Capitalism, like most things, is good and bad (Part Two)

Alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear.  It is never too late to give up our prejudices.  No way of thinking or doing , however ancient, can be trusted without proof.

Walden, Thoreau

After spending fifteen years acquiring books why am I getting rid of 130?  Why have I put a third of my CDs in a plastic box in the wardrobe, and begun to hesitate before I add DVDs to my online shopping cart?

Back in June I read this on Steve’s blog: New Media, State of Play: 2009.  I think the main thing that stuck in my head about this post was Steve’s response to my comment that actually I wanted to own things like CDs and hold them in my hot little hands and not download them.  He said: ‘Isn’t producing 10,000 CDs an immense waste of physical resources?’  Six months later I would like to respond…

Yes it is.

I think I got to my answer only after a number of things came together in my head in November and December.  Firstly, I read this post by Steve last month: New Media – No more CDs! No more DVDs!  In this post Steve says:

I’m looking forward to owning less stuff. As I see it, there are three tiers of media: stuff I’ll watch once, stuff I’ll watch more than once, and stuff I develop an emotional attachment to. It’s only stuff in that third category I really need to own.

This last line sat in my head… “It’s only stuff in the third category I really need to own.”  I think what added weight to this thought in my head was the fact that I was reading Walden by Thoreau at the same time.  Thoreau is not big on possessions. 

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.  Better if they had been suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in.  Who made them serfs of the soil?…  Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?  They have got to live a man’s life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can.  How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life…?

Of course it’s all very well for single men with no dependents to tell us that jobs are not necessary, and houses and possessions make us slaves.  My house is fairly modest, and I have no guilt  about owning it.  Working, on the whole, is a good thing.  Naturally I can imagine that I’d rather spend my life sitting on a beach sipping martinis,  but in fact, few people like to make their lives this meaningless on a full time basis.  Still, when I look at my mortgage repayments I can sense Thoreau smirking over my shoulder.

So I’m not going to abandon my house and go and live in a hut in the bush and grow some beans.  What am I going to do?  I went and looked at all the cupboards and shelves in my house groaning with things; I went and looked at my book cases and thought: which of these books actually have meaning for me?  Well, about 130 didn’t.

At night I can hear them plotting against me

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.  Capitalism is good because it has created a market that makes books, surely one of mankind’s greatest achievements, readily available to the masses.  I am not going to bin the lot because of Thoreau (an avid book reader).  Capitalism is bad because once it starts on something that makes money (“Books!”), it can’t stop itself (“Books! Books! Books!”), and eventually you end up buried under commodities (“Books! Books! Books! Books! Books!).  My vices are books, CDs and DVDs.  Already at 36 I have reached a point where I feel like these things are beginning to overwhelm me, that these things are making demands like: “Why don’t you get another bookshelf?”, or “How about getting a bigger house?”

In my head I think this connected with other things that were going on and got me thinking about New Zealand.  All that stuff I wrote about to do with dairy, and methane and New Zealand, and the Copenhagen conference seemed linked together by one idea: something that started out as good has, through a long process of expansion and accumulation, become fraught with problems.

Shipping refrigerated meat to England in 1882 is good.  By 2009 when it is being done around the world on a massive scale it is problematic.  Having a meeting to talk about saving the planet is good, until you realise 15,000 people are going to have to come on jet planes.  Buying books and CDs is good, until they take up so much space in your house you begin to think about moving to a bigger house.

Once you have realised that there is a problem I think it is a natural human response to lie about it.  Especially if you have hitched your wagon to the thing that has become problematic.  New Zealand has hitched its wagon to producing goods that come off farms.  Faced with the dual problems of food miles and methane production I think it is natural for us to start looking for ways around this on paper without addressing the issues in reality.  Dimly, in the back of my head, I see a future for New Zealand dairy not dissimilar to the tobacco companies.  For a long time problems can be “handled” through advertising.  Got a multinational that’s not making enough out of their bread?  Design a campaign around a loaf that claims some kind of spirtual connection to the farm kitchens of the past (and charge more).  Got a problem with the pollution around producing and delivering your product?  Attack the competition: “We’re bad, but they’re worse!”  Is New Zealand going to end up in an advertising agency meeting room with Don Draper pitching them the line, “It’s toasted.”

Sure, but how about all those books, CDs and DVDs clogging up your house?  What are you going to do about that?

Well, what am I going to do about it?

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

3 thoughts on “Capitalism, like most things, is good and bad (Part Two)”

  1. Steve – I binned five drafts of The Hazey Days (but I kept the first one). It was quite a liberating feeling. As for looking at the books that have meaning… I found that I threw the net pretty wide. I even kept some books I didn’t really like, but that I can specifically remember buying, or being given, or whatever. Books with autobiographical associations.

    Richard (of RBB) – I don’t want a bigger house. You’re right, people are obsessed with getting bigger places. For some reason people want to have the same number of bathrooms as they have bedrooms. How many pots do you need to piss in?

  2. I moved one of my double basses from the living room into the bedroom. That was my contribution to uncluttering.
    Just kidding (though I really did move the bass), Shelley has been into uncluttering for a long time. Never – I said NEVER, sell that house. People are obsessed with getting bigger houses and they spend their lives paying for them. We have a small house, but a lot of people fit in.

  3. (… a collection of random thoughts …)

    After reading the decorating section of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (one of the books you gave away), I’ve started planning how to massively declutter my room, which is going to involve getting rid of a chest of drawers, a small portable wardrobe, and maybe my computer desk I’ve had ever since living on Norway Street.

    I have way too much clutter in my room (and directly outside it), including a bookshelf full of stuff to sell on Trade Me, and and about 20 foolscap storage boxes filled with scripts and filenotes from developing lovebites.

    Once all of that’s gone, I can start thinking about the boxes of books stored in the cupboard downstairs.

    The thing that really struck me about your post is the idea that you actually searched for the books that had meaning for you. That strikes me as a decidedly useful thing to do. … I realise that I did the same when I moved in to this new flat and only had the space to keep those books with meaning in my room. I haven’t taken the next step of getting rid of the ones that didn’t make the cut though.

    Excellent post. I’ve lost track though – this feels pretty final – is there going to be a (Part One)?

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