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Hairshirt

January 2011

I have linked (and quoted) Bruce Sterling's Last Viridian Note before, but it's still good stuff. On useful possessions:

The items that you use incessantly, the items you employ every day, the normal, boring goods that don’t seem luxurious or romantic: these are the critical ones. They are truly central. The everyday object is the monarch of all objects. It’s in your time most, it’s in your space most.

On less useful possessions:

It may belong to you, but it does not belong with you. You weren’t born with it. You won’t be buried with it. It needs to be out of the space-time vicinity. You are not its archivist or quartermaster. Stop serving that unpaid role.

These ideas emerge from a different kind of ‘green’ thinking (the ‘viridian’ of the title):

Another major change came through my consumption habits. It pains me to see certain people still trying to live in hairshirt-green fashion – purportedly mindful, and thrifty and modest. I used to tolerate this eccentricity, but now that panicked bankers and venture capitalists are also trying to cling like leeches to every last shred of their wealth, I can finally see it as actively pernicious.

Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism. Like the New Age mystic echo of Judaeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn't do or say anything conceptually novel – nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.

Sterling argues that consumerism itself is not the problem, but planned obsolescence – we should search for things that last.

I sympathise more with this than I used to. I'm beginning to see how nostalgic (and, arguably, regressive) so many contemporary green movements are. Ideas like ‘back to the land,’ ‘closer to nature,’ – all of Daniel Quinn's Ishmael books – these all look backwards, assuming and asserting that our present is an unsalvageable dead-end.

I swing wildly between optimism and pessimism on that point, it must be said. Some days I think technology can solve all our problems, other days I look at the damage we do to the planet and I'm not so sure. We're probably a few years away from solving the plastic bag landfill problem, for instance, but we still couldn't stop the Deepwater Horizon spewing oil everywhere and doing serious long-term damage to the Gulf of Mexico. So, you know, ups and downs.

Tim Bulkeley commented:

Isn't the problem UNplanned obsolescence. In an African village everything is made from local (almost entirely biodegradable) materials. They have planned obsolescence, they know what will happen to the things they make and use when they die, and they know were the replacement is coming from. We don't, we just use stuff, and hope :(

Matt commented:

I guess the question is who is planning the obsolescence. Maybe a better term is ‘designed obsolescence’ – our consumer goods are designed to only last a couple of years.

That said, you have a very good point about planning the whole lifecycle. I don't pay enough attention to what I'm going to do when I'm done with things.

Greg commented:

Isn't Ishmael more about debunking the myth of progress, and while Quinn paints "primitive" peoples in a positive light, he stresses that everyone becoming primitive isn't the answer? The "Leaver" way of life as portrayed in Ishmael doesn't need to be primitive.