When I was a student, I could fit everything I owned into a rucksack, two holdalls and a couple of plastic bags. I’d do it regularly: I moved house at least once a year from the ages of 17 to 23. There was a point in my life when it seemed reasonable to think,
“God, the flat’s getting really untidy. Let’s find a new one!”
Those days are, of course, gone. The last time I flitted, as my dad still endearingly calls it, it took the services of a medium-sized pantechnicon, two superhuman removal men and the best part of a day to shift everything I own. Yet the big things, the things that are either truly important or sufficiently expensive to worry about, are few. There’s my beloved laptop, the telly, stereo and associated unidentifiable man-purchased accessories, a variety of consoles (not actually mine), my keyboard, books, clothes and crockery. Not, actually, all that different from my student possessions, although the individual components are less likely to be either a) on their last legs or b) gained through a free offer at Spar.
The difference is the amount of stuff I’ve got now. Not proper possessions, which I could itemise in an inventory and claim on the insurance. Just – things. Hairbands. Cosmetics. Tins of food. Picture frames that I bought and never used. Catalogues from companies I don’t want to deal with offering me more stuff I don’t need. Free perfume samples from magazines. Cushions that aren’t quite knackered enough to throw out.
The amount of stuff I – in fact we, because yes, this is the point where I pan out from my life to establish a panoramic shot, so I can embark on some sweeping generalisations about Life, Society and Government – possess is truly frightening. Overwhelming, in fact. And what’s even more scary is that I”m constantly adding to it, in stupid, inefficient ways.
I’m most conscious of it when I’m in the supermarket. Every few weeks I buy another bottle of shampoo, a tube of toothpaste, a can of deodorant. All packaged in indestructible plastic or metal. All destined for a few weeks of use before being discarded. All likely to live on as rubbish for centuries after I die.
Now I’m not particularly green. I like to think I am, but frankly I’m sitting in a centrally heated house, not the slightest bit chilly despite it being November, with two different lights on and a power-hogging computer on my lap, and just yesterday I drove to a destination less than a mile away. But even I can see that the amount we consume is unsustainable.
Why can’t I go to the supermarket and buy an industrial-sized pack of toothpaste? Why can’t I dispense shampoo from the shop shelf into my own container? Why don’t deodorants come in hairspray-sized cans?
I’m pretty sure I know why. It’s because then they wouldn’t be branded. My shelves would be full of anonymous tupperware, rather than packaging that brays out my corporate allegiances. We’re suffocating the planet so that we can continue to identify ourselves not by what we do or who we are, but what we buy.
I’m going to spend the next week or so finding out what I can do locally, here in the southside of Glasgow, to reduce the sheer amount of stuff I constantly have to acquire. I’ll report back soon. Because you just never know when I might once again need to pack up my life into that skanky old rucksack, and move on.