Dying of Consumption
modern industrial economy works like this: resources are dug from a hole in the
ground on one side of the planet, used for a few weeks, then dumped in a hole on
the other side of the planet. This is known as the Creation of Value. The
Creation of Value improves our quality of life. Improvements in our quality of
life make us happier. The more we transfer from hole to hole, the happier we
we are not yet transferring enough. According to the Worldwatch Institute, we
have used more goods and services since 1950 than in all the rest of human
history. But we still don't seem to be happy. Indeed, over the same period,
25-year-olds in Britain have become ten times more likely to be afflicted by
depression. One in four British adults now suffers from a chronic lack of sleep,
and one fifth of schoolchildren have psychological problems. Over the past 13
years, mental health insurance claims have risen by 36 per cent. American
studies suggest that between 40 and 60 per cent of the population suffers from
mental illness in any one year. The World Health Organisation predicts that by
2010 depression will become the second commonest disease in the developed world.
Unless we start consuming in earnest, we'll never experience real joy.
this time of year the rate of consumption rises dramatically. To make ourselves
happier, we move resources from one hole to another as quickly as possible. My
local authority reports that the amount of rubbish people take to the dump
increases by 12 per cent in December and January. Curiously, however, the
incidence of depression also seems to rise. Calls to the Samaritans increase by
eight per cent between Christmas and New Year's Day. But the figures are
misleading. The more depressed we are, the more we spend on anti-depressants and
alcohol. The more we spend, as any economist will explain to you, the happier we
few Christmases ago, I was given a kettle, which now leaks. I could mend it, if
only I could tighten the base. But one of the screws has a star-shaped slot with
a spike in the middle, which is designed to prevent repairs, as no available
tool will fit it. My kettle was for Christmas, not just for life. So I will
throw it away, and help to build an earthly paradise by buying a new one.
the dumps and incinerators in which our broken presents, our discarded fairies,
our uncomposted Christmas trees and unrecyclable packaging are deposited,
goodwill spreads inexorably. Among other benefits, the disposal of rubbish
supports the medical profession. Babies born within three kilometres of toxic
landfill sites, according to research published in The Lancet, are more likely
to suffer from abnormalities than babies born elsewhere. Incinerators release
dioxins and heavy metals, which cause cancer, birth defects and endometriosis.
This creates jobs and increases the flow of money in the economy, adding to the
sum of human happiness.
the UN's figures seek to suggest otherwise, British people are surely happier
than people in poorer lands, because more of our needs are met. Indeed,
advertisers help us to answer needs we never knew we had, by revealing that our
lives are less satisfactory than we thought. When I was 18, male face creams
came onto the market. Until that point, we boys had no idea that our skin was
ageing prematurely. Since then, men have been introduced to many of the
improvements that women have enjoyed for so long. We have discovered that we are
uglier, spottier, fatter and more inadequate than we could ever have imagined.
And, by moving more resources between holes in the ground, we can do something
consumer society serves the poor better than anyone else, as it both exposes the
grottiness of their lives and kindly provides the means with which they can
escape from it. In some cases, as a report by the Citizens' Advice Bureaux
revealed earlier this month, the interest on their happiness rises to as much as
1800 per cent a year, spreading good cheer among the many thousands of people
the loan recovery business employs. As the banks and manufacturers, shops and
economists remind us, our quest for happiness is boundless.
always, of course, and particularly at this time of year, someone tries to spoil
the fun. And, predictably enough, the greens are moaning that the planet is
dying of consumption. People, they say, are being pushed off their lands by the
digging of holes, the felling of forests and the growing of cash crops;
ecosystems are being poisoned and resources exhausted; the Earth is overheating,
because so much energy is required to move its components from one hole to
another. But I would ask them this: isn't the death of the planet a price worth
paying for the happiness we now enjoy?