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Our month about "stuff"!

For this month's theme we'll be exploring, in the run up to Christmas, our relationship with "stuff" from different angles. We start with today's post which, among other things, takes you for a drive along the M5 motorway, delivers your Christmas gifts by drone, and argues that "the amount of stuff we have, how we look after it and how long it is designed to last, matters". 

We'll be talking to Oliver James, author of Affluenza and The Selfish Capitalist about how the "stuff-driven" economy impacts us and how we relate to each other.  We'll hear from Ugo Vallauri about the Restart Project in London, working with people to give them the skills needed to repair and breathe new life into electronic devices that we otherwise tend to discard with the seasons.  Steph Bradley, who in 2010 spent 6 months walking around England gathering stories of Transition, will be telling us about the book she just published about the trip, carrying just the stuff her small green rucksack could fit.  

We'll be talking to Annie Leonard, producer of The Story of Stuff series of films for her reflections on stuff and our relationship with it.  I'll be dropping into Totnes' now-legendary Drift Record Shop to hear what the revival of vinyl tells us about stuff and the power of treasuring exquisite beautifully-made artifacts.  We'll hear from Ruth Potts of Bread, Print and Roses about the New Materialism.  Plus, I'm sure, a couple of other things thrown in for good measure.  

To start us off on our exploration of stuff, I want to take you on a short drive along the M5 motorway near Bridgewater in Somerset, albeit without you actually having to go anywhere.  I'm taking you past Morrisons' recently-built 34,000 square metre regional produce pack house and distribution warehouse.  I think it is a strong contender for one of the world's most repellent buildings, indeed in a poll run by the local paper, the Bridgewater Mercury, 75% of readers stated that they thought it was an eyesore.  I passed it on Friday, and took the following photos so as to be able to share how it unfolds as you pass.  I'm not sure they quite capture the sheer sprawling obnoxious banality of it, but here we go:

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It's vast.  As one person commenting on Facebook wrote, "It looks like an airport terminal that they were halfway through building when they lost heart". I have despised this building since I first saw it, and for me it has come to typify what's wrong with our relationship to "stuff".  It is the result of a partnership between Morrisons and Barratt Homes (an unholy union that would have most people reaching for the planning objection forms if ever there was one) which has seen 110 hectares of land around Bridgewater developed to include, alongside the Morrison's distribution centre (according to Construction Enquirer):

a commercial services centre providing local retail opportunities, up to 2,000 new homes, a primary school, improvements in recreation facilities and substantial enhancements to the local transport and green infrastructure.

It is, according to investbridgewater.org, an "exemplar of low carbon, sustainable design". It has 1 MW of solar panels on the roof, harvests its rainwater, and uses very energy efficient lighting.  And the revolting cladding design with the different shades of green?  Well, you see, that's done with nature in mind too: 

The intention is to create a family of buildings, with The Willow Man, "the Angel of the South" located to the south of the site and adjacent to the M5 motorway. This has been the inspiration for the design concept of a "willow weave" of cladding panels employing a natural palette of willow colours. 

A basket woven using a natural palette of willow colours.

A basket woven using a natural palette of willow colours.

The cladding on the Morrisons distribution centre.  Spot the difference.

The cladding on the Morrisons distribution centre. Spot the difference.

This captures the distinction between 'sustainable' and 'resilient' for me.  Such a facility may be efficient and pay some attention to its impacts, but it also makes more efficient the undermining of local economic resilience and deepens our dependency on large supermarket chains and cheap oil. It is simply a more efficient system for extracting money from local economies to put it in the pockets of distant shareholders. To use the language of Occupy, it enriches the 1% rather than the 99%.  While such facilities may create jobs, they create less and less of them.  In 2011, supermarkets expanded their floor space by 2,750,000 square feet, while at the same time the number of people employed fell by 400.

But what has this got to do with "stuff" and our reflections on how we might best approach the forthcoming festive season? In their recent pamphlet The New Materialism, Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts write:

"In a green economy characterized by less passive consumerism and more active production, making, adapting, mending, sharing and all the The New Materialism ‘re-s’ such as: re-use, recycle, re-love, re-purpose… etc, there is far more potential for novelty and pleasure".

If this festive period is about one thing, it should surely be pleasure. And family and community. As George Monbiot put it recently:

Christmas permits the global bullshit industry to recruit the values with which so many of us would like the festival to be invested – love, warmth, a community of spirit – to the sole end of selling things that no one needs or even wants.

New MaterialismBut what I want to write about here isn't why this Christmas should be about recycling, repairing, reusing. While that is hugely important of course, there's loads of stuff about that online, and we'll be touching on it in other posts this month. For example, Transition Newcastle in Australia recently held a World Cafe about how people might enjoy a more sustainable Christmas, which generated lots of useful ideas along those lines.  

Do I think that Christmas is a time when we should all just not give each other anything as some sort of protest against the proliferation of commercialism and "stuff"?  That we should extend 'Buy Nothing Day' to cover the entire notion of Christmas?  No.  I think there is something very special about exchanging gifts with those we love.  Plus I don't want to see my high street full of empty shops.  But we have a choice as to which kind of economy we want to support.  

What I want to talk about picks up on something Eric Fromm once wrote:

“Everything one owned was [once] cherished, taken care of, and used to the very limits of its utility. Buying was ‘keep-it’ buying".  

