Betting on Pennsylvania

As the race for the White House continues apace, our man on the road - Jonn Elledge - reports on the

Anyone going to their mailbox in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, the other day was in for a nasty shock: a flyer featuring a picture of a foetus with a rope around its neck. Beneath it was the caption: 'Obama won't stop this.'

No prizes for guessing who that came from.

The diner waitress who told me this story was horrified, but probably not for the reasons the Republicans would like. 'What if someone who'd been through that saw it?' she asked. What if some kids did, someone added.

This isn't the only nasty ad to pop up in the state this week. A (now unemployed) Republican staffer sent an email to some of the state's Jewish community warning them against 'making the wrong decision.' 'Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake,' it said. 'Let's not make a similar one this year!'

Godwin's law, alas, doesn't apply in elections. Nonetheless, such tactics suggest a certain panic on the Republicans' part.

John McCain is betting everything on Pennsylvania. It looks like a long shot - it hasn't gone Republican in 20 years, and polls show him 10 points behind. But it would allow him to add 21 electoral votes to his column, while focusing on a single part of the country. And it would slash the swing he needs everywhere else to get him to victory. This, one suspects, explains the decision to throw everything he's got at the state.

Despite the polls, it might just work. The state has been Democratic largely because of the areas around Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west. But there's a big rural chunk in between that's far more friendly to Republicans.

And there are also questions over how comfortable the state is with the idea of a black president. Last week Congressman John Murtha got in trouble for announcing that his constituents were racists. The Obama campaign in Erie, in the north west of the state, have twice had to remove roadside signs reading "Vote right, vote white"; more than one voter has told them straight out that they won't vote for a black candidate. And the Obama supporting waitresses in Dunmore speak of a mysterious man known only as "pork chop guy", who told a diner full of people that no one who isn't an old white man would ever get his vote.

There are some signs that such prejudice is a luxury people can no longer afford - this anecdote is a nice, if unrepeatable, example - but the Dems aren't taking any chances. Cathi Zelazny, who's running the campaign in Erie, is planning to flood the polling stations with lawyers to ensure no one is denied their vote on a technicality. And if she has to, she says, she'll physically drag people to the polls. "If Obama loses because we lost Pennsylvania," she adds, "I'll have to leave to state."

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.