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Ten years after 9/11, the true threat is not a super-villain skulking in the desert, says Laurie Penny

We have been starved of the meaning and context of global disaster.

In answer to the obvious question, I was in double biology, cutting up potatoes for my GCSE coursework. There was a television in the school science labs, and in students rushed, in ones and twos and in hushed astonishment, as the twin towers burned and then fell. One boy rushed to call his father in New York. The normal hierarchies of age and status were suspended temporarily as sixth-form footballers and geeky kids in Year Ten shared a packet of biscuits someone had produced. We all munched away silently, watching the world change for ever.

Memory is a funny thing, particularly collective memory. Once or twice in a generation come events so seismically significant that they seem to resist analysis, and all we can do is remind each other what we were doing when we found out. The baby boomers remember where they were when Kennedy was shot; my parents remember where they were when the Berlin Wall fell; today, we remember where we were a decade ago when Islamist terrorists attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. As the footage of human beings jumping to their deaths from the blazing towers rolled and re-rolled, a tacit understanding grew that to attach meaning or context to these attacks would be unthinkable, impossible.

Amorphous war

Unfortunately, meaning and context were precisely what we were starved of over the next ten years, as western leaders appeared to deem this atrocity so numbing to debate that anything could be done in its name. Even language became warped in the wreckage of the towers: tens of thousands of Iraqi children became "collateral damage", outsourced torture became "extraordinary rendition", and the bombing of nation states became an amorphous war on "terror". The legitimate grief and shock of those who lived through the 2001 attacks were co-opted to sanction a decade of cruelty, misinformation and war, and, in the west, a generation grew up understanding that politicians cannot be trusted.

Even ten years on, we refer to the events of that day in superstitious shorthand. When we say 9/11, everyone knows that we don't mean the mediocre mid-1990s boy band. Fear of a name, as Dumbledore teaches us, increases fear of the thing itself, and fear is just what leaders on both sides of the war on terror were counting on.

There are some political realities so ponderous that only fiction can understand them. In Ken MacLeod's 2008 novel The Night Sessions, the race to stop a religious terrorist cell from blowing up two skyscrapers and killing millions is thwarted when it is discovered that everyone has been looking in the wrong place. Instead of the planned attack, the fundamentalists destroy a major piece of economic infrastructure, causing a global downturn.

Caught and interrogated, one terrorist coldly explains that even though no one has died, millions of lives will be shortened and made materially harder as a result of the coming recession - and hence the human cost of this piece of global sabotage will be far higher than any one dramatic act of mass murder.

The remarkable prescience of this chilling little book, published a month before the toppling of Lehman Brothers, has stayed with me since. Because it turns out, ten years after history appeared to be rewritten in plumes of smoke across the Manhattan skyline, that we have all been looking in the wrong place. It turns out that the grand story of the early part of the 21st century is not the clash of civilisations, of Islamist terrorism versus western democracy, but the struggle of the financial and political elite against their own people as the free market buckles under its own weight, a new bankruptcy hastened by two desert wars and years of cheap post-9/11 credit. The greatest threat to democracy is not external attack, but internal collapse.

Ten years after 9/11, the world has moved on. Realisation is dawning that the great danger to western democracy was never a shadowy super-villain skulking in the desert, but inequality, alienation and economic collapse. The main threat to our collective way of life is not sudden and brutal, but gradual and callous: it's the wearing away of everything that made ordinary life decent and bearable, the slow erosion of civil society into something mean and desperate. And that truth is far more terrifying than any dirty bomb.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11

Photo: Getty
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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.

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