week 21

“The reason that the rich were so rich…was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots,…cost about ten dollars. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”

-Terry Practchett, ‘Men at Arms’

After my ebay spree, I’ve been thinking a lot about my need for a checklist when I’m acquiring. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

>When choosing , be really clear and honest with yourself why you want it, and what you want it for. If you don’t have a good reason, don’t get it. If you do have a good reason, make sure the thing you choose suits the task you have in mind. Be patient; if you can’t find the right thing straight away, don’t get something that will do in the meantime,

> Understand how it works, how it’s made and how to care for it. Find out what constitutes quality in that class of thing, and what’s best going to meet your needs.

>Get the highest quality reasonable. By “highest quality” I mean staying power. You’ll replace it less often, which will save resources. I would add to Sam Vimes’ boot theory, above, that the ten-dollar boots use the same amount of raw materials as the fifty-dollar pair.

>Give preference to self-serviceable, rechargeable, and mechanical (as opposed to electronic) items. Look for technology appropriate to you.

Well, it’s a start.

In other news, some friends came over and built me an amazing composting toilet, which will be filled with poo to eventually go on the fruit trees at home. It’s nice to be leaving something behind I probably won’t benefit from directly, and I’m also aware of the huge amount of water used with every flush. Filling a cistern with buckets really brings it home.

First month.

So, as far as I can remember I haven’t bought anything new except consumables (food, drink, toiletries) but I haven’t really succeeded in cutting down unnecessary consumption either.

Yesterday I bought a dress, even though I have more dresses than I have friends, just because, well, I don’t have a vintage safari dress and it was $5. And I would probably have got more if they’d fit me (heads up, if you’re size 8-10, there’s two fabulous ball gowns at Lost & Found Market on Smith Street, for $10 each — one is strapless with a black velvet bodice and magenta taffeta trim and skirt, the other is long-sleeved, off-the-shoulder black velvet). My darling friend also bought me the killerest shoes when on holiday, which are no less an extravagance for being second-hand.

I agree with what Felix said about op shops operating as a pressure valve for any guilt we feel about new purchases. Op shops don’t represent, and have never represented, a closed cycle — the majority of goods sold are second-hand only, donated by their first owner, and in terms of clothing, usually only a few years old. Even if I never buy anything new, I usually only buy things that are effectively new — no holes or stains, not too faded or worn. (A princess aesthetic is less suited to this project than a punk’s, I think.) And though I take pretty good care of my things (I am still wearing a dress I had my Confirmation in, twelve years and many ideologies ago), I have to acknowledge that the things I donate to op shops tend to be in poorer condition than the things I purchase from them, if only slightly.

Op shops actually justify fast fashion, in many ways — though op shops have much more trouble selling last season’s chain-store threads compared to anything that can be classed “vintage” — because just the motion of tossing something that’s nearly new into the garbage might be enough to make us think more about our consumption. Putting your unwanted things into a donation bag instead of the bin gives away the responsibility for waste — in many cases, simply to the op shop staff, who throw out unmarketable items. Like any recycling system, op shops depend on the uptake of post-consumer waste, but (like most recycling systems), far more people contribute to the input than purchase the outputs.

My and Felix’s relationships to clothes make for an interesting comparison. I probably have ten times more clothes than ey does. The average length of time we’ve had each item is probably similar — I acquire new things all the time, but Felix doesn’t have anything old. I can’t remember the last time I wore through something, though Felix’s clothes are always falling to pieces. This is mostly because any one piece in my wardrobe is on such low rotation, but I think I do take better care of my things too. I polish my shoes, hem my trousers, replace buttons, and have shoes resoled (only in China though because here it costs more than my shoes ever do). But once things start to look ratty, I don’t wear them so much – I am aware that my style is less suited to environmental consciousness than others. And I don’t accept that it’s simply a style, a preference; I don’t accept depoliticising aesthetics in that way. I prefer to present myself in a way that is associated with higher class, greater wealth, and which requires more resources — regardless of the direct financial cost, I like to look expensive. I think that’s a problem.

