The Story of Fluff

story of stuff Among greens and what passes for a left, Annie Leonard is much praised as a serious and liberating guide to the would-be politics of product use, i.e. our topic here at TCT. As has now been definitively proved by this interview with Transition Towns frontman Rob Hopkins, she is no such thing. Leonard blithely steps onto all three of the conceptual banana peels that have long stymied left/green progress in this crucial area:

    1) Perpetuation of the “consumer” vocabulary

“Consumer” is a rank capitalist bias, logically akin to the word “nigger” amongst American slave-owners. The neutral, appropriate-to-democracy term is “product-user.” Any politics that misses and/or buries this point is off to a terrible start at best.

Leonard is utterly unaware of this rather simple politico-linguistic history and logic. “What I do,” she says, “is I work to change the way that we make and use and throw away stuff, or in fancy lingo I say I’m transforming systems of production and consumption.”

Consumption, not product use. It’s like Frederick Douglass saying, “What I do is I work to free the niggers.”

The error, of course, compounds itself. What is the nature of our society and our product-use problem, in Leonard’s terms? “We’re in this crazy situation in our hyper consumerised society.”

Which leads to the next problem:

2) Avoidance of the c-word

Hyper-consumerised society? Not just that, but OUR hyper-consumerised society?

“Capitalism,” meanwhile appears zero times in this lengthy interview. “Capitalist” appears once, and does so with Leornard explaining why she’s upset that Glenn Beck hates her:

Glen [sic] Beck went crazy, and every day for weeks on his show, he would show a clip from The Story of Stuff and he said that I was spreading communism in schools under the guise of recycling. The thing he was particularly upset about in the film, he said it was anti-capitalist because I said we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet, and he also didn’t like the part where I said “it’s the government’s job to take care of us”.

I have clarified so many times, I didn’t mean to remind us to brush our teeth and tuck us into bed at night, I meant it’s the government’s job to make sure rules are fair and products are healthy. I believe there’s a very crucially important role in government to make sure that our economy is fair and healthy.

Leonard, in other words, is a practical liberal, in C. Wright Mills’ terms. She is not willing to say capitalism is the problem, because she presumes that is something to which nobody will listen, and because she is an intellectual and political wimp. She’s quite clearly not willing to herself use the word “capitalism” in her analysis. That’s rather like Frederick Douglass steering clear of the word “slavery,” isn’t it?

Which brings us to the third problem:

3) Patrician pandering

Look again at Leonard’s head angle in the image at right above. The tilted mommy-head is a giveaway. Leonard thinks ordinary people are uninformed dolts who could only be liberated by cleverly engineered baby-talk.

In her analysis, words like “production and consumption” (which she is forced by her own liberal practicality to use as euphemisms for “capitalism”) are too hard for the masses:

What I do is I work to change the way that we make and use and throw away stuff, or in fancy lingo I say I’m transforming systems of production and consumption. But making, using and throwing away stuff is a lot more accessible.

The end result? The usual. The problem, Leonard would have us see, is us, all of us, our whole culture:

Hopkins Q: What do you think this relentless treadmill of accumulation and pressure to consume and debt accumulation, what does it tell us about the deeper underlying psyche, do you think?

Leonard A: I think it tells us that something is hurting inside us as individuals, and as a society. We are tribal animals and we want to have a sense of belonging and a sense of community and a tribe. If we don’t have that through strong family ties and healthy social relations and participation in different civic activities, then we go buy that sense of belonging through a shirt that has a particular logo on it. To me, when I see people spending 50 or 100 dollars on a t-shirt that has a particular logo on it, I feel sorry for them that they feel the need to purchase that social proof or social access.

The proper answer to Hopkins’ typically ruinous question is this:

“Mr. Hopkins, you seem to be laboring under the assumption that the products we end up getting under present arrangements are called forth by the wishes and pathologies of ‘consumers,’ which you describe as ‘underlying.’ You seem to have spent rather too little time pondering the nature and logic of the multi-trillion-dollar-a-year reality of big business marketing and the underlying pattern of socio-economic inequality it exists to perpetuate. You also seem quite insensitive to the very substantial and probably growing gulf between existing public preferences and the operation of our dominant institutions and political processes. Have you considered the degree to which the corporate overclass dictates ordinary people’s product-use options and choices? Have you asked yourself what would have to change in your own thinking and efforts at movement building if you were willing to talk directly and appropriately about corporate capitalism? Obviously, you have not. Why don’t you get back to us after you have made such efforts?

