – and this is coming from someone who has spent her entire adult life thus far in London ghettos in Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Lambeth.
Strangely though, perhaps as a result of being ‘homeless’ myself, I am engaging with this community and this city far more than my previous homes. I am, in true Annie Leonard style, reactivating my inner citizen and I am enjoying the feeling. This place is proud of what it is and there is no pretence there. In amongst the derelict department stores there are reclaimed wood-panelled boutiques and coffee shops that proudly display messages and sell wares declaring civic pride.
This isn’t my city but the idea of my own conscious societal displacement segues nicely with what I am learning about the importance of social relationships. There is evidence to suggest that people with strong social ties live longer and of course feel safer. A small example from Leonard’s book: the filmmaker Judith Helfand made a documentary about a massive heatwave in Chicago which killed six hundred people. She explains that most of the victims were socially isolated and didn’t have trusted neighbours so nobody to check up on them or their facilities at home.
On a planet where we are rapidly running out of resources (since 1986 every year we have been consuming more than the earth is able to regenerate in a year), think how many fewer resources we could consume if only we shared? From cars and vegetables to tools and homes, not only would the planet be saved from having to produce ever more stuff to sustain our insatiable desires, we would enjoy the satisfaction and pleasure that comes from interaction with other humans! Not only a good in itself but it would lead to numerous other benefits like being able to call on each other for favours, having the good company of others, and saving money and time in myriad ways. Participation gives us a warm glow but unfortunately it’s so easy to shun this on the basis that you can’t trust people these days, you haven’t got time (too busy working like donkeys so we can pay for all the meaningless crap we just can’t live without). Or maybe, just maybe, quality of life overall could be improved if we made time for each other and got over our own reserve.
From my vantage point as an elected outsider, I can consider how it might feel to be part of a community. I have never really engaged with my local area before and certainly not considered ways to make local people come together and help each other out. The way I had previously conducted my social affairs was to keep my head down, avoid looking at anyone and set my heart on the next place I’d live, where surely everything would be perfect and I’d have no trouble wanting to play a part socially. The truth is it’s going to be difficult putting myself out there, risking ridicule or worse, being ignored. I might not feel like it. I might be too busy or tired. I might have other problems. But I can try and remember that the community aspect of being human is important to individual and collective wellbeing in conjunction with other socially-aware initiatives.