The concept of style is clumsy when applied to what one wears: Arguably, designers have style, but a consumer’s aesthetics are more appropriately called taste. And taste is never quite individual. This is especially apparent when talking about taste in people, particularly lovers — I think everyone could quite easily critique what they find sexy, for example, by reference to popular constructions of sexiness. And it’s probably quite obvious that a taste for, say, the classic quilted Chanel handbag with the chain shoulder strap is not purely aesthetic (especially this season). But alternative tastes are equally situated within an aesthetic culture. This isn’t to say that your tastes aren’t genuine. I have never believed that knowing why you love what you love diminishes it. But I don’t think it’s possible to draw a line between one’s aesthetics and the status we try to achieve through our consumer identities. Less I shop therefore I am than you are what you buy. And I think this still goes for things you don’t pay for.

I really want this project to be something other than the ultimate in rebellious consumption for counter-cultural status, but I don’t have high hopes. I think there are still some choices that aren’t consumer choices, but late capitalism is constantly compressing that space.

x Gauche

P.S. If you click on one link in this entry, that last one is the best. Or for some light entertainment, watch Katy Perry versus Karl Marx.

No New Year: No Solution

As you will probably notice over the next twelve months, a lot of my workarounds when I can’t buy something I need* are based on reclaiming waste. I have no problem with this, and I think we (I mean Melbourneist@s) would be well-advised to rediscover frugality, a conscious sense of thrift. But reclaiming waste is, taken in isolation, no solution to the problems of high-turnover consumption and capitalism. Consider op-shop economics.

Opshops serve many functions, one of which is a pressure valve for the consumption patterns fashion: consumers can conveniently dispose of surplus clothing by giving it to the local opshop. When I buy from opshops I’m not thinking of this, obviously; I see them as a hub for the second-pass economy. But by normalising giving away old products (rather than making them new, a la the uniform project), we also normalise the pressure from the supply side of the equation. This is the same psychology as the dumpster-diving crew calling full dumpsters ‘good’. They’re not good – they’re the most wasteful. We (the detritivores) might benefit from this in the short term, but in the not-too-distant future this kind of normalised surplus production is going to harm us all (is harming us already, even if we can’t see it yet). See Gauche below on squatting for more on this theme.

NNY is (for me) about experimenting in new ways of consuming, about leading by example, there’s much more value in frugality and responsibility than in creaming the fat from a wasteful city. I’d rather brew my own booze (more on this later!) than not drink at all, rather grow my own tobacco than not smoke. With this in mind I’ve joined the sharehood, a particularly awesome example of what I consider a real solution. Creating networks of shareable goods and services within a small geographic area (a, you guessed it, sharehood), the sharehood project works against social fragmentation and unnecessary duplication of goods (maybe one lawnmower is needed on a residential block, not in every house). I’m having a little trouble with the site, but I’ve used it it in my last house and it worked well there.

In other news, I made detergent (the dishes had been mounting up since we ran out)! I used this recipe. You really need to use more water than’s in the recipe. I added an extra litre, and still ended up with a jelly-like sudless goop, but it does the job and I’m pretty sure it’s greywater friendly.

Gauche pointed out to me the other day that one of my biggest problems by way of frugality is that I break things. Often. Electronic gear, my clothes, glasses, my body…I break things. Mostly that’s just a product of the (playful? boisterous?)way I live, which I don’t heaps want to change. And mostly the things I break aren’t so hard to fix. But it is an issue, and caution, some kind of slowness, is a virtue not to be underestimated. An ongoing aim for me.

*The way need is constructed is driven by what you’re used to. Most needs are simply requirements for maintaining one’s style, not life and limb. NNY is about choosing a new lifestyle and thereby redifining need.

Before shot.

I’m coming at this pretty differently to Felix.