“Glenn Beck is quite right: We oppose capitalism, as any sane, genuinely conservative person must. Capitalism is institutionally addicted to producing — yes, I said producing — more and more waste, which means inevitable ecological and social catastrophe. If we want decent survival on this planet, we need to overhaul our dominant social relationships and economic decision-making arrangements, and we need to start very soon. Green shopping and half-hearted consciousness-raising is not nearly enough.”

Update on Terracycle

TCTer Johnny “The Bull” Bravo posted what follows as a comment on an old post about the recycling-based marketing-data harvester Terracycle. The comment is so good and so important, Senor Bravo has the unsolicited honor of being TCT’s first-ever guest post-author:

You might find this interesting (download it, terracycle might take it offline after they read this comment):

Terracycle “Brigades” sales pitch e-brochure

Check especially:
slide 9 “Proprietary data on collection organizations”
slide 26 and 44.

It’s a presentation directed at companies interested in partnering with Terracycle to collect their waste. It puts a strong focus on the marketing value of “consumers” no longer regarding their packaging as waste, thus consuming more (as a result of reduced guilt)… It is also mentioned that reused branded packaging equals millions of dollars worth in advertising space. Whereas Terracycle publicly states to be collecting waste because it is a valuable resource, companies are required to pay “per shipment” fees to Terracycle for every box of their waste collected by consumers.

The ecological efficiency of actions like sending in 5 plastic bags by mail (to get a reusable bag in return), is questionable. The marketing value is less questionable (see slide 32).

Normal recycling companies need bulk waste collection and processing, and then still aren’t able to make the numbers work for such low-value waste. But then again, they are just selling a product, not an image.

It seems Terracycle has, to say the least, changed to not only reusing and recycling because it is efficient and ecological, but also as a tool to clean up corporations image, at least sometimes, in a way which is disproportionate to the actual reduction in ecological impact by the measures taken. Which might just be the definition of greenwashing.

[TCT blogmaster’s note: TCT has taken the forbidden* liberty of downloading the whole brochure. One item that caught my eye is this one from page 9: The “other benefits” of contracting with Terracycle include “exclusivity in category.” Any corporation, in other words, that makes a deal with Terracycle to use its greenwashing endorsement and access its marketing data harvest gets to have its products be the only ones “in category” that can be collected by Terracycle. That right there is the kill-shot to the weak-to-begin-with claim that Terracycle exists to aid the environment. “Exclusivity in category” means that Terracycle refuses to “help” recycle two or more products in the same marketing slot from different makers. How green is that?]
*Interestingly, logically, and typically, Terracycle does not want its real plans disclosed to “consumers,” so pastes this note at the bottom of every page of the brochure: “Proprietary and Confidential. Do not Distribute Without Prior WrittenPermission from TerraCycle.” It will be interesting to see if Terracycle, which was quick to chime in on our prior post, asks TCT to take down the brochure…

Annals of Greenwash: Recyclebank

wolfsheep Recycling is the capitalist’s favorite (and only) green idea. It obliterates the question of what gets produced in the first place and points the finger at the end, rather than the beginning, of the product life cycle. It makes the behavior of “consumers,” not capitalists, the topic of concern. It implies that mere gestures are enough.

Hence, it was probably inevitable that some jerk would invent the idea of Recyclebank, the Philadelphia-based Trojan Horse for corporate ecocide.

Here’s how it works: Customers who sign-up with RecycleBank receive a special container embedded with a computer chip. Every time the recycling truck comes for a pickup, it records the weight of the bin and transmits it wirelessly to an online account. Homeowners accrue up to $35 worth of credits a month based on the amount of recycling they do.

The credits, in turn, can be turned into coupons that can be redeemed at more than 300 retailers, including Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Rite Aid. [Source: Forbes]

How green is what Recyclebank does?

