Perhaps one of the greatest fallacies in human history that seems to have affected nearly all cultures is the mistaken belief that money is somehow a sign of success or even intelligence. Money is a universal means of exchange of goods and services. Period. If it is not being exchanged but hoarded, then it serves little purpose for society or the economy in general. It is not like stockpiling foodstuffs in case or famine, since in times of famine there is no food to buy.
When the agricultural scientist Jack Harlan studied the life of hunter-gatherers such as bushmen, he was astounded at the findings. The average hunter-gatherer spends only twenty hours a week working. Contrary to popular belief, they fully understand agricultural techniques such as planting, pruning, protecting plants and harvest times. The only difference is that they don’t stay in one place but move around according to the seasons. Their diet is also very healthy due to its great variety, and they suffer less chronic illnesses and tooth decay than in the developed world. Obviously I am not suggesting that society should return to its hunter-gatherer origins, but it is a sobering thought that our pre-historic cave-dwelling ancestors probably enjoyed far more leisure time than our modern, industrialised society. Where did we go wrong?
It has now been widely accepted by most of the developed world that we cannot continue to consume our planet’s resources at the same accelerating rate, coupled with a similar rate of rising human population and global warming from the industrial activity needed to meet this consumption. The US already consumes five times more than the earth can withstand if everybody did so, with Chindia catching up fast in their zeal to match the level of consumption they see in the West. Yet it is also widely accepted that for an economy to do well it must be constantly growing and therefore consuming. The more we consume, the more jobs we create to provide the goods and services we consume. So, how do we solve this vicious spiral towards the destruction of all life on earth?
Well, some tentative steps towards mitigating the situation have been made, such as recycling, although the fact is that not everything can be recycled, and everything that can be recycled cannot be recycled ad infinitum. Then there are examples such as digital media, gradually replacing cassettes, CDs and paper books, although this also shows how the material things we create and consume soon become obsolete. What do we do with the things that become obsolete but can’t be recycled? We throw them away — but of course, there is no away from our planet, except possibly Mars as a gigantic, expensive dump.
Clearly, the problem is not so much the fact that we consume too much, provided this consumption is renewable, but that we throw away too much. The only feasible solution possible is to stop consuming or throwing away so much and to halt the rise in human population if we are to avoid the fate of the Easter Islanders. I am not going to go into the need to reduce the world’s population or halt its growth, because the answers to this are obvious: contraception, war or genocide. Take your pick.
Instead, I am going to look at a way to reduce material consumption and waste without scuppering the economy. Again, there are some obvious possibilities, such as educating society to simply consume less, thereby reducing the need to produce so much and thus working fewer hours to do so. It’s no secret that we already have the capacity to feed, clothe and house the world’s population several times over. That said, we generally don’t want to return to the lives of hunter-gatherers, but want to continually advance technologically for a better material standard of living, healthcare etc., which will always require a certain amount of economic competition and consumption. So, how do we get people to reduce their consumption while maintaining their same material standard of living? Well, the answers are all around us.
Take a look around your own home. How many things do you own that you use only once or twice a year? Apart from that horrendous shirt you’ve never worn at the back of the wardrobe that you could perhaps recycle, what about the other objects cluttering up your living space? As I’ve said, the old cassettes, CDs and paper books have an obvious solution. But what about the rest? A look around my study, kitchen and living room is very revealing. Compared to most people in the developed world, I live rather frugally. Even so, I live alone but have seven chairs, a sofa and two beds. I have some scuba-diving gear that I use once or twice a year. In the kitchen, in addition to the usual cleaning products I have some specialised ones I use just as infrequently. I have a food blender I hardly ever use and a washing machine I use twice a week, not to mention enough cutlery and crockery to cater to a whole army. But let’s look at the bigger stuff.
Since I started working from home, I use my car maybe twice a month. My mountain bike has been sitting rusting on my balcony for three years since a public bike hire system began in my city — tens of thousands of bikes parked at regular stations around the city that you take out using a card paid for yearly and which you park at the destination station of your choice, 24 hours a day. (Incidentally, I believe a city of about a million people is about the perfect size to cater to all our needs without creating the traffic congestion and pollution associated with bigger cities, and my city is of a geographical size to be able to entirely cross it easily by bike in under an hour). However, I keep my mountain bike for when I decide to go for a ride in the mountains...which I haven’t done for three years.
