She ran through the doors, pushing her way past the hundreds of others in pursuit of the ultimate goal: the newly released Xbox One. This highly sought-after piece of gaming technology was created by Microsoft for the millions of devoted gamers of this world, one of whom was her twelve year-old son. Five hours of waiting outside in the freezing cold had made these last few seconds all worth it: all she had to do was reach out before anyone else. She would become top mum, surely guaranteeing continued love and devotion from her child, well into adolescence.
It’s been more than a month since I was shocked by what I witnessed being broadcast from the BBC, arms flailing in the air, people stampeding down the aisles, children being trampled and fights erupting. It seemed as though this madness had finally reached these shores, yet another consumerist import from our cousins across the pond.
The 28th of November is marked as day by many Americans as the official start of the Christmas season, and with it the Christmas shopping season. Here in the United Kingdom, Black Friday opened its doors to thousands of eagerly awaiting Britons across the country, desperate to save a few quid on the latest TV set. In light of this, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was a growing reflection of the trends we currently face within society – the increased spending cuts in social welfare, lower wages, higher unemployment – that led people to behave in this way, or whether it was merely another reflection of how our neo-liberal political system has failed us, from an ecological point of view, in a world where consumerism trumps all.
Who am I, to be blind?
Two weeks before I witnessed the scenes on the TV, I posed a question to my graduate classmates – “Can we be both conservationists and good consumers?” The dilemma I faced is one that many conservationists will be familiar with, how can we justify our ecological endeavours when we are part of the problem?
Note here that reference to “a good consumer” in this context is different from what we would consider “a conscientious consumer”. Good consumers in the eyes of classical economists, put simply, are ones who spend, spend and spend. Consumption, for the sake of consumption. Conscientious consumers are people who are concerned about the effects that their spending has on the planet. People who care about where their food, gadgets and clothes come from, and how this effects their personal carbon footprints. One cannot be both, unlike yin & yang, the two do not work hand-in-hand.
We live in a society where our economy is structured around the consumption of natural resources, a world where limitless growth appears possible in spite of finite natural capacity. Consumption is linked to our prosperity, to our employment, to industry and perhaps also to happiness itself.
Do we have a duty to be good consumers in order to support a system that has brought more people out of poverty than any other social system in the history of humankind? Or is it time for change, time to re-address the damage that this has done to our planet? And perhaps more poignantly, are we the ones who must lead the way?
The Man in the Mirror
The dilemma for any conservationist is that as practitioners in this field, our work is inherently linked to changing people’s behaviour. Stop killing Tigers, Don’t buy ivory, Stop eating Bushmeat, Stop eating fish, stop doing this and don’t do that. The problem here is, how can we ask other people to change their behaviours if we are unwilling to change our own?
As citizens within the industrialised West, our current and historical consumption is what has led to many of the ecological problems we see today, and as current members of this society we are inevitable contributors. How often have we been guilty of buying that extra t-shirt, pair of shoes, new x-box game or handbag, knowing that we don’t really need these things?
Try out any online carbon footprint calculator and the results will clearly show that if every human on this planet lived like the average European, we would need four planets to support our needs. This doesn’t even consider the footprints of the worst offenders, people from countries such as Australia and America. The message is clear, the personal choices we make regarding how we live our lives have a profound effect on the planet, from whether or not we chose to eat meat, drive a car, how often we go on holiday by plane, the type of home we chose to live in and how much “stuff” we buy. We are the ones to blame.
So can we honestly expect people around the world to take us seriously, when on the one hand we collect data on the rates of bushmeat consumption in the DRC, in the hope that we can gain enough understanding of these peoples habits to try and change their behaviour, so that we can one day save the last remaining chimps left in that country. And then on the other hand, log all that data onto our latest MacBooks, ones which have been manufactured with conflict resources obtained from open-pit mines in that same country, mines that have been responsible for extensive deforestation and mines funded by our insatiable demand for consumer goods.
Yes, the issues are not that simple and yes not all minerals are sourced from conflict zones or open-pit mines, however the example is illustrative of the level of hypocrisy we channel to many people in developing countries, hypocrisy regarding our own consumption and the damage it causes to the natural world. Who do we think we are?
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
Of course, some would argue that maybe we do not have to moderate our impacts, after all, we have chosen to devote our lives to protecting nature, devoted ourselves to lives of low pay and low recognition for our efforts. Surely we have sacrificed enough? And surely, we should be allowed to buy as many things as we want, as long as it makes us happy? After all, we deserve it.
As conservationists perhaps it is okay for us to be the ones who lead the way. In spite of everything, it is we who are true lovers of nature, we who love animals and plants and insects and ecosystems, we who champion the marvellous complexities of evolution by natural selection, whilst at the same time being silenced by its inherent simplicity and beauty. Not to mention the spectacular expanse of the universe and our small and insignificant existence, an existence that for a split geological second, has been awarded the lottery of life, a life that has the possibility to experience these wonders first hand.
This is surely reason enough to practise what we preach, and to adopt a unified approach in the way we all conduct ourselves as a community, and become aware of the hypocritical signals we send towards people outside of this community. At the end of the day, if not us, then who else?
Turning down aisle 23, within the final 10 meters, she spotted the object of her desire, she could taste the reward in her mouth, her target was in sight. Forcing aside a flock of teenagers who were also scrambling to pick up the last boxes left on the shelf, she reached out her arms for one final push. She had succeeded, landing her coveted prize for £499, a whole £40.87 cheaper than the recommended retail price. She had done it and as a smile grew on her face, she could now relax, she was happy.