Consumption – A Novel For Our Times

Another Sunday, another week gone.

It sure feels that the older we get, the quicker time flies by. Entire days just vanish, seemingly wasted.

Maybe they have been. Waste is often a subjective matter, especially where time is concerned. One person’s waste of time may be another person’s time well-spent.

The problem with time is, it’s the great leveller. We all get the same measly sixty minutes in an hour, and twenty-four hours in a day, whether rich or poor, old or young, male or female. The minute or so you spent reading this has now been lost to you forever. You can never get that back.

Everything else is quantifiable.  Most things can be regained. We can spend money and earn more later. We can eat food and eat more later.

We used to think that about things like oil and gas too. But most resources are finite. What was once bountiful is now scarce. What was once cheap is now expensive. And that makes us think about how we use, or waste, things.

In economics it’s called consumption. Today’s guest, Greg Johnston, has written a book by that name.  Not an economics text book. A novel.

He’s also written a brief post for MWi today, about the pipes in his home.  Nothing is off limits at MWi! And if Bill Bryson can do it, why not Greg Johnston?

Here’s Greg.

Glug, glug, glug.  

The water boiler in my parents’ house in Hobart, Tas-Mania, is some distance from the kitchen.  Hot water must rise through great lengths of uninsulated pipes enclosed in the double-brick wall cavity.  To draw hot water to the kitchen sink, one must run nearly 5 litres of water.  In winter, when the overnight temperatures sink to zero, it takes even longer as the cold pipes and wall cavity fight to cool the hot water.  Apart from time, it’s a wicked waste of water.  But above all this, it’s an horrendous waste of electrical energy used to heat the water.

For 55 years, at least five times a day, five litres of water have gone down the sink.  That’s well over half a million litres of once hot water.  And that’s only in the kitchen.  It’s worse in the bathrooms which are even further from the boiler.  And the same amount of hot water has been left to cool in the pipes.

As if to further this, the cold water pipes run up the outside of the building.  In fact, the main feedpipe comes from the street along the side of the driveway embankment down through the garden and up the side of the house, splitting and re-splitting to the various wet spots of the house.  Oddly, all these pipes face the sun till at least three o’clock in the afternoon.  The water from the cold tap runs warm, in summer it’s almost scalding hot.

The house was built in the mid 50s on the crashing enthusiasm of a new marriage and post-war conformity.  Whenever she speaks of its construction, my mother always adds a sting;

“The house was architect designed.”

I’m not sure what that means.  She has a healthy disrespect for any qualification who disagrees with her opinion and possibly she’s deriding the architect.  Or, as with most things in life, the plans were interfered with and otherwise well-planned concepts were destroyed, relegating the boiler to the far reaches of the house.  Both answers are possible.

After an absence of 30 years, in 2011 I had the unquestionable delight to spend six months in this house.  Each day as I waited for the hot water, I asked myself; what ideology can account this arrangement?

I guess the earth was seen as endlessly bountiful, that it would never stop giving.  The electricity came from renewable hydro dams, post-war government works to stimulate the economy and provide power for industry.  Patches of water litter the viscera and west coast of the state, tamed rivers engorged to drown all native vegetation and establish these “simulated lakes” with gross, “unnatural” shorelines and thousand year old trees standing like ghosts in their centres.  As these dams were endlessly replenished by the rains that washed in from Africa, so we could all consume endless amounts of water and endless amounts of electricity because they were all, indeed, endless.  And the boiler was discretely tucked away from sight.

Wouldn’t we all gasp if someone designed a house like this today?  Wouldn’t we hope that a planning council would scuttle it as unsustainable?  But I suspect that some of us would gasp at the bodacious wanton-ness of the design as we do at the piquant, un-sustainability of a place like Dubai.

“On our way to Europe last year we ski-ed in Dubai.  It was outrageous!  Darhling.”

Yes.  Waste is outrageous but somehow still socially sustainable.  (In)conspicuous consumption dictates that we are what we consume.  Consumption normalises.  The more we can flush around and through our bodies, the more interesting and complex we are seen as individuals.

When I published CONSUMPTION: A Novel, questions arose about where the idea came from; what was the germ?  Whilst all novels draw from life, rather than the novel being based on a particular person or event, CONSUMPTION was more based in a thousand situations like the pipes in my parents’ house where I am left to wonder at the ideology in present day design (an incredibly complex thing) and all the desire and folly of our consumption and our need to consume more and more.

