The squeezed earth. Illustration: Jackson Rees
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Will Self: We like to feel cosy in our happy little tribes – but it’s a big world, after all

In my visual field alone there must have been 5,000 people suffering.

On the terrace of the Hotel Alsisar Halevi, the guests waft about in the shifting shades of the Indian night. Braziers are alight, sending streams of sparks shimmering into the local and empurpled void; I clutch my orange juice and am perfectly at ease in my conversational group of one. Then Faisal approaches: he has a fawn pullover, cords and thick sideburns of hipsterish extent. He introduces himself and says that he knows of me and my recent travails (I’ve spent the day being shot up with muscle relaxant and going for X-rays, suspecting a cracked rib after a fall sustained while kicking a ball for the dog), because a friend texted him moments ago, who shares a mutual friend with my daughter, who’s accompanying me on this visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival.

“Wow,” I say, “it’s a small world indeed when this feedback-loop of social connectivity lassoes you on a terrace thousands of miles from home.” Then I check myself: isn’t it absurd to be saying such things when all around us swirls the great whirl of Indian humanity, a multitude currently numbered in the region of 1.2 billion? I vouchsafe this to Faisal but he dissents: “No, it is a small world, if you mean people who speak English and have disposable income . . .”

He runs on – but I’m already crunching the numbers aloud, adding guestimates of the US population to those of the Anglophone Africans, Asians and so forth. Meanwhile, Faisal further shrink-wraps his small world: “. . . and an elite education . . .”

“Whoa!” I pull him up short. “That’s a hell of a qualification and, besides, what exactly do you mean by ‘an elite education’?”

We kick this one around for a bit (dangerous in my condition), before agreeing there can be at best 100 million of this ilk smeared across the mondial canvas. I suppose I can understand Faisal, hailing as he does from such a populous place, finding even this multitudinous company to be, um, claustrophobic. But recall: I was perfectly happy in my colloquy of one. When I first went to India in 1984, its population was a paltry 750 million, while the world’s overall was around 4.5 billion. Thirty very odd years later, India has increased by around seven Britains’ worth, while the world has stuffed itself with two full Indias (if you see what I mean) and called for more poppadoms.

I remember standing outside the Red Fort in Delhi and realising that within my visual field alone there must be 5,000 people who were – judging by their appearance – suffering. They were emaciated; they had sores and chancres; many hundreds of men were simply standing there, staring listlessly, with flies hovering around their eyes. Old women lay by the roadside on piles of rags and vice versa. Children played with shit. Good little liberal humanist that I was, I felt outraged that such things could be going on. After all, as I understood it, everybody – with a little help, admittedly – was capable of being both rational and altruistic, so what I was witnessing had to be the result of a cock-up in the distribution department. Happiness and good health simply weren’t being spread about enough.

That was then: I’m no longer a good little liberal humanist and, though I hope I feel as much compassion as I ever did, I’m afraid I accept that while efforts to ameliorate poverty should always be made, by the same token, some people will always remain in the shit. What bamboozles me about our attitudes to our pullulating population is the strange ulterior accord between liberal humanists and the every-sperm-is-sacred theists they otherwise so excoriate. Humanists, revering the human as they do, cannot in their innermost being object to an extra billion people here or there and underlying this is a perverse utilitarian calculus: it may be objected that with greater numbers the happiness of any given individual decreases but, since the desideratum is greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number, a few billion more marginally less in the shit counts as a triumph of progress.

At least, this is what I want to convey to Faisal; this and the strangely vertiginous condition of contemporary humanity, always seeking to make the world we live in cosy by fashioning our own little tribal groups out of the rampaging hordes. I begin to expatiate in this manner, using the analogy of those peculiarly pleasing machines they have at airports that swaddle your suitcases in shrink-wrapping.

“You see, Faisal,” I say, “you have to think of the world as a suitcase that’s been packed too full; the obvious thing to do is leave some stuff behind but that’s not the way humanity behaves. Instead we try to wrap the thing tighter and tighter – arguably that’s the role of the social media that informed you about my doings. It’s a transparent film we stretch over our faces, pulling them into some semblance of familiarity, but this is a futile endeavour. It doesn’t matter how hard we try; we can’t transform 100 million people into a happy little family . . .” And I would continue in this vein, were it not that Faisal, muttering an apology, leaves me to myself and wanders off to join a much larger group on the other side of the terrace.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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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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