(Lindsay, N. 1918. The Magic Pudding)

Consumption Fever

Section
2. Reduce Consumption
Page
2.2

This is Albert, the Magic Pudding, ‘magic’ because: “A peculiar thing about the Puddin’ was that, though they had all had a great many slices off him, there was no sign of the place whence the slices had been cut. ‘That’s where the Magic comes in,’ explained Bill. ‘The more you eats the more you gets. Cut-an’-come-again is his name, an’ cut, an’ come again, is his Nature. Me an’ Sam has been eatin’ away at this Puddin’ for years, and there’s not a mark on him.”

Norman Lindsay, a cheeky, bohemian, Australian writer and artist of the early 20th century, wrote and illustrated ‘The Magic Pudding’1 primarily for children, but it provides a prescient metaphor for modern society, whether he intended it or not. Despite the seemingly wonderful gift of endless, unfettered consumption, of “cut-an’-come again”, the tale is a far from happy one, with jealousy, argument, greed and theft the dominant behaviours, and Albert himself, perhaps in anticipation of the state and temper of a much-abused world to come, is a cantankerous and unstable provider. I doubt readers outside Australia have heard of Albert, or that modern-day publishers would even think of publishing such a book for children, but the message of greed, false happiness and magic – “the more you eats the more you gets” – and the logical corollary – unhappiness, division and dissent – is as sharp as it is true, no matter how much we seem to want to remain children and ignore its reality.

To bring us up-to-date with the modern day, writer and researcher Kerryn Higgs (see 1.3.4, ‘Books’) is in no doubt as to the dominant paradigm of modernity: “In the second decade of the 21st century, economic growth remains the guiding principle for human endeavour”2, and of course, consumption is a key component of this. Similarly, the scientists of the paper ‘Understanding the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future’3 (see 1.1.7, ‘Articles’) pull no punches with: “Humanity is running an ecological Ponzi scheme in which society robs Nature and future generations to pay for boosting incomes (and – MF note – consumption) in the short-term.”

Australian academic and author, Clive Hamilton, brings this fixation down to the domestic sphere in two excellent, companion Discussion Papers (#49) for the Australia Institute – ‘Overconsumption in Australia’ and ‘Overconsumption in Britain’4https://australiainstitute.org.au/report/overconsumption-in-britain-a-culture-of-middle-class-complaint/ . (At the time of writing I have a hard copy of the first paper, but cannot locate it on the AI website or elsewhere).

Clive Hamilton points out, that, in 2003:

  • “The average size of British households has fallen from 2.91 persons in 1971 to 2.33 in 2001, a decline of 20 percent, yet the sizes of houses and flats have been steadily increasing. The proportion of new private houses with four or more bedrooms rose from 24 per cent of the total in 1991 to 36 percent in 2001.

“The number of households that can boast two or more rooms per occupant has risen from 37 per cent in 1971 to 57 per cent in 2001, and rooms themselves are bigger.

  • Bathrooms are no longer seen as functional places but new spaces for displays of excess, with computer-assisted design tools now used to design taps, baths, showers and lighting. Having two basins in a bathroom is increasingly popular and the fittings may be gold-plated. While the cost of an average bath is around £300, the Angel Free Standing shower bath has a recommended retail price of £7,999.99. “As if to affirm the frequently observed psychological association between excrement and money, Whirlpool offers a gold-plated designer toilet seat for £276.13 (‘A stunning addition to any bathroom, this ABS toilet seat has been completely plated in a luxurious shade of gold to bring a touch of sparkle and splendour to your cloakroom or bathroom.’).
  • “It’s not so much the almost universal penetration of consumer durables but the ever-rising quality, complexity and cost of them that suggest overconsumption. Increasingly, householders are not satisfied with standard appliances but demand high-quality professional ones, and sales of luxury furnishings and appliances have expanded accordingly. Instead of a standard gas or electric stove, kitchens are adorned with ovens with six cooking functions, turbo grills, touch controls, triple-glazed doors and the ability to defrost food before cooking it. “In recent years, sales of expensive kitchen appliances have been booming. A Dualit DBJL juicer (“Super Stylish and Exclusive. Made from Stainless Steel and Die-Cast Aluminium. Wide Base and Non-Slip Feet.”) sells for £419.99, while the Siemens TC55002 coffee maker (‘An automatic coffee centre for Espresso, Cappuccino and filter coffee. Frothing nozzle for milky drinks and hot water. Coffee bean grinder with container and broad selection of grinding grades.’) sells for £599.99. The Miele coffee machine includes a free coffee starter kit and retails for £899.
  • Garages and lock-ups are often used to store surplus goods that cannot be accommodated in houses, even though those houses are increasing in size. In addition, the acquisition of more and more household goods has given rise to a booming self-storage industry driven by firms such as Storage World, Access Storage, Lok’nStore and Sentinel. The self-storage industry in the United Kingdom is still in its early phases of development compared to the mature stage of the industry in the USA, but it has been growing at a phenomenal 35 per cent per annum.
(Tradston Corp. 2010. Iron Built Buildings. The storage-shed industry has boomed, accommodating the overflow of consumer goods beyond the home)