So what to do with the pipes?  I’ve adapted, reversed the red and green symbols.  If I want warm to hot water during the day, I used the cold tap.  I keep cool water in the fridge.  I use the hot tap only to wash up.

CONSUMPTION: A Novel is available from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Some novels can be pure escapist entertainment. Others can be entertaining and thought-provoking too. Greg’s novel definitely falls into the latter category.

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  1. Intriguing! Haha, I sympathise on the pipes front – our current army-built house has pipes that clang like someone’s on the inside trying to get out, and they leak horribly. We really ought to get someone in to fix those things…

    • Services accomodation is notorious for its mainy failings, Ms Charley.

      I’d be interested to know what goes in the the boilerhouse at St. Malls…

    • Pj Schott
    • November 13th, 2011

    Oh my. Does that sound familiar.

    • Miriam Joy
    • November 13th, 2011

    Very true!
    There’s a bit in Torchwood where the guy who just fell through from the fifties, having just walked into a 21st century supermarket, goes, “Look at all this! We’d just got off rationing in ’53.”
    And Ianto just says, completely deadpan, “Yeah, sorry, we are a consumer society.”
    (It’s actually quite an entertaining clip, leaving aside that part. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUFsP4QFuic)
    Can I be really picky and point out that discreetly was spelt wrong? Please? There are two types of discreet (that and discrete), and if it’s ete then it’s to do with Physics and if it’s eet it’s what it means here. So yeah, I’m pedantic, shoot me 😀

    • Somebody shoot her, please. 🙂

      If it were me I’d say in my defence it was a typo (fingers hitting keys in wrong order) rather than ignorance, being a maths and science geek. But well spotted.

      Though it’s not just limited to lovely physics!

        • Miriam Joy
        • November 18th, 2011

        Indeed it is not, I just know about it from “The Origin of Discrete Particles” which is a book my Grandad helped to write! (He was a mathematician.)

    • Sorry about the spelling mistake – bad spelling is another quality I share, apart from rugged good looks, with W. B. Yeats. Things fall apart. ; )

  2. Time does fly by faster the older one gets. I attest to that.

    And the changes I’ve seen since I was born in 1940–everything Greg says I can feel through my own memories. We did believe that there would always be plenty. Now we know…and it’s sad, but good in a way as we need to be more careful with our resources. Human beings tend to learn the hard way…IMHO. Love the photos here, and Consumption sounds like a novel I want to read.

  3. I can afford to buy books at 2.99-3.99. I think this is a good price for Kindle books, especially in this economy. So I just bought Consumption, and will write a review when I finish it. Glad I came over here today. You probably are glad, too!

  4. I love the title and cover of Consumption. The description of the book on Amazon is very different from what I imagined, but I want to read it either way. I am a bit obsessed with cutting down waste as Mark may have read in my post “My Love/Hate Relationship with Plastics.” Now that we’ve reached a population of 7 billion people, this topic is more relevant than ever. Thanks for a great post, Mark!

    • I remember that post well, Meghan!

      Living in Third world countries where plastics, artificially produced foods and sother toxicants are rare it’s easy to see how much healthier the children are, subject to basic nutritional needs being met.

    • Hi Meghan – consumption and waste are one element of Consumption – it looks at long term friendships – unfortunately for Martin, one of the main characters, this is just another thing to be consumed. Hope you like the novel and I look forward to any comments.

  5. I love the cover and title, too. I first read about this book on Prue Batten’s blog and when I get that Kindle (I’m lobbying Santa Claus hard) I’m definitely going to give it a look.

    Everybody looks back at the 50s as such an idyllic time, but it was their lack of foresight that has led to our current messes.

    • Anne, I’m sure Santa will deliver!

      It’s interesting to re-watch / re-read the sci fi of the fifties and early sixties and see just how far-sighted many writers were in anticipating the ecological and social mess we now find ourselves in.

      Such a shame about the flying cars though. 🙂

  6. I object, your honors, I strongly object. In fact I think that the line from Torchwood “Yeah, sorry, we are a consumer society.” Just about encapsulates the insanity of the current condemnation of consumer economics.

    The truth is, with the exception of hydrocarbon energy sources (which new technologies have made nearly bottomlessly available by deep-drilling, fracking, oil-sand and coal extraction for liquification, etc), almost every natural resource is renewable. The only real concerns are waste in the production cycle and environmental costs–and industrial technology has been getting cleaner and cleaner since the 60s, while recycling and disposal systems have been getting more sophisticated as well.

