Thursday, 14 February 2013

Neal Lawson, All Consuming

Neal Lawson, All Consuming

Bitching about consumerism and its evils is my favourite hobbyhorse.  Small wonder then that I jumped sky-high when I tracked down Neal Lawson's All Consuming.  I kept glancing impatiently at my shelf and raced through other books on my reading list and finally the day arrived... 

The book starts well, with enumerating all the ills of hyper-consumerism culture.  Our environment is groaning under the strain of unsustainable production and unprecedented amounts of garbage.  The inequality gap widens, the poor are exploited more and more, the rich are even more ridiculous with spending their money.  Shopping becomes a hobby, an obsession, an addiction.  Skills disappear, social contacts turn superficial and people marry brands instead of individuals.  Wonders of progress, it appears, have been somewhat overrated. 

So far I agree with Lawson, but when it comes to solutions...  It's funny how often people get the complaining part right, but their ideas for fixing things range from unlikely to impossible.  All Consuming is no different.  There are a few brilliant suggestions (like rationing air miles or taxing luxury goods - the sooner, the better), but some of the large-scale changes proposed by Lawson tend to inspire bitter smile, not action.  Redistributing the wealth?  Sure, why not, as someone permanently broke I'm all for it, but I somehow feel that the rich won't find the idea so appealing.  Other notions are not as outlandish, but unlikely all the same. 

I was particularly (and maybe irrationally) irked by Lawson's constant use of the pronoun 'we'.  We are in love with brands, we get excited by celebrities' lifestyles, we follow fads and fashions...  I don't.  I don't have Ikea recycling bins either, nor I am ever likely to have (this obscure remark will become clear once you've read the book).  I don't identify with his 'we'.  'We' are presented as a mass of brand-obsessed, greedy, snobbish halfwits.  If Lawson is to be believed (and I firmly disagree), the poor don't dream of security and dignity, but luxurious gadgets.  Goodness me, if things are that bad, then a meteorite strike is the only cure.

I think it would be better if people who already shape their lives to resist the onslaught of capitalism rampant were acknowledged and fortified.  More and more individuals make the effort to wean themselves off the materialistic culture.  It's them who really can make the change, and they don't need sermons, they need support. 

Another pet peeve - there is no deterministic link between not being extra social and shopping.  Lawson's vision of the better world is an introvert's hell.  More community life?  Resurrecting the 'public sphere'?  Not everyone enjoys human-to-human interaction.  That doesn't mean that introverts automatically go shopping!  Or shall we force people to socialise against their will?  Happy communities are not created by a decree.

As you can see, All Consuming evoked some fiery emotions in this particular reader.  Good!  It's one of the highest compliments that can be paid to a book.  I don't agree with Lawson's plan for saving the mankind, but I immensely enjoyed food for thought he provided.

Plus, obviously, the more is written about the destructive consumerism, the better.     

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