We need to look beyond the politics of growth

The next election must not simply be fought over who can put the most money in our pockets.

Sometimes when I read the paper, the world reveals itself as if by some editorial fluke. Stories connect as the pages turn, like the stars in the night sky that make up the great constellations, individual dots join to paint a bigger picture. 

It happened again last Sunday reading the Observer. It started on the front page with a  story headlined "World hunger crisis looms as extreme weather hits harvest", which was developed as a double page spread further in. On page three we had "Don’t carpet bomb the NHS with competition, says health chief", followed on pages six-seven with a story on "Sixth formers pay up to £350 in bid to cheat the university admissions system". Stay with me, there are a few more dots.  Also on page seven, we had "Audit costing £1m might have stopped west coast rail fiasco", on page 10, "IMF austerity warning gives Osborne a £76bn headache" and then, in the business section, an article headlined, "Treating food stocks like stocks and shares is a recipe for disaster."

So what is reveled is nothing less than a society and culture that is being steadily marketised.  A world where we feed multiple times more grain to cattle for hamburgers to make profit, rather than feed people directly. A world where rising temperatures caused by the fossil fuel burning necessary to ramp up even further our turbo-consumer culture, are reaching a level that crops are failing and sending food prices for the poorest through the roof. A world where nothing is sacred and nothing is beyond the toxic reach of competition – even our health. A world where the state is cut back so far to stop it ‘crowding out’ the private sector that it can no longer save the market from wrecking the utility industries on which society depends  – like rail and banking.  A world where our children are under such intense pressure to ‘succeed’ in the learn to earn rat race that the market of course provides a short cut – at a price.

A picture of market fundamentalism emerges out of these disjointed dots and seemingly unconnected news items. It is the story of the unrelenting, disciplined and organised march of the market into every aspect of our lives. It succeeds through lobbying power, intellectual arguments, clever framing of language and through the seductive power of consumption.  We want this stuff, we desire it, it makes us who and what we are. Why fight it? And yet at the same time we know many of us have more clothes that we can wear and yet no time to be with the people we love. We know we buy things we didn’t know we needed with money we don’t have. And we know others don’t even have that dubious choice – and instead face the daily humiliation of not being able to keep up and take their place as a ‘normal’ member of our consumer society.

If the economy picks up again – then what is our story?  Is it just to go back to "business as usual" as fast as possible? A politics of growth, jobs, money, consumption and choice at any cost? For the last thirty years, growth has masked the redistribution of income and wealth from the bottom to the top. Are we happy for that to just kick-start again?  

The Labour Party has worked for a century around the politics of more. But the "more" in question has increasingly just been stuff. More money to buy more things. On one level, it reflects the problem that, for most, real incomes have been flatlining and the spoils have gone to those at the top.  This, by the way, is the inevitable and necessary result of a marketised society.  But what if, by some miracle, capitalism defied its genetic impulses and distributed goods more evenly? Is that all there is? What of the social recession and not just its economic counterpart? What of a planet that continues to burn? What has happened to the well being and happiness debates?  When is enough ever enough?

If the next election is fought mainly on the terrain of who puts more money in our pockets, then I fear for the outcome. Yes, people need jobs , but not at any cost. We have to find a way of addressing the complex insecurity people feel – not just economic, but social and emotional. The politics of time, mental illness, loneliness and what it means to be human in the 21st century. I long to pick up the paper and see the invisible lines that join stories about more hope, care, respect, tolerance, autonomy and a world in which the market serves us and not the other way round.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

The City of London sprawls out, as seen from the under construction 20 Fenchurch Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496