What does 'keep-it' buying look like today, and how might it inform our buying decisions over the next few weeks?  It would be silly to accuse a huge food retailer like Morrisons of not promoting "keep-it" buying.  If you were to keep pretty much anything they sold beyond its sell-by date it would rapidly go rather smelly.  But it is that model, the economy that requires vast regional distribution centres, solar-powered or otherwise, that I am objecting to.  Personally, I am still recovering from watching the BBC Panorama documentary on Amazon, 'The Truth Behind the Click'.  

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Not that it was that much of a surprise.  What seems to enticingly easy, and somehow magic, that you click a button, and the next day something arrives in the post, was revealed as a deeply sinister, malign, abusive, vast enterprise.  It became clear why it's so cheap, due to driving its workers in ways which was described by a leading expert on stress at work as:

"... all the bad stuff at once. The characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness."  

Then today I read that it is likely that in 5 years time our skies will be full of little Amazon drones delivering peoples' goods within 30 minutes of ordering ...

That's where the economy is headed unless we do something about it pretty sharpish.  The cheaper things get, the quicker they can be delivered to us, the more of them we buy. Yet most of them we either only use them once or we throw away again within months, either because we're bored of them, or because they are broken. All we're left with is the memories of the thing, the sense that we need to buy something else to fill the hole or to "keep up", and the debt we generated to buy it.  

Likewise, the food model that requires regional distribution centres like that in Bridgewater requires 40% of crops grown in the field to be discarded because they don't meet the supermarkets' ludicrously high specifications.  Households then throw away around 20% of what they buy (7.2 million tonnes of food), and 40% of apples are chucked out.  

It's a form of development driven by assumptions.  For example, Germany assumes that it will cut electricity demand by 25% by 2050 while the UK assumes that it will double.  Germany assumes its population will fall 10% by 2050, while the UK assumes a rise of 25%.  The UK Department for Transport also assumes that UK air travel demand will rise from 211 million passengers per year in 2010 to 520 million passengers per year by 2050. These assumptions underpin the infrastructure we create.  Similarly, the Bridgewater monstrosity is based on a series of deeply flawed assumptions about the future, that we will continue to be so wasteful into the future, that local economies will continue to die, that cheap oil will remain into the future etc etc etc.  

Economist Herman Daly once wrote the economy of the future needs to be:

“a subtle and complex economics of maintenance, qualitative improvements, sharing, frugality, and adaptation to natural limits. It is an economics of better, not bigger.”  

So what does a Christmas of "better" look like?  A flash of illuminating came to me while reading Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts' Short manifesto (less in more) for The New Materialism and what it might mean for Christmas.   

  1. Liking ‘stuff’ is okay, healthy even – we can learn to love and find pleasure in the material world
  2. Wherever practical and possible develop lasting relationships with things by having and making nothing that is designed to last less than 10 years
  3. Get to know things – before you acquire something, find out at least three things about it
  4. Love stuff – mend, maintain and re-use things until it is no longer possible, then recycle them
  5. Get active – only acquire something new if you are also learning a new, useful skills
  6. Share - look at all your things, think about what your friends might need or could benefit from, and share at least one thing a week

How might it be if, when choosing gifts for loved ones this month, we set ourselves the objective of only buying things designed to last more than 10 years?  Out go the iPads, poorly made kitchen devices, this month's fashion shoes and handbags.  In come things of permanence, things of beauty, things designed for resilience, not disposability.  I am currently in the process of emptying my late father's house to get it ready to sell, and distributing or getting rid of his possessions.  

One of the things that has been fascinating is how the things I am wanting to keep rather than get rid of are just those things, the things created to last for more than 10 years.  His few bits of well-made furniture, a clock made at a time when people made them to last, his German stereo he bought in the 80s which is still a fine stereo.  

Which brings me on to vinyl.  The revival of vinyl is, in part, about creating objects that people will treasure for decades, objects that will last for decades.  One of the things that has been a delight to me recently has been my 15-year old son inheriting my passion for vinyl.  He has my old turntable set up in his room and has dug out all my old hiphop records and is having a ball.  He now pines for trips to second hand record shops in Plymouth.  Clearly records (unlike CDs) are "designed to last more than 10 years", as some of them I bought over 20 years ago and they stil play fine.  

Here is a video which beautifully captures the love and attention a new generation of labels and artists are pouring into vinyl:

So for me, my mission this Christmas is to buy less for people in terms of quantity, but to buy things that will still be here in 10 years, still giving pleasure, which are beautiful, and which hopefully might be treasured and then handed on to the next generation.  It is a shopping approach underpinned by Richard Jefferies' statement that:

"The hours when the mind is absorbed in beauty are the only hours when we really live".  

Do those things generally come from vast sprawling warehouses alongside motorways in which poorly paid, stressed people scurry about driven to exhaustion by bleeping order-picking machines?  Do those things come delivered by a drone to your front door?  Do those things tend to put money into the pockets of distant shareholders?  Do those things support or undermine the economy of the place I live, the traders there who are my friends and who form the glue of the local community?  That's the mindfulness I intend to take with me when choosing gifts for my loved ones this year.  I'm calling it my 10 year rule.  There will be no drones arriving on my front door step for the foreseeable future.  I hope you enjoy this month's articles and discussion, and have a relaxing festive season.  

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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