How did we come to this in 2020?

The Climate Emergency. How did we come to this in 2020?
Historical context and patterns of consumption. How do we change repeating attitudes and behaviours?

By Sally Campbell

Historically we know the industrial revolution, started in the UK with coal to generate steam power coupled with brilliant innovative engineering and the hard labour of millions of poorly paid workers, also kickstarted the much wider consumer society. From the 1700s firstly in Britain, then Europe and the New World, the ultimate goal of all economic activity was to satisfy people as they spent their growing affluence in filling their homes with household goods, which is not so different from 2019. This shifted the balance of power in society from those in the established hierarchy who served the monarch to those who served the consumer – the merchants, the industrialists and their financiers.

It started even earlier, with Columbus and the earliest voyages of discovery. Those who dared to adventure forth would become rich! Centralised government, market places, the development from subsistence farming to growth in towns and cities, all created markets, and similar patterns over time have been seen in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The English colonies of North America created wealth and looked to England for products and goods to make their homes comfortable. By the eighteenth century creamware was being exported by Wedgwood, upholstery for chairs and even looking glasses. Bristol was a gateway to America for exports, and many of the famous Bristolian merchant venturers made their fortunes by taking risks. The triangular trade is another story !

In 1722 Daniel Defoe set out on a tour of Great Britain, perhaps the first economic reporter. He wrote of the “most flourishing and opulent country in the world”. His diary has vivid descriptions of Sheffield, makers of all sorts of cutlery ware, 30,000 men employed in it. Leeds was a major consumer products area, up to 4,000 clothiers, with clothing shipped all over Europe. Eighteenth century Bath was perhaps the first city designed to attract the consumer, with lifestyle important too and shops equivalent to today’s Braehead or Buchanan Street. So the industrial revolution evolved as industry catered for the market. It is worth repeating that Mandeville in 1772 wrote:

“Self indulgence and luxury boosts business”

“Whilst luxury employed a million of the poor
Odious pride a million more
Envy itself and vanity, were ministers of industry”

He believed The Ministers of Industry were Vice, Pride and Vanity. Whilst moralists disagreed he posed an important question still being argued today: does capitalism need people to be selfish and greedy?

Markets drive invention and efficiencies. For example in weaving booming sales demanded greater output, and invention by John Kaye of the flying shuttle following the introduction of the spinning machine using water power by Richard Arkwright transformed the industry. His spinning machine had 96 spindles, equivalent to at least 96 spinners and these did not get tired, or ill and did the job more quickly. The raw materials, for example cotton from America were being produced in large quantities and cheaply due to slave labour. The American slaves are the unsung heroes of Britain’s industrial revolution. Even in the last century Bell (1907) described the lot of young women in industrial Middlesbrough:
It is sad to see many a young woman as a bright nice-looking girl, struggling first against discomfort of every kind, and sinking at last into a depressed, hopeless acceptance of the conditions around her…
It strikes me that is little different to fast clothing factories in Vietnam and India, trainers made in the Philippines, China for electronics, where we buy for the cheapest labour and often child labour too.

So the attitudes and behaviours are deeply ingrained in our culture and lifestyles. Easy credit reinforces the market. Consumer businesses whether they be clothes, electronics, cars, cosmetics or even Scottish salmon are hitched to the market, pricing to sell, using PR and marketing to persuade. Destruction of rain forests for soya and palm oil for products from biscuits, face creams and salmon aquaculture fish food escape condemnation. The markets become rigged for short term profit, off-shoring results and little or no corporation tax being directed to public services by government for use in communities, health services and schools. But still we buy. Much of employment, even now in the UK is without proper employment protection, no holiday pay, no sick pay, no occupational pension. A race to the bottom. Cheap flights indulge our short breaks, overseas, for new exotic experiences, often serviced by poorly paid staff. The demand for instant gratification, high adventure, to far corners, unspoilt areas of the world is fuelling the Climate Emergency and damaging fragile ecosystems on which we all depend. I am fearful for the Arctic and Antarctic oceans as advertised cruises now have excursions including to “be amongst penguins and whales”. A photo opportunity, a selfie to post on the web account! We already see the damage done to The Galapagos fragile ecosystems and even Venice by huge cruise boats.

Jung wrote that new decades like those decadal (O) birthdays are opportunities for change:
“ I am not what happened to me
I am what I choose to become”

This decade is our chance to individually and collectively change the world and save it from ourselves. What will we become? Just more “experiences” or growth of us as human beings caring for our world? Let us get to the task and apply that creativity and inventiveness so redolent of the industrial revolution to live more sustainably and develop a new definition of capitalism.

Sally Campbell, December 2019