London, 2015. On a warm summer evening in the shadow of The City a man approaches a food vendor in a neon-lit car park, hair slicked back like an ’80s Wall Street Trader.
“I’ll do the beef.”
“Please do it away from the stall. And take some napkins.”
The man eats his food fast, chews only as much as necessary and blindly throws the packaging into an overflowing bin. In this age of fashionable idiocy, consumerism is blossoming into something unprecedented. People are familiar with ideas of climate change, fresh water shortages and the abusive model of capitalism that rules the world but they’re also scared of missing out.
Feeding has moved from a necessity and valuable social activity to being mere entertainment. Consumerism and individualism have come together to give us a strange time of loneliness and of social competition, mimicking the business world. Documenting the things you do via social media is not a cultural celebration but a self-celebration, an attempt to elevate oneself above others. Food is one of the things filling the gap where happiness could be if our society was geared towards it. In a search for happiness – which the Internet tells us everyone is experiencing in their smiling “selfies” – people are coerced into competing over who’s having the best time.
The generation that grew up with the propaganda of capitalism, expressed in TV shows and movies from the US, has come of age, and now they want the things they were presented. It’s no coincidence the trending foods in the UK are the foods that the trend-drivers were taught to like as children – burgers, pizza, fried chicken. These foods are being rehashed over and over, adding to a sort of cultural stasis – the idea that it is better to reimagine than create something new. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis describes this as ‘static culture’ - “It’s almost like a terminus railway station in a city where all the trains just keep on arriving and nothing ever leaves.”
The sexing up of trash food and the lax attitude of the current generation has helped people forget (the thing humans do best) that we were taught important lessons when we were children – of nutrition and environmental crises. A culture of “doing for the sake of it”, of BuzzFeed “bucket lists”, of safety in numbers, is destructive, not only in a social and psychological sense but also literally. In a world of over 7 billion people, many of them starving due to climate change and the scars of continual Western Empire-building, it is not only vulgar that the West has such decadent habits but it might also be the biggest problem.
Take the mass consumption of meat for example. Environmentalist George Monbiot has been pushing the message that meat should be seen as special rather than the standard. In an article entitled “Fowl Deeds”, Monbiot looks at the multiple environmental crises caused by the incredible scale of chicken farming. With regard to humans he makes his point very succinctly. “I don’t mean to blame. Billions are spent, through advertising and marketing, to distract and mollify, to trivialise the weighty decisions we make, to ensure we don’t connect. Even as we search for meaning and purpose, we want to be told that our actions are inconsequential. We seek reassurance that we are significant, but that what we do is not.”
Monbiot points to the fact that it’s not really fair to criticise people flippantly, as they are under conditions that affect their behaviour – namely the non-stop propaganda of advertising. When the excessive consumption of meat is normalised and the products are made so undeniably delicious, it seems illogical to people to adjust their behaviour. Despite having access to all of the relevant information and fine work from environmental groups, the monsters of greed are winning and the consumer machine is pleased.
The facts are real and cannot be ignored. Friends of the Earth produced a report in 2008 looking at the impact of livestock on the environment. The research need not be interrogated closely to find simple, damning facts. For a start, livestock uses 70 per cent of all available agricultural land and 8 per cent of the global human water supply, which is simply illogical given all of the knock-on effects of meat production. It only takes a little imagination beyond hard facts to think of the various troubles. For example, if you cut down a tree you not only remove habitat and a source of oxygen production, but also contribute to soil erosion. Cattle farms are one of the main reasons we’re losing the Amazon forest so quickly, and once the trees are cleared the real trouble begins.
To fatten a cow, to grow the product, is a wildly inefficient business. Friends of the Earth tell us that 1 kg of intensively reared beef requires up to 10 kg of animal feed and 15,500 litres of water. In terms of methane production and the methods of producing the feed (often soy), 1kg of beef produces as much pollution as driving a car for three hours while leaving the lights on at home. Of course protein is an efficient way to feed humans but what we’re dealing with is a great mess, not just to feed humans but to satisfy their industrial strength greed and to make them feel a generic kind of happiness.
The masses searching for happiness in the emptiness of generic, arbitrary experiences is a force of destruction. If the first problem is that people are trying to find personal happiness whatever the cost, then the second is that they’re doing it all wrong. Individual pursuit of happiness can surely not be achieved if the individual rejects their individuality and does as they’re told. A ‘filthy’ burger will not make you happy, no matter how many likes you get on Instagram when you post a picture of an oozing patty that’s been bitten through. Happiness is not only complex and personal - it comes and goes but surely cannot be pursued like prey. It sneaks up on you, when you get time to breathe, when you’re not busy ticking boxes.
Many of the issues mentioned here are due to basic misunderstandings, incubated to further the agenda of those who profit from people’s unhappiness. People must come to understand that you don’t “do” culture, you create it or add to it, or experience it; whilst our food gets saltier, our culture gets blander. Simple truths are hidden and we’re left in a world of marauding idiots – people who look like they’ve been to fancy dress shops in their thickly applied make up and similar personality. We’re living in a world beyond satire, a Chris Morris fantasy come true. Human’s incredible capacity for selfishness and forgetfulness is being exploited and it won’t change because the top of the tree is inherently corrupt. Environmental destruction is good for the economy and that’s our government’s big focus. It’s not about happiness or having a progressive, inventive society but about a society that consumes and wastes and is left feeling emotionally empty and culturally static.
I imagine there are people out there who think that political corruption is still a conspiracy theory, ignoring the fact it has just been legitimised. Lobbying is corruption. Businesses using their cash and clout to change legislation in their own favour is the root of the problem. In a country where protest is so ignored that it’s becoming increasingly illegal, the government is going to listen to money over people. We’re living in a dystopic future, shinier and more comfortable than people ever imagined. Whilst we’re entertained by bread and circuses we won’t seek change, even though it would surely lead to a more organic form of happiness.
Like the Belgian King Leopold teaching the Congolese how to use rape and mutilation as a weapon of control, every terrible action has lasting consequences. If excess becomes the standard and decadence is available to all, this can only lead to a damaged future. We must all remember that every time something bad happens – individually or on a large scale – someone makes money and therefore the responsibility to change things lies with the individual. If more people take responsibility rather than focussing on collecting experiences to achieve a lifestyle, change can occur gradually. For now we live with the burden of wilful ignorance – the people who aim to condense their lives into a series of consumer choices - the dead weight the world cannot afford to carry.
A collection of Craig Ballinger's writings can be found on this blog.
Rob Pollard in NewStatesman (Feb 14, 2014): Adam Curtis: “We don’t read newspapers because the journalism is so boring”. www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/02/adam-curtis-interview
George Monbiot on Monbiot.com (May 19, 2015): Fowl Deeds. www.monbiot.com/2015/05/19/fowl-deeds
Friends of the Earth (Dec 2008): What’s feeding our food? The environmental and social impacts of the livestock sector. www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/livestock_impacts.pdf