The Empire of Things

I’ve just finished reading The Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann. It was a hefty tome but beyond its value as a door stop it was a challenging but thoroughly informative read. Woven throughout were assumptions and stereotypes that were shot down with detailed research and thought-provoking material. No wonder it took the author seven years to write. Like many of the sorts of books like this I’ve read, most recently Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, it does have a concluding chapter, but doesn’t readily offer antidotes to dealing with over consumption or how to make specific changes in your own life to offset the way society is heading. Status through things seems to be as old as time and it’s not likely to go away any time soon because we are currently living at levels that the planet will find unsustainable in the long term.

There were several ideas and points raised however. One of which was consumer power. Ultimately consumers are the ones who buy the products and have it within their spending remit to boycott goods and services that don’t come up to the mark. He also discusses the idea of a zero growth economy, which is predicated on the idea that nothing can continue to grow perpetually. It doesn’t exist in nature and it’s a fallacy that it currently exists in our current economic models. But, with so many companies beholden to make money for shareholders and peddling growth being seen as the sign of a strong government zero growth is sometimes seen as economic heresy. In fairness it’s something he touches on rather than goes into vast detail about the possibility of but there’s plenty of information online if you want to look into it further.

Trentmann states: “One lesson from history is that we are wrong to take our current standards as given or just assume that our lifestyles will and ought to continues into the future, just more efficiently serviced.” In other words we need a top-down rethink on what we actually need to live healthy lives and whether ice cream makers and endless revamps of smart phones are actually that important in the grand scheme of things. It also makes you think about some of the green mythmaking which basically replaces consumption with ‘green’ consumption to placate our consciences.

Another point he makes that: “there needs to be a more general appreciation of the pleasures from a deeper and longer-lasting connection to fewer things.” In other words, embrace minimalism or go down the route of the Buy One Thing website, which advocates buying things that should last a lifetime – it’s certainly something that our ancestors would have done as second nature.

He also states: “For consumers and producers it is critical that the carbon and water embedded in goods and services are properly priced without that it is difficult for people to gain a sense of the consequences of their lifestyles for the planet and those mind, producing and dismantling the materials for those things.”

This is certainly something consumers can get involved in by looking into the actual cost of cheap products. It may well be that the cheap ephemeral stuff is actually the stuff that costs the planet the most.

All in all, I’d recommend this book as a very good, but dense, read.

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