I have looked back into my past to try and understand how I became the person I am today – how I became a good consumer? (By ‘good’ I mean effective, good at the activity, not pure and praiseworthy). I started by scribbling these notes with a pencil whilst my computer was searched for spyware – a common feature of life with Microsoft. My brain could not hold back, so pencil in hand, I wrote:
“Sirens of consumerism, seducing us with advertising.
Why do we need advertising? How much is information and how much is persuasion? Silver-tongued snake oil salesmen and the black art of emotional manipulation … politicians, traders, editors, marketers, speculators, sellers of advertising space … ordinary human beings and some of the most creative brainpower … going towards encouraging over consumption and deteriorating living conditions, in society and environment (one and the same). They have to feed the kids, roof their home somehow.
I have the image of drug addicts, chasing the dragon, of scrawny crack-cocaine addicts pushing pills to pay for that ache-relieving fix.
Where, I thought, does this process begin? What causes these bright brains and otherwise beautiful beings to a) want b) want more c) feed the addiction by selling? I need to understand how it happens so I can stop it happening and help people off the addiction. Using the power of memory, which is fading with neglect, I peer through old imagery in my head to my childhood and the origins of “me”.
Childhood dreams of motorbikes, glory and adoration. Adverts and glossy pictures, gleaming paintwork and delicious curves captured in sharp and soft images. And the semi-naked woman adorning the bike, writhing, imploring me to … what? I didn’t know but for a teenage (just) boy her body lured my brain cells like metal filings to a magnet. A magnet with a bike attached. I guess my subconscious wanted her but my consciousness wanted the bike. I started to get pictures of bikes from the local bike shop. Super glossy A4 leaflets with a picture one side, technical detail the other. I drawled over the exquisite beauty of the Yamaha, the Honda, I imagined in astounding detail the roll of the wheel and the effortless acceleration (I knew how to ride a bicycle and also knew the effort involved and craved power). My head collected numbers, horsepower, torque, suspension travel, and the most magic of them all, the 0 – 60 mph, the acceleration – that which was beyond my physical capabilities and that would thrust me forward in adrenaline intoxication. Freud fans can read between the lines, I’m sure.
This was a time in the 1970’s, pre mobile phones, satellite media, internet, designer clothes – at least in my world. Heck, Britain was not long out of rationing and was deep in debt to the USA. This was a time of pocket money, toys, paper rounds and playground friendships. I knew no magazines or tabloid papers and adverts on tv seemed to be for housewives (not my mum) with their detergents and shampoos. All stuff I didn’t buy.
Yet slowly, the general culture of my society trickled into my head. There were the motorbikes and what other boys talked of at school. There was television and what was talked of the next day. Long before I saw vast wealth and fashion, in the face, I was learning to judge my existence relative to images instead of copying real people. This set up aspirations and then expectations, a sense of being different from those around me. My town was small and uneventful. Life went on at the pace of old ladies, shopping trolley in tow. I knew of other things – giraffes, skyscrapers, sexy women and motorbikes.
Most dominant in my growing up was my family and my parents. It was their lifestyle choices I was cultured in. No dinner parties, no magazines, no razzmatazz or show business. I grew up with reading comics as they read the Guardian; toy soldiers and football whilst they grew vegetables; annoyance at the news and neighbours which I copied. We went on camping holidays, ate together (7 of us, plus a dog), walked in the countryside, did chores, watched tv and I went to school. Television was dominated by sport (Saturday afternoon was religiously filled with the football results ritual, tea and two biscuits), nature programmes, news (it was the BBC after all) and the entertainment: starsky and hutch, kojak, star trek, 6 million dollar man, tom and jerry; plus blue peter, the good life, all creatures great and small. The outside world trickled into my quiet, secluded town.
