In my mother’s attic there’s a little black notebook in which my grandfather detailed the expenditures of his early married life. Year one there is a new winter coat for my grandmother, a dining room table with two chairs, three shirts and a pair of shoes. That’s it. The dining room set becomes complete three years later when the last two chairs of six are added. In the in between years my grandmother has had two dresses, some underwear, one pair of shoes and my grandfather has splurged on new pants and a pair of slippers. (BTW, when my grandmother died, that dining room set still held pride of place in her home, 55 years on)
This is less than a hundred years ago. Today the idea of buying two new dresses in three years is totally ludicrous, right? (And dresses; please! It’s shirts, and jeans, and skirts, and dresses, and tights, and …) Ah, yes; I hear you telling me the quality is not the same, and fashion changes at a much faster pace, and … But hey; at least we’re buying all this stuff in organic cotton, right? (Umm…) It’s not only clothes. It’s furniture and textiles, it’s food (we throw away tons of food in the western world. Tons!) it’s stuff we’ve gotten bored with, it’s electronic equipment, not because it doesn’t work but because we need a newer, better model.
Maybe we should stop. Take a step back and regard all the stuff we have. Do we really need all this? A good friend of mine once said that there comes a point in life when ownership shifts. It’s no longer you owning your belongings but your belongings owning you… (Kind of deep, but reflect on it) Also, there is the far more important aspect of resources. Earth does not contain an infinite quantity of raw materials, of lush woods and clean water. Is it a correct prioritization to expend these increasingly scarce resources on filling wardrobes that already bulge, on stacking yet another set of plates and glasses into cupboards that groan with the weight?
A couple of years ago I was having tea with a Chinese colleague. We were talking about the fundamental differences in our take on life in her society and mine. At one point she served me some more tea and sat back.
“The main difference is one of perspective,” she said. “A Chinese person will gladly do something today that will benefit his great-grandchild rather than him.”
Well people, that’s a beautiful thought, isn’t it, that we allow consideration for the future, unknown generations to colour the decisions we take today. But can we rouse ourselves from the very short term lives we’re leading where immediate gratification is king to do so? I sure hope so. We will never know them, our great-grandchildren and their children. But they still deserve a world where there is water to drink and clean air to breathe. Don’t you agree?