"Families forced to follow green zealots' new recycling diktats", froths the Daily Mail in a typical article about the supposed 'trash fascism' (should that be trascism?) sweeping the nation. "...the scheme is too complex and homes simply don't have the space to deal with the myriad bins, bags and boxes ...strict regulations have been introduced as councils come under growing pressure to cut the amount of household rubbish they send to landfill...threat of European Union fines if they fail to hit EU targets...bin police who can impose £100 on-the-spot fines...increased penalties of £1,000 and criminal records..."
Mail readers, of course, have far more important things to think about than to bother their heads about recycling ...such as Demi Moore's gaunt frame, whether Kelly Clarkson's dress can contain her ample curves, and Christina Aguilera's fluctuating weight.
These dietary issues are, as it happens, an apt metaphor. When Kelly Clarkson eats cake, it doesn't simply disappear, and it's the same with rubbish, as the residents of Gilberdyk, East Yorkshire are finding out. They've got a curvaceous mountain of rubbish next door, and it's surprisingly causing one or two problems..."the smell from the tip has become unbearable and is affecting house sales, the vermin (rats, not estate agents), the litter...Up to 100 wagons per day - large wagons, eight wheelers - are running through the village spreading litter, dirt and muck." Who'd have thought it? Certainly not the Mail readers who'd rather chuck the considerable detritis of their over-packaged, fragranced, disposable lifestyles in a big, big bin and have it collected once a week and dumped as far from their net-curtained suburban abodes as possible.
In the modern world, there are now so many degrees of separation between an action and its consequences, it is easy to see restrictions like compulsory recycling as infringements on our liberties. When we buy a new phone or pair of jeans say, we don't see the sweatshop conditions it's been made in; we don't see the communities whose water supply has been poisoned with mercury from the mining that yields the raw materials that end up in our new gadget. When we chuck our old phone in the bin, we don't see the cadmium gradually leaching out of the battery into the river where swims the trout we'll eat in that nice gastro-pub next week. As nice middle-class folk, we can afford to live in nice places where most of the consequences of our actions don't actually affect us. We don't like the idea of battery hens or crated veal calves, but we do like cheap eggs and meat. In other words, wilful ignorance.
The separation of actions from consequences happens on three dimensions: firstly, along the value chain from production to destruction, as we've seen above. The second dimension is scale. If we drive to the shops in our Range Rover, that's not going to make a blind bit of difference to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. But multiply all those trips up over a lifetime, and by a population of hundreds of millions of drivers, and pretty soon you're talking big numbers. The third dimension is time. We have trouble associating the cigarette we just had with the lung cancer or heart attack in 25 years' time. We have as much trouble imagining our great-grandchildren blaming us for climate change as plantation owners imagining their offspring a few generations hence being embarrassed by their ownership of a couple of well-treated slaves.
When people drive, they can put to the back of their mind all the consequences of doing so. One journey doesn't make any difference, and if I answer my phone while driving, I'll be careful. Oh no, a bloody traffic jam. God, this air smells pretty foul (coughs). [1 clutch-pumping hour later] Finally, foot down at last. It was an accident caused all that chaos. Why can't people be more careful? Need to really push on now, b*gg*r the speed limit I'm in a hurry...80...90...get out the bloody way you dozy old codger! And you behind me - quit tailgating me - back off you nutter! [phone rings]...
Maybe some people don't like cyclists because they make them think about the consequences of driving; the consequences they like to deny or bury at the back of their mind. They are the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The danger, the pollution, the climate change...you can ignore it all if everyone's driving - it's like there's no choice, and everyone and no-one's to blame.
For the last ten or twenty years, we in the West have been pushing the growingly significant and unpleasant consequences of our increasingly profligate lifestyles further and further away from us. We've been consuming more and more, without regard to the impact of our consumption on the planet and its people, and also without regard to how to pay for any of it. Finally, the market - that wonder of capitalist economics that gave us all the excess in the first place - has called time on the orgy of consumerism, and governments and people all around the world are starting to wake up to the idea that actions do have consequences after all. The credit card must be repaid. We have to live within our means.
Unfortunately, this consequence thinking hasn't quite spread beyond financial debt to the other spheres of human activity just yet. Andrew Neill introduces his new Sunday Politics show in this blurb. He boasts of his prescience in forecasting in 2008 that "the Age of Plenty was over and that we were about to move into an era dominated by the Politics of Debt". He continues, "It would mark the end of debt-fuelled capitalism, debt-financed socialism - and debt-drenched consumer spending", and promises his new show will "test what [politicians] have to say against the new rigours of the Politics of Debt".
This will be interesting, because if Neill is right on this (and I believe he is), then it follows that institutions, services, policies, laws, and even values, that were forged while we were still partying in the Last Chance Saloon are likely to be ill-adapted to the post-consumerist Age of Consequences. Yet there's little sign of this concept gaining currency amongst politians or most of the media: the terms of debate remain the same. The Westminster parking restrictions are greeted with hysterical opposition, while the Tories are promoting weekly bin-collections regardless of the effect on recycling rates. The world has changed, but we haven't: we're still reading from a script that says there will be a short delay before normal service is resumed.
As I haven't mentioned cycling yet, let's have just a taste of what the post-consumerist world might look like. With the real-terms erosion of take-home pay, fewer people can afford cars, and those that can are counting the rising cost of fuel. Maybe we should be tuning our road layouts to favour cycling a bit, so that people can spend less of their hard-earned on oil and more in the local economy? Maybe we should be reducing packaging, so that local authorities can spend less on collecting rubbish? Maybe we should be encouraging and enabling people to live closer to where they work, so they don't have to travel as much, and can use active travel modes more? With people cancelling unaffordable gym memberships, maybe we should enable people to get excercise for free, by cycling and walking more? In short, should we be encouraging lifestyles with less negative consequences and more positive ones?