Disappointment can wait

The world outside had collapsed into a spontaneous street party. Cars were hooting, people were yell

It was Pennsylvania when things started to get crazy.

We were in a bar somewhere on Capitol Hill, where a crowd of young Washingtonites were huddled round a television. And whenever the networks called a state for Obama, they started cheering, even when it was such a solidly blue state as Massachussets or Vermont. (Logic dictates there must be plenty of Republicans in this town somewhere, but I didn't seem many of them last night.)

But it was when they called Pennsylvania that things really took off. This was the state McCain had bet everything on, this was one he couldn't afford to lose - and within mere minutes of the polls closing, there it was, standing safely behind Barack Obama.

But still people didn't allow themselves to believe. By 9pm I was telling anyone who was foolish enough to come within three feet of me that this thing was over, that Obama would win and win big, but my American friend was having none of it. "He might just scrape past 270," he shrugged. But that was it.

When we got in a cab across town, the first words spoken by the Pakistani driver - I'm pretty sure he hadn't even asked us where we were going - were, "Is he winning?" He switched on the radio, where we heard that Fox were calling Ohio for Obama. "Ah, that is good," he said. "But he still needs Florida, I think."

By the time we found another television, somewhere on U Street, Obama had 204 in the electoral college, and the polls had yet to close on the west coast. That, best I could tell, made President Obama an inevitability.

But no-one was saying it. There were painful memories of 2004, and no-one wanted to jinx a possible victory.

So when, at 11pm, the magic words appeared on the screen, the place exploded. People were screaming, hugging, high fiving strangers. One of two girls at the back of the bar who looked like they hadn't noticed it was election day asked the room what had just happened, and received a unanimous cry of, "He won!". They looked bored. Maybe they were the ones who voted for McCain.

Meanwhile the world outside had collapsed into a spontaneous street party. Cars were hooting, people were yelling, and the crowd was spilling into the road. At the corner of 14th and U hundreds were dancing alongside four guys with steel drums. About a dozen had climbed onto a bus shelter that, contrary to popular expectations, didn't collapse. One guy was sitting on a traffic light. Another was in a tree.

And the police let it all happen. I'm pretty sure some of them even joined in the hooting.

In the middle of the dancing there was one guy in a suit, looking staid and calm and, frankly, lost. My American friend suggested we stick a McCain badge on his back, just to see what happened. But no-one wanted that on their conscience.

It was after the victory speech that everyone decided to march on the White House. Its staff had cleverly arranged to have some building work going on, so we could only get so close, but that didn't stop thousands of people from showing up with the express intention of making as much noise as they possibly could. "Let's wake the old guy up!" someone was yelling.

Two guys with a cardboard cut out of the President Elect found themselves besieged by people wanting to pose with it for a photograph. Another guy - and I make no claim to understand this - was running around in his underwear, looking for all the world like he'd just forgotten to get dressed for his midnight jog.

"You Brits do realise this isn't going to change US foreign policy even one little bit?" said my American friend, never to one to accept victory without declaring a defeat.

But it didn't matter. The inevitable disappointment could wait. America had voted for President Obama, and that was all we needed to know.

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.