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The Stuff of Life/The Life of Stuff

Life is full of miracles and mysteries.   It is a miracle that we are here on earth and that we are sustained by all that surrounds us.   There is the divine produce of mother and father nature and the substances from the natural world that people like you and me have taken and moulded for use in our material world.   Humans with their intelligence and the knowledge they are able to acquire can use the fruits of the earth to get miraculous outcomes in science and medicine.   Industrial and technological revolutions made work and money for people to have a better life.   Then everyone wanted more.   Some changes were required to make such “progress” a reality.   In order for manufacturers to hire more people they had to make and sell more things.


The rise in consumerism in America began after rationing and the end of WW11.   The servicemen came home and to start new families they needed new homes and all the furnishings and well paid jobs too.


Years before that, at the turn of the 20th century industrialists were talking about building-in obsolescence in durable goods.   The idea was to change design features and colours periodically, perhaps annually, and they believed that consumers would want to have the latest model.   President Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Committee on Recent Economic Changes hailed the expansibility of human wants and desires and an almost insatiable appetite for goods and services.   Electricity was necessary for new types of durable goods for the home so connectivity expanded in the 1920’s.   They talked about expanding sales into other countries, e.g. into Europe but deduced that people didn’t have enough disposable income to make it profitable.


With their large and ever-growing population and their attitude to achieving their dreams it is not surprising that conspicuous consumption had its roots in America in the early nineteen hundreds.   Satisfying individual desires took precedence over wealth or political and economic power for ordinary people.


The introduction of hire purchase agreements and credit arrangements enabled people lower down on the economic ladder to purchase the things they desired.   “When you see happy human faces with their stuff it is more of a love affair with their wonderful stuff – it is not because they are greedy”, a salesman said.   There was a second-hand market for durable goods; the beginnings of a circular economy.


Industrial capitalists are always anticipating consumer expectations.   They perceive an unmet need, then solve the problem and make profit.   There was a period of economic prosperity from 1945 – 1970s that is known as the Golden Age of Capitalism.


Housewives (1950’s terminology) needed help because there weren’t enough hours in the day for them to finish their chores.   Disposable plates, towels, diapers, ash trays and a feeding dish for dogs was the answer to give them back some time.   This was the focus of an article in Life magazine in August, 1955 which was titled, “Throw-away Society”.


Plastic cutlery and utensils were mass produced in the 1950s and with growth of the fast-food industry they became more widely used.   Plastic material is somewhat durable so people had to be persuaded to voluntarily throw their things away.   We have passed the point where too much is disposable and now we are trying to reverse the trend.


It is a mystery that along the way more wise people didn’t investigate the consequences of incessant economic growth for life on planet earth.   Meanwhile, warnings by scientists that we live on a finite planet that cannot sustain unlimited growth were ignored or even scorned.   The anti-consumerism movement at present includes numerous groups offering theories and ideas for weaning us from acquiring and disposing of items and decreasing non-biodegradable waste.   Writers and conceptual visual artists try to open our eyes to see that planet earth needs our care right now to help it heal from the damage our lifestyle has done to it.


We hear that some inventors could have fears that their inventions were capable of causing harm and destruction.   The Oppenheimer movie brings that to mind.   In addition, Geoffrey Hinton, known as the “godfather of AI” quit Google and he warned of danger ahead if we let the machines take over.   We seem to be doomed to unleashing not-fully-thought-out things on the world.


Katherine Sankey, an artist based in Dublin created an exhibition titled, “an atom bomb in each morsel of life”.   It is an attention grabbing title inspired by the work of the theoretical physicist, Karen Barad who posits that the radiation of the nuclear age made its way into the tiny cells that make up our bodies – globally.   All the works in the exhibition were created this year “to be a reminder of how deeply humans have penetrated all living systems” and were on view at The LAB Gallery, Foley Street, Dublin.


Her works are made from thrown away materials such as dead tree branches, copper piping, plastic tubing, debris, an uprooted small tree, all intended to heighten our awareness of climate change and the ecological cost of harvesting titanium, for example.   People who view the exhibition will have their own response to it.


The Stuff of Life/The Life of Stuff is an art exhibition at Sainsbury Centre, Norwich.   It asks “how do we adapt to the transforming planet in our future”.   Exhibits are composed of synthetic, organic and electronic waste, commodities designed not to last.   Waste streams in modern society are questioned.


Bringing this subject of stuff back home, I learned at an early age the value of natural fabrics: cotton, linen, wool, silk, Denham and velvet.   These natural fabrics are soft, breathable and keep you warm or cool when desired.   After the have outlived their usefulness they are biodegradable.


My mother told me that when I was a very little girl she put me on the carrier of her bicycle and cycled to Ballyhaunis.   We went to McGarry’s clothing store where Mom bought my first coat which was red velvet.   I was maybe 2 years old and have no memory of that shopping trip but I can see it vividly in my mind’s eye.   The idea of a red coat being right for me has stayed with me and I usually have a coat in some shade of red in my closet.   The story was replayed when I brought my mother to McGarry’s in 2005 where she bought a new coat for her 90th birthday.   It was a classic coat in an aubergine colour that was to be her last coat.


In our house when we were growing up we were always sewing and making, re-making clothes to fit another person and mending.   When the big flour bags were emptied we washed them, opened the seams and ironed them out.   When we had four we sewed them together to make a bed sheet.   I have done needlework all my life and love nothing better than making something new from something old.


Garage sales were good for the circular economy in the places I lived in America.   This is how useful and decorative household items, children’s toys, prams and clothes went to new homes to have a second life.


In Ireland now we have consignment shops for the same purpose.   And we can donate things we no longer need to charity shops.



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