A very happy New Year to you all.
Well, it seems the world is still here: Europe hasn’t imploded (yet), America is not yet (completely) certain of getting another four years of Obama; North Korea hasn’t deployed nuclear missiles (or Alec Baldwin), and Global Warming, following the coldest start to summer Sydney has seen in 50 years, is feeling decidedly chilly.
I’m still on the mend, and I will be getting back to usual LibertyGibbert business shortly. But I thought I’d start off 2012 by relating a small personal tale. My family spent the festive season up in Sydney, with Mrs Oz’s parents. And while Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere is inevitably different to the sort of celebrations you’re used to in Europe and America (with barbecues, beaches and cricket matches replacing snowflakes, sleds and mulled wine) there really is something universal and magical about Christmas morning, particularly when children and grandparents are involved. Oz Jr, who’s now five, was jumping right out of his skin with excitement, while Ozgirl, at eighteen months, didn’t quite grasp exactly what was going on, but was more than happy to join in all the fun. Later that day, we had all the extended family along to a traditional Aussie Christmas barbie, followed by ritual bombings in the local swimming pool. All good clean fun.
Anyway, the local council area had scheduled its annual clean-up day for December 30. Basically, residents could leave any large items they didn’t want out by the kerbside, where trucks would stop by on the appointed day and remove them. Now, my in-laws live in a reasonably well-off area. Not exessively so; I’d say the estate in which they live is populated mainly by professionals: bankers, doctors, senior management—you get the idea. The houses are large, lawns and gardens impeccably maintained, the cars parked in the driveways are all new and largely European marques, and many have snazzy boats in trailers as well. A pretty healthy Christmas light competition is fostered, so evening walks around the estate with Oz Jr were a spectacular and much-anticipated daily event.
On Boxing Day, after dinner, Mrs Oz asked me if I could accompany her on a walk around the area, to see if there was anything residents had left outside for the cleanup that we could usefully take with us back to Tasmania. Five minutes out, and I was shocked. Right there, within a two-hundred yard radius of my in-laws’ home, was being thrown out enough stuff to set up home for maybe a dozen families. Furniture, appliances, discarded toys, everything. And not just really old or broken items, either: new or near-new, big-brand-name stuff, some of it seriously expensive. We picked up a beautifully upholstered recliner armchair for my father-in-law, which I’d say you couldn’t buy in a major retailer for less than AU$800. I got a bottle drying rack for my home-brewing operation (clearly an unwanted Christmas present, as were, I’d say, much of what we saw). The kids had a Santa double-up with some really great toys.
We didn’t just pick up stuff for ourselves. My wife knows several young mothers down here, in a decidedly less well-off area, and for them we found a treasure trove of baby bottles and teats (all new and perfectly packed up), clothes, children’s furniture and toys. What we can’t give away ourselves we will donate to the local op shop. I was only able to bring back to Tasmania about half of what we picked up, due to space limitations; the rest will have to wait until my next trip to Sydney (probably in about a month).
Of course, we only got there just in time. Word had spread and, within a day or so, the narrow laneways of the estate were filled with the huge trucks of the professional scavengers. These people would blow through like locusts, pick through the piles of items with astonishing speed, then head off to auction their booty on E-bay.
The whole thing made me wonder: how wasteful are we in our own lives? The idea that we can throw out perfectly good and functional possessions, as soon as we acquire new ones, just seems a little unsettling. Is our society really that opulent? Or that we don’t have a reliable mechanism to send our cast-offs to those who need but cannot afford them, and simply toss the old stuff out our front doors instead? I remember watching a news story on TV to the effect that, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the forclosure of thousands of mortgages, the Salvation Army in the United States would not accept any more flat-screen TV sets—they already had more than they could store or possibly give away in the forseeable future! It would appear that, if you are going to set up home, and you don’t particularly care that everything is straight-out-of-the-box, brand-spanking new, then you really don’t have to spend very much money at all.
And how much food do we throw out? I’ve seen reports to the effect that the average family throws out 20-30% of all the food it buys over the course of a year. With no chickens to feed scraps to (and convert them into brand new eggs), and no garden to compost them in, the typical family simply tips their food waste into the garbage.
Let’s not even talk about clothing. I see the most stupendous waste occurring in the rag trade, in which fashions tend to change almost weekly, and wearing anything much older than a few months is frowned upon. I guess it depends on who and where you are, but as a mere male with a sadly truncated fashion sense, I tend to wear clothes and shoes until they wear out.
You all know my bottom line on this. As a Libertarian, I believe people must be free to make whatever transactions they wish, with whomever they wish, on mutually agreeable terms. If one feels they are so overwhelmingly wealthy that they must throw out any possessions that are not new, and as long as in doing so they are hurting no-one else, well I guess that is their business. I’ve certainly benefited personally as a result in the last week or so.
But I can question the wisdom of such a mindset. It seems to imply that the good times are here to stay; that the Jeremiahs predicting an economic Armegeddon are simply fantasists; and that there will always be more money to burn, just around the corner. I wonder how such people will cope when the music does stop (as it surely will).
Maybe it’s that there is virtually no-one left alive who was an adult during the Great Depression. Or maybe, in such a rapidly changing world, in which a computer or mobile phone more than a year old is obsolete, newness is no longer seen as a luxury, but a neccessity. When compiling a list of desirable characteristics of a well-formed personality, thrift used to be right up there. What’s happened to thrift? Has it, too, become an anachronism? To describe someone as thrifty these days, seems almost to carry with it a faint ring of derision.
I wonder. During the Great Depression, unemployment is said to have hit 33%. I’d say most households could easily save that much on food, clothing, and rarer purchases like furniture and appliances. And park those savings somewhere useful and productive. A thrifty society, by my calculation, could easily laugh off another Great Depression!
It’s hardened my resolve to devote some significant time and space on LibertyGibbert to the whole area of self-sufficiency. Thrift is inevitably going to be a big part of that. The day is coming, and it may not be far off, when our society is going perforce to re-discover thrift in a big way.
Do you have similar stories of waste you see occurring around you? How do you see the situation could be improved? And am I completely out of court on this? Does our modern, wealthy economy actually depend on chronic waste and obsolescence for its survival? I look forward to your views.