Treasuring what we’ve already got

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    I had a mission this week to project-manage a suitably large pirate ship to the exacting specifications (and excellent working drawings) of a hammer-in-hand nearly-five-year-old wanting to build it for his friends.

    A life-history of boat-owning and providently stacking up useful items yielded an assortment of spars and chandlery and, needing timber rails for farm fencing later in the summer anyway, it wasn’t hard to order in the requisite wood (which was delivered, providentially, just as Captain Jake was leaving for kindy).

    The devil was in the detail. Hardware, like food, is encased in plastic these days and it’s insane to buy three cheap galvanized cleats – once sold from a few dozen of the items in a well-made cardboard box – in the ubiquitous bubble of hard plastic. With the oceans (and even our bodies) full of decomposing plastic, polypropylene rope that disintegrates in sunlight was also off the shopping list, whatever the needs of a back-yard square rigger.

    I like to think we are reaching a hundredth-monkey tipping point in our collective mindfulness over consumerism.

    Waiheke’s Waste Resource Trust this weekend celebrates its 20 years of minimizing the island’s rubbish to landfill. Much of it has been spectacularly successful, fulfilling the guesses we made in the founding meetings that maybe 60 percent of Waiheke residents would actively participate in recycling right from the messy kitchen bin stage if the initiative created reasonably easy pathways to doing the right thing.

    The next round of converts could be educated, with punitive measures for the really recalcitrant offenders as a distant last resort.

    Some of the group even bet the house on the proposition and we became a by-word, along with Devonport and the Far North, for successful waste minimisation.

    Then corporate giant Waste Management scooped a 12-year-contract from the supercity trough and the rest has been, at least for now, history, though the indefatigable Waiheke trust has kept the torch alight for every opportunity.

    One of the big satisfactions in the change of government is a revolutionary new emphasis on re-growing and re-empowering ‘the regions’.

    Most of us are all too aware that nearly every item we’ve purchased for decades has China stamped on it somewhere. Our own manufacturing and intellectual property has been hollowed out by global capital and it will be good to be building back its social and economic resilience. World-wide, the chimera of growth is over. Especially now it has been reduced to the vanishing act that follows when Westerners, in particular, fork out for groceries, hardware, financial services or an iPhone to multinational corporations whose contribution to the public purse is virtually nothing.

    In his new book Curing Affluenza, author Richard Denniss argues that materialism and consumerism are, in fact, quite different things; that true materialism is taking pleasure in the things we own already and only buying things we truly value.

    We should treasure, repair and find a new home for our belongings when we have no more need for them, he says.

    Consumerism, by contrast, gives a hit much like a drug. “It’s the thrill people get from buying new stuff, whether it’s to impress themselves or impress other people or just to pass some time.”

    Like a drug high, it’s a temporary thing for the consumer, but not so for the environment, he says.

    “Economists assume every time we spend a dollar it’s a dollar well-spent and it’s made not just you, but the community, a happier place. And that assumption means every time we waste money, we count it as wealth, not as waste.”

    The idea that if we all keep spending it’s for the common good is a fallacy, says Denniss, currently in the country speaking on his book that follows on from the 2007 Affluenza. Examples include the almost ludicrous single-use economic activity generated by bottled water and the even greater fallacy in his native Australia of a government-subsidised Queensland coal mine.

    “What would be the point in my country of digging a huge hole in the ground, subsidising the big hole, exporting a lot of coal, the coal will be owned by a foreign company, sales of that coal will count on GDP – but it’s not going to make any Australians rich.”

    This one-track view of the economy has warped public discourse, he says to audiences here who know all too well what he is talking about.

    “When we stop spending money on stuff and start spending it on something else we don’t shrink the economy, we reshape it.”

    Waiheke’s recycled goods shops are a rich trove, especially of well-preserved sets and affordable toys. High-priced ‘stuff’ can pass our children by, However, our island tradition of brilliant children’s birthday parties has always yielded priceless treasure. • Liz Waters

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