Learning to appreciate the value of things

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A Plea by Christine Ax

It is a way out of the resource-consuming consumption trap: the other form of appreciation of products, work invested and resources. We reward ourselves and others both economically and aesthetically with a truly appreciative, material-loving consumer behaviour.

However recyclable products may be, the purpose of a product can never be to facilitate economic growth by making it “recyclable” or “recyclable”. Their purpose can always only be the benefit, or the pleasure, of something. Their use and not their consumption. Even for recyclables, less is more. Because the production of all artefacts and their preservation require not only energy and raw materials, but also human lifetime, in production and in use. Life – time that is precious. Anyone who really wants to value products, their manufacturing methods and the resource-giving nature, asks about their benefits, their meaning. Which things really make you satisfied? For this we do not have to compulsively weigh up what really benefits. On the contrary, we can confront the world in a different way, in a positive sense “lovingly materialistic”, as the poet Pablo Neruda recommends. In his hymn of praise to small and large things, he evokes the diversity of forms, colours and materials. Each piece has its own value for him, together they determine his life. “I love things above all (…), not only the higher, but also the infinitely small (…), with my soul, the planet is beautiful (…), full of everything that humans have created,” writes Neruda. “No one can say that I only loved what jumps, climbs, survives and sighs. (…) Things tell me many things, they ran so close to my existence that they were there for me, that they lived half a life with me and that – once half a death with me – die”. Only what we really love is worth the effort of using and preserving.

Things as lifelong companions

So wouldn’t it make more sense if we slowed down our consumer behaviour and had fewer but better things? Good for life and made for life? Objects with which we have a personal relationship? Things that gain in value and patina for us or others over the years. And before we allow them to play a role in our lives, shouldn’t we think a little more about what they actually mean for our lives? Ivan Illich, for example, shows us how such other values work. The author, philosopher and theologian has provided approaches to thinking things against the grain in his writings. In 1978, he was one of the first to calculate in his book Energy and Equity that the car is a lifetime guzzler. We are by no means saving life with it or gaining free time, as one would assume. Illich calculated the time that we have to spend to finance the car with our income as well as the time that is needed to finance operations, fuel, repairs, insurance, etc.. Working time is life time, according to Illich’s equation. It not only helps to buy a car, but also when it comes to consumption in general. As soon as we have bought something, we are already looking for the next bargain. Because it’s fun, because we tell ourselves we need this and that, or simply because we can afford it. What we don’t buy doesn’t need to be made, we don’t have to earn. The less we buy and produce, the less jobs the economy has to provide or create again and again. Because the more productive we are, the more we have to consume in order to be allowed to work.

Calculate the marginal utility

In order to arrive at a different appreciation of things and our consumption, we can also argue in a tough economic way. Economists have developed the term “marginal utility of things”. This means that the benefit of a commodity cannot be increased proportionally to its number. If we buy ten rolls for our Sunday breakfast, but are already full after the second, every further roll loses value for us. Similarly, a thirsty reveler finds a “high positive marginal utility” after the first beer, a “zero value” after the fifth and the opposite after the tenth. The same calculation applies to the purchase of goods. If we buy twenty T-shirts, we can only wear one at a time, the benefits of the others in the closet are reduced accordingly. A growth-oriented consumer goods industry must always react to this tendency towards market saturation. It tries to keep consumption going. Because it is not the products that are in short supply, nor is it the money, but the needs. Today, marketing and advertising experts as well as designers are responsible for more and lasting sales. Because the function of a new object or device remains essentially the same, it depends on the appearance and image, on the attitude to life that a product conveys. These factors are stylised as the decisive driving force for new purchases, whether – probably – the old toaster, the old car, the winter jacket are still in good shape. It is staged as a social pressure on the consumer, a distinction – a gain in prestige is suggested, a higher social esteem is promised. Technical obsolescence also serves to promote sales. A long usage phase by consumers is counterproductive for economic growth. The list of examples of planned obsolescence is long: from light bulbs, which were originally much more durable, to tights, which do not survive even the first time they are worn, to printers or washing machines, which usually have the same defects after the warranty period has expired. There are camera or mobile phone batteries that will not work after only two years and either cannot be replaced anyway or are simply no longer available. Whether this is deliberately planned in this way by industry or whether it is a coincidence is a matter of dispute between consumer protectors and manufacturers. A new project of the Federal Environment Agency now wants to bring more light into this darkness with electrical and electronic devices. The fact is that manufacturers are doing nothing to change this. Whatever the reason, obsolescence ensures constant re-buying. The industry naturally has no interest in preserving things permanently.

The incidental costs of consumption

Once we have understood the marginal utility and its effect, we are in a position to value things differently – and to change our growth-promoting consumer behaviour. If we take a look at marginal costs, our previous behaviour becomes completely absurd. In business administration and microeconomics, marginal costs are the costs that arise from the production of an additional unit of a product. We consumers also have to reckon with them: The more things we buy, own, maintain and later dispose of, the higher are the psychological, social and environmental costs associated with this kind of abundance. If we see our economy as a kind of flow scheme, energy, raw materials, labour and time must flow into it on the one hand, so that products are produced on the other. A huge machine that must be kept going – the faster it runs, the faster we have to work and consume, and the more energy and raw materials are wasted – just so that in the end we have purchased items that we don’t actually need, let alone value. With the help of marginal utility and marginal costs, we are already a step further in changing our appreciation. We now understand the constraints of consumption and can also do differently. Only the factor labour is missing. Let us loosen the Gordian knot of the evaluation of our own and others’ work in order to arrive at a sustainable society.

A gift for the remaining debt

Many people today already do their work with a high ethos and are rightly proud of what they can do and achieve. The price, which can be enforced as remuneration, plays an important role. But anyone who listens carefully to conversations about work understands that behind the dimension of money there is something that has nothing to do with money and cannot be regulated by money. The so-called joy of work does not have to be rewarded, it carries its reward within itself: pride and joy in the successful, highly regarded, meaningful work. On the other hand, the sometimes associated work suffering can and must be adequately compensated. However, this cannot succeed in the currency ‘money’ alone. The relative value of a job may be objectified in the market price, but this never applies to the absolute value of the person who does the job for us. As important as it is to pay a fair price for the work and the working time, it is important to understand that the monetary compensation of a service carries the aspect of the devaluation of the work and the human being. For everything that man has voluntarily put into his work in terms of ability, joy of work and goodness is priceless, it is and remains a piece of him. Therefore, a remnant of ‘guilt’ remains with the acquisition, which can only be settled in the currency of appreciation, respect and gratitude. That this is a subliminal part of our feelings and our culture is often expressed in everyday life in a polite gesture, a gift or a tip to honour both sides: those who express their appreciation and those who reveal their work to appreciation.

Christine Ax – factoryy  2013 No. 3