    Electricity is getting more expensive because population growth has outstripped energy development, a political problem, not a resource issue. There are now more forests in the US than there were in the mid-20th, the air is cleaner, the water clearer, etc., and the same goes for most developed countries while at the same time the inflation-adjusted cost of almost everything is less than what it was, from phone calls to plane trips to TVs.

    Are there still problems to solve? Yes, and some fairly serious ones. But the reflexive condemnation of consumerism is a fad and a folly, where, historically, the only cure for real, abject poverty, has been free-market economics and consumer society.

    • LOL! When I wrote the intro for today’s post I guessed there would be dissent if George read it. And sure enough…

      Just wish I had time and an appropriate place to argue this fully.

      I’m not sure Consumption is an attack on consumer economics per se, but rather on the waste that comes from consumer arrogance that supposes there are no ecological and social costs to consumerism.

      It may well be true that US air and water is cleaner now. certainly that’s the case for the UK and Western Europe. But with good reason. because we have shifted the manufacturing burden to countries like China, India, etc where there are fewer controls, cheaper and less protected workers, and bigger profits to be had.

      The “inflation-adjusted cost of almost everything is less than what it was” because these products are now being made in third world countries for a pittance using slave labor while skilled workers in the industrialised nations claim welfare.

      Hydrocarbons may have gained a new lease of life through new access to previously unobtainable deposits, but at what cost to the local environment and people?

      Here in West Africa the oil deposits now becoming economically viable bring corruption (Western money buying impoverished officials at all levels). ecological destruction and social disruption.

      The same goes for renewable resources like cocao beans for western chocolate and most other cash crops (sugar, coffee, tea) which do almost nothing for the local people and make the rich West richer, driven by unbridled consumption.

      • Yep, all problems to be dealt with although I will stand by my belief that it beats the alternative (for the alternative, check out North Korea, Cuba, etc). However, I will also be the first to admit that rampant consumerism–the pursuit of Good Stuff without balance–is a real problem for our society and personal economy; one of my favorite Shania Twain songs is “Ka-Ching” and you should check it out on You-Tube.

        • Not sure North Korea or Cuba are reasonable examples though, George. North Korea chose a path of isolation and pays the price, while Cuba has consistently thrived despite the embargos imposed by the almighty US.

          Comparing the economy of a tiny island like Cuba with a huge, resource-rich imperialist, neo-colonialist superpower built on colonial slavery and the decimation of the indigenous population may make the US feel better about its manifest destiny politics, but doesn’t alter the fact that the current supremacy of the US is based on the same principle as the supremacy of the British Empire before it. Exploitation of the people and resources of the rest of the world.

          Btw I have actually heard of Shania Twain, but you-tube is not an option here with my ISP..

          • Wow – debate! Consumption doesn’t advocate the wholesale destruction of the western world but more the tempering of the western playboy/girl. It’s impossible, save for being Jesus Christ, to swap a pillow for a stone. Once we’ve been conditioned to certain comforts, it’s hard to go back without regret. But I wonder why someone has to buy a pillow made of down pluck by hand by a vestal virgin from the butt of a goose raised only on wheat grown in Hungary. This pillow is not about comfort or even correct sleeping support- it’s just about one-upping cocktail conversation. That’s what Consumption interrogates, where consumption becomes the mark of a person. Martin, my character, is never content with himself, always needing to one-up those around him with what he has the power to consume. We all do this, to some level. His friendship with Sara just becomes another thing to be consumed.

            And doesn’t the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico illustrate two things? Firstly, we can go to great lengths, (was it 2 kilometres under the sea?), to extract oil to drive SUVs. I find that mind boggling. But the spill demonstrates that this extraction comes with great risk. These wells to the seabed are not plain sailing.

            Consumption suggest we should consider the consequence of what we buy. In the end, Sara does express faith to continue in life.

            • You are right; there are segments of our society for whom conspicuous consumption as it was for the Roman elites. Feasts with dishes like Peacocks Tongue and iced sherbets in summer (since ice had to be brought from the mountains at great cost). Exotic pets, exotic slaves, grand estates and great games. There is truly nothing new under the sun.

              • I think it is actually inconspicuous consumption that is more the problem, as with the pipes in my parents’ house. We consume so much without even knowing or questioning.