First of all, its system pays people more “points” for more mass in the recycling bin, meaning higher overall product-usage rates are encouraged, not discouraged, by Recyclebank.

Of course, how else would its corporate partners — Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Dow Chemical, Target, Home Depot, etc. — have it?

Moreover, despite its condescending and cynical prattle about being “a group of passionate people who’ve made it our mission to inspire others to take action – small to big – that will have a positive impact on our planet,” Recyclebank is also a double shill: It pre-empts both pay-as-you-throw trash programs and bottle bills, the latter undoubtedly one of the reasons why Coca-Cola is a Recyclebank “partner.”

All the while, what do the entrepreneurs running Recyclebank really, truly think about the “consumers” they profess to care so deeply about? The usual:

In fact, advertising is a big piece of [CEO] Gonen’s strategy. As RecycleBank rolls out nationally in the next couple of years – look for a debut in some Manhattan apartment buildings this winter – he’ll have collected the names, addresses and buying habits of hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of people.

At that point, Recycle Bank will have a database of loyal customers who manage accounts online and can be targeted by advertisers. If nothing else, it should become a place where companies can sell to “green” consumers, says Gonen.

“The core of this company is the ability to target and market to a captive audience that feels good about what they are doing,” he said.

And the Trappie Goes to…

turd_trophy I know 2011 isn’t over, but there is next to no chance that there will be a worse TCT-related movie this year than the utterly, massively, screamingly terrible Consumed: Inside the Belly of the Beast, recipient of the coveted Trappie Award for the worst documentary film of the year.

Billed as “a compelling documentary about modern consumerist culture,” the film is chock full of pompous idiots who spout preposterous pronouncements that are as historically and institutionally ignorant as they are insultingly wrong about ordinary people* and obscurantist and exculpatory of overclass practices.

Watch the trailer, and you’ll find some ridiculous academic clown (I intend to identify the fool as soon as possible and name him to the DbC Hall of Mirrors) stating that “We all have this weird mental disease called consumerism.  We’ve all kind of gone collectively psychotic.”  You’ll also hear this alleged pandemic described as a “very natural human process.”  Marketing gets fleetingly mentioned, but the movie treats it as a mere symptom of the underlying problem of “what we are” — crazy consumers.

Corporate capitalists, who coined and spread the word “consumer” in the first place, must be peeing themselves with delight at the appearance of such unintentionally Orwellian drivel.

Of course, the liberal greens are eating it all up, no questions asked.

By the way, among the string of howlers in just the trailer alone is the line:  “We’re at the cutting edge of evolution.”

Excuse me, but ROFLMFAO, you supposed deep thinkers and experts!  News Flash:  Evolution has no cutting edge.  To have a cutting edge, there has to be a dominant or intended direction.  As Stephen Jay Gould explained over and over, human beings are both a kind of wild miracle and also nothing more than “a tiny twig on the floridly arborescent tree of life.”  This elementary point is the stuff of Science 101, which one would hope self-promoting pontificators about the nature and logic of “modern culture” might perhaps have digested before distributing their glossy films.

Of course, the wankers behind this steaming turd of a movie know even less about capitalism than they do about science, so it’s all par for their course.

*Contrast these talking heads’ “diagnosis” that we’re all a bunch of Paris Hiltons with this bit of real-world news:

U.S. Consumers Relying on Credit for Basic Necessities

I’ll say it again: Using the word “consumer” short-circuits attention to reality.

More Secondary Leadership

green_lib This “degrowth” special pleading is really getting to be a massive wipe-out. Green liberals who’ve spent their entire lives avoiding dangerous ideas are now preaching to all of us to give up our insistence on perpetual economic growth. The gentleman at the left is but the latest purveyor of the half-baked, half-informed trope.

The word “capitalism” is, as always, very conspicuously, if not studiously, absent from this man’s supposedly “deep green” writing about “degrowth.”