Last year I started my first ever full-time job, and though the pay is pretty low and I’m working part-time now, I still have more money than I’ve ever had before. Having a dollar value for each hour of my labour means I know when it’s cheaper to buy something than acquire it another way, if I don’t take the environmental impact into consideration. I’ll confess that generally this influences my consumer choices less than the personal cost of alienating my labour — I’m not sure what rate of pay it would take for me to want to work five days a week, but I’ve never been paid enough for that to be worthwhile.

I also moved out of eco/anarcho world to a flat in the most bourgeois suburb, with a fabulous housemate and a very different lifestyle. We’re still relatively poor so it’s not that often we buy new things for the house, but mostly the motivation has been economic. In the lounge room I’m sitting in, all the furniture is from hard rubbish: two sofas, two coffee tables, a lamp, a cabinet, a bookshelf and a writing desk. But while most of our glasses on the liquor shelf are from op shops or garage sales, we do replenish our supply of martini glasses regularly with new ones. I haven’t gone dumpstering since I moved here, and after rent and bills, I probably spend most of my money on food — roughly a third on groceries and two-thirds on eating out.

I’ve also re-evaluated myself, and my relationship to politics-as-personal. At one point I felt really burnt out, resentful and suppressed — I felt like my life wasn’t mine, like I’d been submerged into this activist culture that didn’t really speak to me (though the initial immersion was intoxicating) and consisted more of rules than possibilities. What to eat, who to fuck, how to get there, when to talk. I felt like dreaming of utopian futures required living in a way that honoured pleasure as well as responsibility. I needed to resist discipline that wasn’t deliberate and wasn’t mine. I desperately, desperately needed not to be pure. To sluice the guilt off my body and feel the pulse of my own desires. And then, to decide.

But without making everything either ethical or unethical, subversive or problematic — I do want to think about how I live and its material impact. I want to be politically astute, if sometimes bad. As articulated in the first link to my own blog, I don’t believe every little thing matters, so my updates will be less a record of every purchase than general thoughts on living in consumer capitalism. I’m undertaking this project less as a promise to acquire nothing new for a year, than to commit to thinking more about production, consumption, waste, labour and capitalism. I’ve concentrated on politics of oppression for so long, I really need something that forces me to be more aware of economics and environment. I can’t justify these things being peripheral to my ideology any more — I couldn’t ever — and I’m excited about incorporating them into the core of my concept of justice.

So the before shot:

Practically, I’m well positioned for this project. I have a lot of privileges that enable me to undertake something like this, such as stable accommodation, a reliable income, a strong and extensive support network, no dependants, few commitments, high mobility and minimal special needs. If I had children, if I were squatting and didn’t have anywhere secure to store my things, if I didn’t have friends and family in Melbourne I could borrow things from, if I couldn’t easily spend a day scouring hard rubbish and op shops and wherever else, if I were living more hand-to-mouth and couldn’t plan ahead — any of these factors would make me much more reluctant to participate in this project; I probably wouldn’t consider it at all. This is possible because I’m young, fit, rich and free.

I also already have most things I’m likely to need for the next twelve months: most essentially, bed, bicycle, computer, washing machine and fridge. All of these things came to me second-hand, but having had stable income/accommodation/support et cetera has meant that I’ve been able to accumulate these things over time, and hold onto them. I’ve had the good fortune to never experience those common situations in which people lose their shit, like being kicked out of home or nasty ex-lovers or others who walk off wid alla yr stuff. Anti-consumerism is often framed as having very few possessions, but for any anti-consumerist practice that’s based on environmental and economic motivations rather than spiritual purity, it’s actually much easier if you have a few things to begin with — having a decent tool box and sewing kit, for example, mean that you can fix and alter stuff instead of buying it new.