          • Actually, the reason I sited North Korea and Cuba is both of them followed hard-line communist policies following their revolutions, to the impoverishment of their people. Both have only survived by being client states–North Korea of China, Cuba of the USSR (after the USSR’s collapse, only limited free market-oriented measures instituted to alleviate severe shortages of food, consumer goods, and services saved Cuba from collapse and today it is prospering only to the degree that it is liberalizing its economy). While their relative political stability means neither NK nor Cuba have become such basket-cases as some African states, both have repeatedly needed international aid to survive. When it comes to the wealth of nations, size and natural resources means very little; there are nations much smaller than the US that have a higher per-capita GDP, and what makes the difference is open government, open markets, and a skilled and mobile productive class.

            • Open markets? US economic policy is one huge mess of protectionism and always has been.

              And worth noting the basket case” countries invariably survive obly because of the direct support of countries like the US, who define a country as friend or foe according to how much they can benefit. Hence the Taliban are one minute the USA’s best friends, the next mortal enemies.

              Saudi Arabia is the epitome of a sickeningly repressive non-democracy that has no concept of human rights, yet the USA will happily back it to the hilt so long as the oil keeps flowing its way. When the Arab Spring finally reaches Riyadh its safe to say the USA wll suddenly decide, like in Libya and Iraq, that democracy is oh so important after all – time to rescue these poor, repressed people and give them the benefit of the American dream.

              As ever the sole purpose will be control of the resources.

              • By open markets I’m not talking about exports/imports, so I’m afraid I used the wrong term. What I was getting at was a free market–an economic system in which the worker is a free actor, able to engage in business or to sell his labor on the best terms he can get or to hire the labor of others, and to sell the products of labor in the marketplace. International trade, open markets, only strengthen free markets of course, but a country can have a local free market while being closed or protectionist internationally and still do well–just not as well as it would have done otherwise.

                As to the US’ relationship to non-democratic countries, that is a different matter, and not a topic that makes us look good. Personally, I think we should refuse to trade with non-democratic nations that do not support basic human rights.

  7. I look at consumerism a different way…and this might be because I spent a summer with my husband’s grandparents. My generation doesn’t fix things. We buy a new one. The microwave breaks? There isn’t a microwave repairman that I call. I buy a new one. My husband’s grandparents? His grandmother grew up in rural North Carolina, she was a Depression baby. She uses/reuses EVERYTHING. And in some ways, I feel very guilty about my attitude towards my things. I’m not very grateful for the conveniences around me, because I’ve rarely lived without them. But I did live without furniture this year for two weeks. I have a VERY new appreciation for my bed, and that’s about the only thing Americans at least, hold onto for any length of time.

    • In most under-developed countries the same attitude prevails. Waste simply isn’t an option.

      As the West’s shoddy consumer goods filter through to even remote villages things are changing. Cheap consumables like cell phones can change lives here, making instant contact possible where previously it might take days to transfer a simple message.

      But these imports come with no understanding of the damage discarded batteries can do, for example,

      All consumption has a price.

  8. Hi Elizabeth ,
    My grandmother used to wash and dry plastic bags – she thought they were so useful and saw no reason to chuck them out. My father saved everything – there were 13 vacuum cleaners which had been repaired and repaired and were past their fuctional lives – but he held on to them. I kept saying – these need to be recycled and he would say that he had worked hard for them. In an odd way they were status symbols. My novel questions why we use these objects to make our identities.

  9. If I can break in here… I’ve read Consumption and can honestly say its one of the best books I have read on Kindle this year. It’s a no-holds barred narrative on the toxic nature of love in a consumptive society.

    I’ve got ‘friends’ who judge others on their income level, their status symbols, the way they cook, the type of food they eat. But never honours them for the work voluntary work they may do, or thoughts they may have, or organisations they may support… stuff that has meaning! I’ve seen what pre-handover Hong Kong was like. I KNOW Martin!

    Greg Johnston has a way of delivering this expose without a fanfare but which leaves one with food for thought. I defy anyone not to read this and have a good hard look at aquaintances AND the world we live in.

    PS: Anne, sit on Santa’s knee and beg!!!

    • Thanks, Prue.

      I choose to live in relative poverty here in West Africa precisely because my life is so much richer for not having this crazy obsession with one-upmanship and status symbol living.

      Having travelled most of the world I can safely say it is among the poorest that social, communal and family values are most highly valued.

      Except in those extremes of famine, conflict and disaster, life in impoverished lands and especially in what we westerners call “slums” is far richer than anything I’ve experienced in the lands of plenty.

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