 

  • Cosmetic surgery is another form of luxury consumption that is currently booming. According to a leading cosmetic surgeon, around 2.5 million procedures were carried out in the United Kingdom last year (counting everything from removal of benign moles to full face lifts). Another says that demand for cosmetic surgery at his clinic in Yorkshire has been growing at 10 per cent a year for a decade. The majority of customers are ordinary people; more and more young people are seeking to ‘normalise’ themselves by having ‘defects’ surgically eliminated. The cost of a breast enlargement (one of the most common procedures) is £3,400 to £4,700, and the clients are getting younger and younger, with women in their twenties increasingly turning to surgical intervention. “Writing in The Observer, Maureen Rice has noted: ‘Cosmetic surgery is a logical extension of the developed world’s consumer culture: growing affluence, the economic independence of women and the ever-increasing focus on the individual and on self-determination and expression mean we find it acceptable, even admirable, to spend this much time, money and attention on our appearance. “Using classic techniques of hard sell, cosmetic surgery companies have set out to cultivate long-term client bases, with people returning time and again for operations. Some now offer loyalty cards as a reward for returning. The Harley Medical Group offers gift vouchers for cosmetic surgery believing they provide the ideal Christmas present for friends and family members known to be unhappy with their bodies. Vouchers for nose jobs, breast reductions or tummy tucks ‘make ideal presents for both men and women’.”

Hamilton goes on to discuss the costs of overconsumption, including to the environment:

  • “The volume of waste associated with bigger houses is naturally greater than that of smaller houses, including the wastes generated in construction, use and disposal of building materials. The outbreak of luxury fever has seen many consumer items scaled up in size and complexity. A home theatre requires many more resources to manufacture than a standard television set, and a professional stove is usually bigger than a standard model. “The compulsion to consume excessively means that consumers become dissatisfied with their possessions more quickly so that many consumer items, and houses themselves, are scrapped and replaced earlier than they would otherwise be.”
  • The result of this is: “Each person in England and Wales throws away the equivalent of 560 kilograms of waste each year (22 per cent more than the OECD average) resulting in a mountain of 470 million tonnes of waste each year. The volume of municipal waste has been growing at 3.4 per cent per annum since 1996”; and “Growing consumer demands lead to ever-increasing pressure on natural resources both as sources of materials and as ‘sinks’ for the dumping of wastes. The erosion of the natural environment diminishes the quality of life for all. This trend is particularly apparent in the creeping encroachment of towns and roadways into the last remaining open areas.”

  • Hamilton and Australian author and economist Richard Denniss have written a most illuminating book – ‘Affluenza’5 – which elaborates on the malaise identified in Hamilton’s paper and gives useful insights into how it has arisen, its psychological entry points and resilience, and its economic ‘pushers’. Well worth reading if you can get a copy.

 

1 Lindsay, N. 1918. The Magic Pudding. Angus and Robertson, Sydney, Australia.

2 Higgs, K. 2014. Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. The MIT Press, Cambridge, U.S.

3 Bradshaw, C., et. al. (17 authors). 2021. Understanding the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future. Frontiers in Conservation Science. January 13th.

4 Hamilton, C. 2003. Overconsumption in Britain. Companion Study to Discussion Paper 49, Australia Institute, ACT, Australia.

5 Hamilton, C. and Denniss, R. 2005. Affluenza. Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, Australia.

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2.2 Consumption Fever

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1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
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