Second was school. (There is a reason I love Pink Floyd). School was the slow, steady hammering of my brain into shape, in the forge of indoctrination. Subtle, repetitive beats that bruised and damaged me: Competition, class, distinction, difference, segregation, routine, rules, conformity, slow atrophication of creativity and spirit, flattening of humour, spontaneity and cooperation. We formed cliques, we were competing on a scramble up the ladder. We all new it. There was a hierarchy and we each had a rung to occupy. Some how I began to expect / dream of a rise to the top. Hard work and compliance would be the ticket out of this trauma – this ‘end of childhood’. I was not allowed to return to my games and imagination (except during play time and after school). There was one trap door marked “Future” and it required a pass – exams and grades and escape to adulthood in the freedom of independence – university, and a rise to the clear air of choice, self determination, control.
Expectations were set by parents and school – pass exams and get a career, grow up and be a man. Success, achievement, purpose, a good life. I was led to believe, like a lamb, that “others have this, you not only can but you ‘should’ have it too. Along side this were the other messages: You will be liked more, you will be admired, you will be ‘better’.
I was lucky. Whilst I was subjected to the mass culture, I was better off (in my opinion) than the rest. I was intelligent, well adjusted, healthy (umm, and male, white and well spoken). I was also heavily exposed to nature, not just the nurture of society. My parents did an excellent job in giving me experiences that I now treasure – the garden, badminton on the lawn and shuttlecocks stuck in the ash tree – sandwiches and tea and the sound of tennis balls thwacked at Wimbledon – the open spaces of Welsh hillsides and the rocky freedom of mountain tops – holidays in France and a tricky language – new potatoes and shelling peas – gathering mint for the Sunday roast – life by candlelight and the flicker of light from a wood fire – the smells and hisses of scots pine – the cackle of fulmars on the quarry wall. The list goes on in my head, for day, weeks, a childhood. This is what would eventually save me.
The trauma of the end of childhood and the trap door to freedom led to the escape from school and on to university – from the frying pan into the fire! I was so let down, almost devastated by the disappointment of what was really a school for over 18s. It was the wrong time to give me such a sense of deprivation – my hopes were high and I was fuelled like a rocket – and my hormones were moaning. I’d had a near death experience and knew life could be snuffed out in an instant by some other’s error or a momentary lapse of judgement. Life was potentially short. Russia and USA were in an arms race to oblivion (still unfolding) and the human virus was sickening the planet. All around the end seemed just around the corner and I had two thoughts – avoid it happening and try to do something about it. That ‘end’, was not just the end of life but also the end of my hope, the hope of freedom, the life of my dreams. The aches of growing pains were in my heart as much as my limbs. I was an emotional animal, by now confused and misguided, bruised and beaten, lonely and vulnerable. It was the 1980s. I was ready for a quick fix.
So that is the process, as I see it, how ordinary people arrive at being addicted and controlled by their addiction. The purveyors of false dreams that we are told money will buy are just you and me (well, except you are just a bit-part dealer not a multi-national trader in virtual reality. I don’t believe they are going to read this blog, ever.
This reminds me of something my father once said: “If they are not trying to kill you – you are not threatening them”. Yes, big brother may be watching but we are mostly safely below the radar, doped up on dreams and alcohol. You don’t have to watch the rats to know they are safely locked in the sewer. (I grew up listening to the Stranglers, on an old record player, scratching my brother’s album with a 78 needle). Think of all the assassinations.
I guess one of the problems is that many addicts are quite happy in their haze, so long as they have enough of their drug, and it is hard to get them to give up voluntarily. Even if their behaviour is destroying them, spoiling your life and collectively screwing the planet’s ecosystems. Persuading an addict to get clean is the story of my life, now and into the future.
Now, I am a ‘bad consumer’ yet still a vast processor of resources. Still the planet is crawling with diseased specimens of a species that is heading towards collapse. And we know it. The best bit is, life is remarkably resilient, there are millions of us who are aware and are fighting the disease, and life today is amazing. The future for many may be bleak and for millions of humans living today it is (I learn via mass media, the lives of others who I have never seen but feel for … fellow humans) but I am living an amazing life as I try to do good. I try my best”.