aging, consuming and caring

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Until not long ago I drove a car with which I had a love hate relationship. Despite being made in 2001, it drove better than any new car I’ve driven recently. For the first five years I owned it, it never missed a beat. Then things started to happen that cost me money. But I was determined to keep it running well, so every year or so I’d grudgingly fork out the dough. Until late last year, when I just couldn’t justify the mechanic’s bill I knew would follow a trip to the service department. So I got rid of it and now have a shiny replacement.

We rarely question this process. We buy stuff, and then buy replacement stuff, typically a notch better than the stuff we had before. We wear things out, and sometimes when we are careless, we break things. But no drama, we just go and get another one.

Yesterday I visited my father-in-law in hospital. When I spoke with my own dad last night, he explained how my uncle is now in palliative care. My mum lives at a place that offers her fulltime care. And I am acutely aware of how my own body is wearing out. It comes as a bit of a slow leaking shock; the dawning realisation that unlike pretty much everything else in life, you can’t upgrade or replace. When this one is done; finito, owarimasu, the end.

Consumerism is ingrained in our psyches. It governs the way we understand how the world works. Our economy is built on the premise that we need to replace stuff with similar stuff. I wonder if this is one of the reasons we live in denial of our inevitable ill health and death, and why the so-called cult of youth is ubiquitous. Despite everything we know about diet, exercise and health, the link between cause and effect is separate in time and space, so we carry on as normal. We look away and cross our fingers.

The incremental damage we do to ourselves through excess sun, salt, sugar, and office hours can be buffed up with some ‘elbow grease and some cut and polish’, but transplants aside, we can’t replace the engine or the motherboard. And when we bang ourselves up badly, no insurance company will write us off and fund a shiny new set of organs.

I also have a hunch that our collective and individual attitude to environmental care and climate change is similar. We simply can’t reconcile the trajectory of environment damage at our collective hands with the fact that we only have one planet. We cling to this ‘consumerist driven’ idea that we’ll be able to spend or invent our way to a new beginning. We cling to a belief that we can keep extracting stuff that can’t be replenished and storing toxic stuff out of sight and that somehow we’ll be immune to the consequences. Good luck with that.

In my blog last week I wrote about essentialism. To link these ideas, I wonder what it would look like if we drew a line in the sand and committed to keeping the stuff we have now for the rest of our lives, without replacing anything. Would it affect our purchasing decisions if for the next set of stuff we bought, we outlaid for items that would go the distance? Would it influence how we cared for the stuff we own now, if we determined not to replace any of it?

Of course our economy would take a beating. Maria and I were browsing a Le Creuset retail store recently and got talking with the sales agent. He said, “We have a significant problem to overcome with our customers. Once you buy a pot, you never, ever have to buy another one. The one I’ve got has been in our family for three generations.” Of course they try to sell us other kitchen products, even though, like him, we’ll never need to buy another pot like the one we bought years ago.

This is not simply an argument of quality (and expense) over affordability. I am wondering about a change of mentality that refuses to accept the inevitable replace-ability of the things with which we surround ourselves. I reckon it will influence what we buy and how we care for the things we have. But I also suspect the same mentality, when applied to our health and care of our bodies, and the health of the natural environment and our care for it, will change so much of what we do now. Perhaps we will not bend the knee as easily to the throne of consumerism and think more about what it looks like to care for stuff for the long haul.

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  1. Pingback: trying to stay hopeful | Col Duthie

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