Not until I landed in the US (that was close to two decades back) did I truly realize the magnitude of that country’s obsession with consumption and use-and-throw items. With hardly any domestic help unlike India, everything was designed around decreasing manual work. Consequently, the amount of trash we threw everyday (we learned to pack them in disposable polythene bags with a drawstring and carefully dropped them through a long, whistling chute from the eleven floor of our staid brown apartment) was mind-boggling.
Pizza, along with all its toppings, came frozen, neatly wrapped in a transparent sheet and packed in a cardboard box. Pineapple (which I agree is notoriously difficult to skin even for an extremely patient peeler like me) came pre-sliced in a metal can, floating in a preservative juice. Often chicken came pre-cooked, already marinated and sprinkled with spices, in large plastic packets. Carrots came in zip-lock bags, surgically peeled, each piece measuring the same as the others. Salad was shrink-wrapped in plastic trays. As for juice, there were bucket-sized plastic bottles (which we finished overnight to ensure that we did not lose our fair share). More bottles for water and soft drinks. Packets for peas. Foam tray and shrink wrap for ‘fresh’ chicken and the list goes on. And if we spilled anything in the kitchen, there were reams and reams of kitchen towel, and not a washable, reusable wipe. Who has time to clean? Who has the time to cook?
Imagine a country feeding itself from packets, wraps, boxes, cans and bottles! Imagine the waste it must generate everyday. But that’s probably the curse of a developed nation. When you make more economic activity, you become richer. And what economic activity? You consume, consume and consume some more. Recently on a trip to Thailand, I went to a certain chain of grocery stores and was appalled to see that the cosmetics and food items looked deceptively similar. Both were packed in colourful packets, with good-looking logos and shiny stuff inside.
I consider myself lucky that in this country, I can still buy something fresh that has never been put inside a packet.
My grandfather always said something about consumption. I didn’t understand then, but now I do. He said when you go to the market and want to buy something, postpone that desire for a day. Come home and ask yourself if you couldn’t really do without. Buy only if you still think you need it. A slightly more popular man called Warren Buffet said something similar – If you buy things you don’t need, soon you will have to sell what you need.
But today when I see full page Amazon and Flipkart ads, that idea seems so dated. A Myntra says you need to ‘refresh’ your wardrobe, and basically urges you to throw away all your clothes even if they are perfectly usable. Because you deserve more. The more dissatisfied you are with what you have, the better it is for the companies. So today, a hospital, where people went only as the last resort, goes all out to tell you that your acidity might just be a heart attack!
Anyway, back to consumption. In those days, though organizations till fought to expand their reach, they made things that last. I distinctly remember the radios of those days, though they predate my birth by several years. Murphy’s, Sanyo, National (a much respected Japanese brand back then) or even a Philips. They were called transistors and took thick Eveready batteries to play an MW or SW after being turned around a couple of times for a clearer reception. A Binaca or a Cibaca. Or a Ceylon. And every decent household had someone (in our case, our father) who could fix it without taking it to a repair shop. Not many things went wrong anyway. Either the tuning wire snapped or the battery compartment came loose. Or the body broke on a fall. Armed with a soldering iron, a spare wire and Quick Fix, my father spilled the innards of our Philips a hundred times, with us huddling around like nurses at an operating table, and ensured that its useful life crossed the collective innocence of our childhood.
But today, a damn phone can’t even be opened to change battery. An Apple deliberately slows its older iPads through updates so that you are forced to upgrade to the latest (and you naively thought updates were supposed to make your device better, hah!). For example, I have tried everything with mine, including removing every single app, but it still doesn’t run one-fourth as fast as when I bought it.
I feel terrible that all around us, everyone wants us to keep buying and upgrading. The environment being created is such that you start to get defined by what you have recently upgraded to. A more luxurious car that will make you own or dominate the road (why own the road, what arrogance that is?). A slimmer, smarter, denser TV. A phone with more spare RAM than a weatherman’s computer for doing nothing more constructive than Whatsapp. But you must get the next thing, because, hey, ‘you deserve better’. You fall into their trap and almost immediately feel inadequate when another shiny launch makes your acquisition look dated. There is no end to the cycle!
But simultaneously, and ironically, it has also been fashionable to talk about environment, ‘sustainable development’, green technologies, alternative energy and other such ‘responsible-sounding’ things.
I am no economist, but I have blown air into a lot of birthday balloons. There is no sustainable way to keep blowing them!