Sustainability and the selfie stick

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It’s that time of year when things are looking up. Gradually Melbourne is pulling in its wintery claws and sullen grey skies are breaking down to offer the promise of warmer days. Venturing out from my bolt-hole this week, I took the train into town to a university workshop. During a spirited evening, I glimpsed an unexpected pointer to the conundrum of why we humans find sustainability so hard to grasp.

A British economics lecturer was in town explaining why the economic system as we know it is beginning to breakdown. “After all”, he joked, “it’s now clear our so called developed societies appear to be reaching the end of consumerism when there’s nothing better to buy than a selfie stick.” And that got me thinking about what we can learn from the selfie stick.

At first glance, it seems just another consumer gizmo. So, why do we need selfie sticks when we have always managed to get our photos taken? We used to simply smile to catch the eye of a friendly passerby, ask for help and hey presto. We got our photo, and the passerby got that warm glow of satisfaction from having helped a fellow human. So, has there suddenly become a shortage of passersby? With the global population of over seven billion having doubled in the last fifty years, the one thing we are not short of is people.

However, we do seem to be more and more intent on being independent of others. Yet, at the same time, we are becoming more isolated and less happy. American research shows that compared to fifty years ago people have half the number of friends they had and share mealtimes with others half as often. Of course, the desire for selfie photos is driven by our inherent self-love or narcissism. Although that is a natural human trait, we have Freud’s warning that when narcissism levels are too high, they turn into a liability, hindering our capacity to feel empathy for others, and crippling our ability to get along with people.

Yet the selfie stick provides us another reason to avoid talking to others and depriving them of the joy of doing a good deed. I well remember last year when Debby and I visited an Indian temple after she had graduated from her Vedic Chant teacher-training course. It was a balmy evening, people were milling around in the grounds and we met several people through helping them get the pictures they wanted and having them reciprocate for us. In some cases, we were taken into the life stories of lovely people, the evening becoming far richer than it otherwise would have been.

So, where did the idea for selfie sticks come from? Why were they invented? Did we have a powerful pent up need for such an artefact? Did our finest minds consider it the next great step in human evolution, just as our forebears had mastered fire and created the wheel? Was it considered time to move on from relying on friendship and collaboration with our fellow man, to simply developing new gadgets for the individual? No, I suspect the reason is much simpler to fathom. More likely, someone decided to make one in the hope we would buy it and they could profit from it. Society’s defining goal appears now to be the quest for fool’s gold. We chase endless economic growth on our finite planet in an attempt to create ever-increasing monetary wealth. That is why when something new like the selfie stick produces large enough sales, it is named by Time magazine as a ‘best invention’ of 2014. So, best invention now means biggest money maker.

The rapid increase in our human population has put pressure on Earth’s ability to provide the resources we consume. Already the scientists tell us we need over one and a half planet Earth’s to sustain today’s economy. However, it is not so much population growth, but our ever-increasing demand for the latest consumer goods that is the root cause. We, the existing population, are putting three times the pressure on the earth’s capacity to provide for us, compared to anything population growth adds. It is our inability to control our greed for stuff that results in more and more things like the selfie stick being invented. So, there in the selfie stick is the very essence of our sustainability dilemma. To paraphrase Gandhi, we have enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed.

With the heady scent of spring blossom in the air Mr Badger will soon be emerging from his winter seclusion. Hmmm, perhaps I won’t mention the selfie stick phenomenon to him though, I don’t really think he would understand.

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