Meanwhile, the blame for never-named capitalist behavior is nevertheless held to belong to all of us together:

But degrowth is not just a rallying cry or a trivial idea. Degrowth is an important, natural concept that our society needs to understand, whether we call it Degrowth, Limits to Growth, Costs of Complexity, Overshoot, Carrying Capacity, Metabolic Costs, Diminishing Returns on Innovation, Entropic Limits, “The Meek Shall inherit the Earth,” or “Richer lives, simpler means” as Arne Naess said.

The problem for our society is not that these ideas are too complex or wrong, but that they are annoying and inconvenient for the wealthy and powerful. Everyone wants more. Millionaires want to be a billionaires. The more that individuals grab and horde, the less there is for everyone.

See? Capitalists are merely us writ large, and we are they, writ small. We are all equally covetous. The rule of billionaires is one and the same thing as Joe or Jane Sixpack making toast in the morning and going to work. See? See? Shame on us all!

And here is what passes for the relevant underlying sociology/anthropology among these degrowth preachers:

Naturally, people resist the idea of limits on their consumption. The instincts to grow were forged in natural evolution, but those instincts don’t make limits disappear.

This whopper, this sophomoric howler of a claim that capitalist greed goes all the way back to hunter-gatherer times regardless of institutional and historical context, comes not just anywhere, but in an article about the politics of contemporary, 21st century economic growth and “consumption,” in an essay that never once mentions capitalism or marketing or advertising or institutional power of any kind!

As for solutions, other than collective shame, we get this, from a would-be leader who cautions his audience against “wishful thinking”:

If our social, political, and economic planners actually understood ecosystems, we might avoid a lot of problems we face.

ROFLMFAO! Dude, what planet are you living on? Not only are “our” planners not “ours,” they don’t give a flying fuck about ecosystems. Their system doesn’t permit it. Christ, look out the window, man! Read a newspaper. Pull your head out.

I have to say, the whole thing, the blind, craven special pleading toward power and the baseless insults and burdens cast upon the little people, brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s analysis of Nazi ideology, and its reliance on “a regressive repersonalization of impersonal, detached social powers.”

Often peddled by people aspiring to become “great little men” or “secondary leaders,” the hallmark of such “repersonalization” was a combination of upward sycophancy/sociological blindness and downward elitism/arbitrary, personalized blame:

Hitler’s famous formula, “Verantwortung nach oben, Autorität nach unten,” (“responsibility to overs, authority to unders”) nicely rationalizes this character’s ambivalence. The tendency to tread on those below, which manifests itself so disastrously in the persecution of weak and helpless minorities, is as outspoken as the hatred against those outside. In practice, both tendencies quite frequently fall together.

German folklore has a drastic symbol for this trait. It speaks of Radfahrernaturen, bicyclist’s characters. “Above they bow, they kick below.”

Sound familiar? There may not be as much turf between facsism and modern liberalism as we tend to think.

Anonymizing the System

sweet_talk Americans are well and truly conditioned not just to hate and avoid politics, but also to fuck it up when they wander into it.

Take the rapidly growing “Growth Must End” trope among the technocrats and vaguely frustrated liberals who now serve as leaders of what passes for an environmental movement. It’s a case-in-point.

True enough: Growth must end. And the green activist world is certainly chock-a-block now with such calls. But have you noticed? The “no more growth” harangues almost never mention the c-word: capitalism. Instead, they muse about “our culture” and the supposedly all-powerful pre-suppositions of academic economists. As if we can avoid conflict with the powers that be, and sweet-talk our way to a decent future.

In my opinion, we do not have time for the purely tune-in, turn-on, drop-out strategy implied by the existing “let’s stop growth” crowd, even granting that one is even conceivably possible in this TV-mediated capitalist dictatorship.

If we don’t acknowledge that capitalists are far and away the main force behind growth, we will lose this race, or never even start it, IMHO. Stopping economic growth is a matter of high politics, not personal attitudes. It is not going to happen without the creation of a sharp and radical and honest social movement pushing for profound, collectively-managed social reforms.

lscap BTW, yesterday, I saw a very hip looking chap leaving a Starbucks for his car holding two beverages in paper cups with plastic lids. On his head? A cap with a cute whale logo saying “Live Simply.”

To my eye, the state of that common persona speaks volumes about the limits of waiting for the great drop-out.