Our disconnection from what we consume

Back to top

The reduction of life and all its expressions to an empty statement of financial worth is only made possible through the use of such an abstract, objective, meaningless thing as money. Cold, hard cash. It changes hands so easily, so thoughtlessly – numbers entered on a screen. It makes life so easy, because we don’t have to think. We don’t have to question where the endless rows of Ikea furniture come from, or how we can have strawberries in February; we just hand over the money. Simple.

The real costs of these luxuries are not internalised in the price because they can’t be. How do you quantify the loss of a rainforest – the death of a hundred thousand trees, the extinction of plant and animal species, the loss of homes, cultures, languages, knowledge and ways of being human? How do you figure in the costs of climate change, of soil depletion, of depriving a people’s land of its water, and then forcing them to work in effective slavery, doing soulless jobs growing monocrops for faraway people whose eyes they’ll never look into?

You can’t. So we don’t. And money is the only way we can do that, because it is so completely, utterly abstract that it can embody all that harm and sadness and tragedy and not be the slightest bit affected. Cold, hard cash. Numbers on a screen.

Once again, it is not only our biosphere that is negatively affected by the use of money; our selves and our community suffer greatly too. Because of the disconnection today’s monetary economy causes us, few people even know the person who baked their bread, let alone the farmer who grew the grain or the miller who ground it into flour. To us, the loaf is just a product on a shelf, and there is usually no real connection between producer and consumer.

In pre-monetary economies the degrees of separation between producer and user ranged from zero to two – if you didn’t make what you used yourself, either your neighbour Henry or his wife Anne did. This meant that you were intimately connected to everything in the process. In today’s context, if Anne was abusing animals or spraying the crops you ate with biological weapons, you’d know about it and probably have a discussion with her over it if you had your wits about you. If Henry’s health was suffering because of the processes in which he made you a pair of shoes as his gift, you’d probably want to help him come up with a solution that was beneficial to him.

If you grow your own food, you don’t waste it. If you have to take responsibility for your own water supply, you’re probably not going to shit in it. I was speaking with a journalist recently about a report from the Department for Environment Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)(19) which states that bread is now the number one food item that we waste, and he asked me why I thought that was so. I told him it is simply because we no longer have to knead and bake our own bread. If we had to put thirty minutes of love and elbow grease into it, we wouldn’t waste a slice.(20)

The less intimately connected we are with our food, the more of it we waste. The more we stay disconnected from what we consume, the less hope we have of ever understanding that we are not all independent separate beings, but an interdependent part of a larger whole. In turn, we will continue to make decisions we think are good for our egocentric sense of self (the skin-encapsulated ego, I) at the cost of our holistic self (the whole).

Some people will argue here that this is where ethical consumerism comes in – allowing money to reflect people’s consideration for destructive processes. I would counter that there is no such thing as ethical consumerism, in much the same way as I would argue that there is no such thing as ethical rape. Ted Trainer concurs, stating that “a sustainable and just society cannot be a consumer society”.(21) Consumerism is the insistent and endless purchase of ever increasing amounts of goods, resources and services. It is inherently linear, as it presupposes – and depends on – an infinite supply of inputs, which does not exist, and does not take into consideration what happens to the outputs when their designed obsolescence runs its course. How can such a system be ethical, let alone smart? What’s more, ethical consumerism cannot take into account the full spectrum of human and biological relationships affected by a product or service. Its considerations of ‘ethical’ or even ‘environmental’ are inevitably extremely narrow. The idea that we can shop our way to sustainability is no more ludicrous than thinking we can shag our way to virginity.

But more, much more than that, ethical consumerism reinforces the status quo – it reinforces what all of us know to be false, that money is meaningful, and in reinforcing this, it reinforces and affirms our separation from ourselves, our community and Nature. This is not to say that buying your groceries from your local organic farmers market instead of the supermarket is not beneficial. Of course it is. Eating isn’t an act of consumerism, it is an act of living, and supporting those who grow food with respect for the health of the biosphere is crucially important right now. All I am saying is that such acts themselves will not bring about the level of change that we desperately need. Some forms of consumerism can obviously be more sustainable and less exploitative and polluting than others, but can never be in absolute terms. A rapist who cares to use a Fairtrade condom could be said to be marginally more ethical, but would anybody, regardless of their definition of ‘ethical’, this most vague of terms, dare to call it absolutely ethical?

Until we understand that our own health, our own lives, are dependent on the health of the whole, we will not adequately resist a culture that seems hell-bent on looting every fish, tree and mineral from the planet, polluting our air and rivers and streams along the way. Derrick Jensen, an American author and environmental activist, points out that “if your experience is that your food comes from the grocery store and your water comes from the tap, then you are going to defend to the death the system that brings those to you because your life depends on them. If your experience, however, is that your food comes from a landbase and that your water comes from a stream, well, then you will defend to the death that landbase and that stream.”(22) Nothing stops us understanding our interdependency with our landbases better than money.

Oneness, wildness, community, and self-hood – ideas floating free in the wonderfully languid land of philosophy. Who am I to say whether they are wrong or right – they are only a hunch, a strong hunch at that, because it all seems to fit, but it is just a hunch. So, what if I’m wrong? Is there anything we can point to that says, despite the philosophy, despite the mystical musings on the nature of self, is there anything concrete, anything ‘real’, which suggests that the use of money is inherently harmful?

Plenty. Enough to fill three of these books. But I only have one, and only a small chapter at that. So I’ll pick the best in the hope that some of it may be useful to you as you help us all create the stories of the future, stories that will make sense for our Age.