So, I was considering selling this mountain bike and gaining some space in my home, since I must be able to hire one when I really want to go mountain-biking. Then I started applying the idea of rental for all of those goods and services I only use once in a while. Take the car. We all know car hire companies exist, though we only seem to use them when we’re on holiday. How about if people started using them as often as the public bike hire service in my city, to go to work every day? Nothing too unusual there; it’s just one step away from car-sharing schemes, with the difference that you don’t have to pay for repairs. Repairs: another disadvantage of possessing things instead of hiring them is that we have to pay for them to be repaired. But what if we start looking at everything we own not from the perspective of possessing the object but of using the services it provides for us? Need a bike? Hire one; it doesn’t matter how often or for how long. You can hire it for a year and pay a little extra for the manufacturer or owner to repair it. Need a car for work every day? Hire it all year. Again, you can pay a little extra to cover possible repairs for wear and tear. And what happens next year if you’d like an upgrade? Hire the latest model or hire the old one for less. Manufacturers could even cut out the go-betweens and hire directly to customers, producing modular vehicles whose faulty parts can simply be replaced when necessary. But since you, the customer, are paying for the service of using a car instead of paying to possess the car itself, the manufacturer replaces the one you’ve hired if it breaks down (as some companies already do if it’s under guarantee).
So far, this doesn’t sound too radical. But let’s apply it now to much smaller, day-to-day perishable objects, and much larger, more permanent objects.
Take the specialised cleaning products in my house. Instead of buying lots of spray cans etc. which have a use-by date, why don’t I just buy the amount of product I need, paying for the small amount of liquid I’ll need, and refilling the manufacturer’s canisters from their containers in the local supermarket? Want a bottle of cola or milk? Fill up the bottles from the containers in the same supermarket (as is already done in some fast food chains), which you’ll then take back to get your deposit back on the bottle to be sent back to the producer for cleaning and re-use (as some of us used to do as kids). Throwing a dinner party once or twice a year? Hire out the latest chairs of your choice from the local furniture store.
The fact is, the manufacturer does not make less profit from hiring as from selling, since they will be constantly hiring out their products on a daily basis. The only difference is that these objects won’t be cluttering up your home when you’re not using them and you can choose a different model every time. The principle of competition and innovation between manufacturers will continue to be fed. As for recycling, the manufacturer will do this themselves with their own returned products in order to cut down on their own manufacturing costs.
And what about the biggest, most permanent product of all, which people all over the world buy — housing? At this point, I’d like to remind you of the main reason behind the last, deep, global economic recession: toxic assets held by banks, basically in the form of mortgages that homebuyers could not pay off. Take note: I said homebuyers. Why were so many people convinced that they needed to take out a mortgage to buy a house instead of renting it? The main reason is that people saw it as an investment, not just a functional place to live. They believed that house prices would always go up, so it became a form of saving for some, and for others a desperate rush to get on the speculation bandwagon before the prices got so high that they could never afford one. It’s not the first time such an economic bubble has grown and burst, nor will it be the last if we continue to think in terms of possessing objects as opposed to simply using the services they provide. Admittedly, housing speculation can also exist in a market based entirely on renting, but it will mostly be borne by the owners or builders who rent them out. For the average citizen, it is far easier to get out of a tight economic spot by simply moving to cheaper rented digs. Not to mention the fact that they can change their home several times if they like or if their employment mobility requires it.
Another bonus of shifting to an economy based on renting instead of possession is that the builders themselves, and manufacturers, will be far more interested in producing houses and goods that last much longer, and modular products whose parts are interchangeable and recyclable. Galvanised cars do not rust, yet car manufacturers very rarely galvanise their cars. Ever wondered why? Programmed obsolescence becomes pointless in a rent-based economy. The longer the product lasts, the more times the manufacturer can rent it out and the less it has to spend on repairing it (which is now the responsibility of the manufacturer, who is also the owner).
But what about the shopaholics, those modern hunter-gatherers who simply love shopping and consuming? Well, they can now give free reign to their addiction by hunting down the latest product every week.And remember, hunter-gatherers only work twenty hours a week.