Thursday, June 07, 2007

Back in the classroom: anthropology and décroissance

Returning from stage is always a bit of a culture shock, but come Wednesday morning we had shaken off bus-lag and were back in our places (with bright shiny faces) at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Everything was pretty shiny, in fact, as it was raining - bucketing down - and Torrente Parma was looking like a torrent of latte, not the sparse trickle we'd left behind only ten days earlier.

We met our new instructor of the week, Carole Counihan, who has us paddling swiftly down the byways of foodways, gender and the anthropology of food. We're talking about the preservation of food cultures through anthropological methods, like interviews and observations. We'll be trying an observation of our own in the next week.

The other instructor this week was economist Serge Latouche, who came from Paris to tell us about décroissance, which argues that civilization can no longer be founded on infinite economic growth. He picked up the thread where An Inconvenient Truth left off.

Referring often to the ideas of Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, he spoke at some length about the implications of unchecked growth on every aspect of our lives. Where food is concerned, a growth economy means the food industry is encouraged to force consumers to consume (or at least buy) more than they need so that profits can continue to grow, which of course requires industrialised food production and massive waste. You could take that to mean that if we buy into this pattern, we're complicit in building populations of spiritual and physical obesity. And their harvests of waste, illness and pollution.

He spoke of three evils of the growth economy: advertising; programmed obsolescence; and credit.

Advertising's crime is creating desire for products that are not needed; its job is to generate additional growth by nurturing a chronic sense of discontent and inadequacy in the target audience. A successful campaign will create cycles of insatiable demand and overproduction. The victims are vulnerable people who can be brainwashed into feeling inadequate, and the most vulnerable of those are children, already subject to excesses of advertising through television, but also through corporate sponsorship within their schools. He also singled out the mailshots that he says create up to 50kg of unwanted paper per household in Italy, with attendant issues of deforestation and pollution.

Programmed obsolescence forces consumers to replace items rather than repairing them. The lifespan of a computer is two years or so, and after that it simply stops working (or one year and one month in the case of my dead Acer laptop); the corporate solution - and the one that we consumers have implicitly consented to - is to dump these dead machines on foreign shores, all toxic chemicals and non-biodegradeable parts. Gone are the days when you could be self-reliant in your own home with a few good wrenches and screwdrivers; nowadays you can't even diagnose the problems with most of our appliances and cars unless you have computer diagnostics. We will persuade people - shame them, mock them - that wearable clothes can no longer be worn because they are no longer fashionable. And what was I reading recently, that talked about the loss of the verb "darn" - that the very idea of repairing a hole in a sock had become passé in a culture that simply threw old clothes away because they were cheaper to replace?

Credit, he said, attacks consumers by encouraging them to consume even when they are unemployed or unable to afford what they are manipulated into wanting. He cited some depressing figures: in France, 80% of the population is indebted to the amount they will earn this year and next; Americans owe what they will earn until 2010. And, unsurprisingly, it seems that Canadians, too, owe more than they earn. It got me wondering who pays for the debt of the one in 53 American households that declare bankruptcy (and presumably go on to assume more debt as soon as they're legally able, since credit helps to fund bank profits growth), and what implications that will have for all of us down the line if the debts are ever called in.

There was of course much more said, and I look forward to the next installment this afternoon, and some time to digest it all.


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