There was an article in today's Helsingin Sanomat (that's the big Finnish daily) about luxury cars. It was slightly unusual in that it wasn't your usual drooling over the latest Mercedes; instead, it was about the people who own, or want, luxury cars, why they want them, and what they mean for them. It mentioned a professor who has a factory-fresh Porsche in his yard, but never drives it; instead, whenever he's feeling blue, he just goes and sits in it for a bit, starts the engine, and listens to its comforting rumble.
Luxury cars are crystallized craving. Nothing is ever enough; there's always another one to desire, as the one you own becomes the new normal. Even if you were to take the Maybach treatment, spending a million euros on a car, decorated with rare tropical hardwoods and the softest leather to your personal specifications, there would be a new model next year, or that oil-sheikh's diamond-encrusted Rolls Royce to envy.
Were there a mountain all made of gold, doubled that would not be enough to satisfy a single man: know this and live accordingly.
The society we live in manufactures craving on an industrial scale. We have constant feedback loops of creating and satisfying needs for stuff. When such a craving is satisfied, there's a momentary wash of pleasure; a dopamine reward for doing the right thing. Then it fades, and the cues creating new craving start tugging again; the stuff I bought starts to look dated and unsatisfactory and altogether drab compared to the new and much better stuff that's out there. So the cycle repeats. No industry is as perfectly tuned to every last nook and cranny of its customer base.
Not into luxury cars? Check out this dark-roast Fairtrade coffee from the Kilimandjar coffee grower's collective instead? Look, we even put it into a nice, plain, purely functional bag for you. It'll taste really good when you grind it with your German coffee mill and then brew it in your stainless-steel Italian mocha pot, on that miraculous induction hob you installed last year. And you can feel good about tossing a few pennies in the direction of those poor black people in benighted Africa.This can't go on.
It's just not physically possible for the Chinese and the Indians—never even mind those poor Africans laboring on their coffee farms on the slopes of Mount Kilimandjar—to consume natural resources at the same rate as we Europeans or Americans. There just aren't enough natural resources to go around. And I can't see what kind of ethically defensible argument could be made to demonstrate that we're entitled to it but they're not. "Because we're stronger" is pretty weak as such things go, and anyway it's not likely to remain the case very much longer. Something has got to give.
I don't see any fundamental reason why we couldn't keep running a consumer society even with scarcer primary resources. It would just mean devoting a somewhat bigger fraction of our productive capacity—which is immense—to recycling and reclaiming stuff. It would cost more to recycle our garbage, mine our landfills, and to use renewable resources sustainably, but I have no doubt that we have the technology to do it. Then we could just keep producing more junk from the reclaimed junk, and circulate it in the system driven by the craving factory. We'd just be making a small detour; diverting a portion of our productive capacity to creating the infrastructure for this recycling and sustainable-energy economy for a while. An adjustment, to be sure, but fairly minor as such adjustments go, at least compared to stuff like World War 2.
What can't go on forever, won't go on forever, and we will, eventually, end up with a sustainable way of life. The only question is how, and when, and what it'll be like—the traditional way to curtail consumption is, after all, to have a nice big war and kill off most of the population. Unless we make some kind of conscious, diligent, sustained effort at addressing these problems, the system will rebalance itself in a way that's not nice at all. Post-apocalyptic wastelands make for great movies and computer games, but wouldn't be all that much fun to live in.
Lately, though, I've started to wonder.
The thing is, happiness can't be found at verkkokauppa.com. I've looked, believe me. My personal weakness is cameras; I think I've bought about one or two a year for the past ten years or so; some new, some used; some I've sold, some I've given away, some are still gathering dust in corners of my drawers somewhere. It's fairly certain that I'll buy one this year too. I am good and stuck in that cycle of craving; the whispers of Japanese camera manufacturers speak to me loud and clear.
Oh, and I'd quite like an HTC Desire Z too. Is that an apt name, or what?
There has got to be a better way. Somehow, I don't think the traditionally suggested alternative of leaving everything to pick up nothing but a robe, stick, and begging bowl is a fully satisfactory solution either; after all, somebody still has to grow the rice. Soviet Communism didn't work. These neo-Trotskyite sci-fi and fantasy writers have some pretty exciting ideas, but I'm not sure I'd want to live in Armada or Norlonto either. What would a society that's not powered exclusively by craving look like? Would there be a way to get there? Not a clue, here, but I think the questions are worth asking.
Recommended readingPaul Lafargue: Le Droit à la Paresse
Bertrand Russell: In Praise of Idleness