Oh, what sad, silly creatures we are. We, humans. We who like to think we are intelligent, sentient beings who care about the world we live in, care about those with whom we live, care about the welfare of all. We don’t. All we really care about is money.
This hit me recently, on a train to Budapest. I reckon that no amount of pleading or rationalising will get people to wear masks on public transport until they’re fined for not doing so. Until they have to pay in hard cash, passengers will ignore the signs. Until their wages are docked for not obeying company policy, ticket inspectors will flaunt the rules. Until there’s a monetary penalty involved, people will do as they will regardless of the public good because people are intrinsically selfish.
Have you seen the video clip from the BBC series Years and Years where Muriel Deacon (Anne Reid) rants on for about three minutes about blaming each of grandkids for the state of the world? She talks about how we will buy that £1 t-shirt because it’s a bargain – for us. We don’t think about the seller getting only 5p or the poor child who sewed it getting 1p. We only think about ourselves because we, as a people, are intrinsically selfish. With clothes pollution as it is (did you know that 85% of textiles are dumped every year?) I buy almost all of mine second-hand. That’s one decision I can own as not being financially driven – although the collateral savings are nice.
Study after study proclaims the virtues of following a meat-free diet. Some vegans cite the horrific conditions animals are reared as why they’ve turned from their steaks and burgers favouring lentils and carrots in their stead. In California and Arizona, I saw massive cattle farms, acres and acres of cattle stalls housing thousands upon thousands of animals penned in, in close quarters to satisfy the world’s craving for meat. And while it gave me pause for thought and drastically reduced my purchase of beef, I will still order a burger when I’m out. Why? As a human, I’m intrinsically selfish. Until burgers are priced beyond the reach of my price sensitivity, I’ll continue to eat them because I like them.
It seems like almost every decision we make is formed not by an innate moral code or value system but by money. We value things in terms of dollars, euro, pounds, yen, pesos whatever.
Living in London a few lifetimes ago, visiting Borough market, I was horrified at the prices being charged for anything with the word ‘organic’ attached to it. It was way out of my reach and I was shopping just for me. Had I been trying to feed a family on my salary I’d have been joining the queue in Iceland (the shop, not the country). There are those who bemoan the rise of megastores like Tesco and Walmart and the like, but sadly, there is a need for them as so many simply don’t make enough money to shop according to their conscience; they’re too busy trying to make sure the month runs out before the money does.
I am a strong advocate for buying local, even if the same item is more expensive than it might be in the nearest big supermarket because I want my local shop to stay open. I’m a strong advocate for buying Hungarian-made products and Hungarian-grown produce but I know that what prevents me buying avocados out of season is not that they’ve been flown in from wherever (I’d like to think it was my conscience, but that’d be a lie), it’s because they’re so expensive. Again, it comes down to money.
I’d like to say I would stop flying and take the train everywhere instead, but until train tickets come down somewhere near the price of a flight, I know that won’t happen. Likewise with an electric car. Were the price of petrol to soar and the tax and insurance for standard cars to triple, then I might be driven down the environmentally friendly route. It’s the rising price of electricity and the ready availability of sun that’s pushing me towards solar power, not the environmental argument.
The older I get, the more I realise the importance of self-sufficiency, of not being beholden to the market. The line between want and need becomes bolder and these days it’s weighted heavily on the side of need. I also realise what a privilege it is to be able to shop conscientiously.
COVID is doing its bit to strip away the hypocrisy in my world, layer by layer, and show me it for what it is. I’m grateful for the lesson in owning what I do. And for the handful of people I know personally who are guided by their conscience rather than their wallet, thank you for being an inspiration.