In any case, I have more than a few things. I have enough clothes for not only the next year, but any occasion I’m likely to encounter, from glitterpunk queer balls to job interviews. Should my computer or phone break (both fairly likely), I have access to public libraries and my workplace and university and friends’ and parents’ houses. More importantly, I have access to some genius friends, between whom can probably fix anything in the world (and who I totally trust to fix the world, at that). So this should be really easy, on a physical level — it’ll be much harder to break my intellectual and psychological dependence on the first-pass economy, on the expectation that if I need something, I can just pay for it. Commerce is king of all. That thinking is hard to change. But, as always, I’m up for it.

- Gauche

Referencing myself, Tiger Beatdown, Ntozake Shange, and bastardising Herodotus.

Interview: Gauche on freeganism

Adolfo interviewed me for an article about dumpster diving and freeganism back in 2009. Here are my responses in the raw:

1. Do you think there is anything ‘wrong’ with what you’re doing (legally, morally, culturally)?

I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with freeganism, and I think there’s plenty that’s good about it, though perhaps sometimes people are more righteous than they ought to be.

Legally there are some issues but I think they’re based in some very silly ideas about property. I can understand moral and legal concerns about going through someone’s trash if you’re opening their mail, but I think that’s a privacy concern, not a matter of theft which is what makes it legally problematic.

Culturally and aesthetically I find freeganism interesting — there’s a kind of grungy glamour around these practices, some of which I appreciate (there’s something beautiful and magical about reclaiming waste) and some of which I think is problematic as it somewhat romanticises poverty.

2. Why do you engage in freeganism? (Is it merely out of utility, a political statement, or a bit of both?)

A bit of both, for sure: I wouldn’t have had any furniture other than my bed in my first sharehouse if it weren’t for scrounging around hard rubbish. But sometimes it’s more work than it’s worth economically — for example organising a clothes swap party instead of buying some new things off the $5 table at Supre — and that’s when you’d need to have the political commitment to opt out of a cycle of needless consumerism.

3. Have you ever been given trouble by authorities/corporations because of your activities?

Not really — a couple of times I’ve been told off when dumpster-diving but you can just leave and go back later. Generally staff at supermarkets don’t care because they’re just working for a wage. If you explain what you’re doing, most people are more sympathetic to the idea of salvaging trash than protecting waste as property.

There’s a lot more chance of legal issues with squatting, because even though that’s reclaiming waste in a sense, people see real estate as being property you only give up through explicit legal means, not simple abandonment.

4. What got you started in freeganism/recycling/anti-consumerism?

I’ve always tried to re-use and recycle and increasingly since I was about 16 I’ve shopped vintage. But I’d say I started to think more about consumerism when I finished high school, moved out of home and became involved in the environment movement.

Coming both backwards from thinking about ethical production (eg fair trade, no sweat etc) and forwards from wanting a society where goods are produced on demand rather than the other way around is how I got to this position of feeling the most ethical consumerism is none.

5. Do you think you’ll keep doing it in the future?

Yep!

6. Any other thoughts?

Yeah, I want to add something about the politics of dumpster diving and squatting: I think minimising unnecessary production and consumption is a valuable political goal. But an equally important goal for me is for all people to have their needs met without duress. So while I think salvaging garbage can be an effective way to highlight the wastefulness of our society, I don’t want it to affect how we measure someone’s standard of living.

The dollar economy is incredibly dominant in our society, so in terms of governance I think we need to provide people with the means to acquire what they need through social services, or the money to purchase it through the market. The economy of salvage is unreliable, and more importantly it depends upon a cycle of waste I would rather see stopped at the point of production.

Beginning, again.

Welcome to the no new year project, a collaborative blog written by felix and gauche (possibly more contributors will jump on board later).

Over the next twelve months, we’re going to be documenting our attempts to ditch the first-pass economy. This is the second time we have tried this – the first ended in abject failure, and abandonment of the project. This year will be better, I’m sure of it! I’m going to try to post weekly (on Thursdays) with my shopping lists, projects, progress notes &c.

So, I’ll speak to you again on Thursday.

f.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.