John Bird: The more we wreck, the more we seem to care

Our sense of powerfulness and need to intervene in the at times justice-free world grows from our power before the marketplace

You cannot avoid our dutiful attachment to the past. The past is all about us, either as ancient, dirty, planet-destroying fossil fuel, or as political values and postures that are as obnoxious as the toxic waste we use as fuel.

Extracting energy from the defunct forests of prehistory seems not dissimilar to our insistence on taking up all the old moralistic thinking and recycling it as new. So you could say our cars are driven by toxic waste and our current thinking is toxic; unable to reach consensus and always in pursuit of the baddie.

The environmental degradation of the last 60 years has been unprecedented – we’ve been eating away at our own life support systems at a rate unseen in the past 10,000 years. From the time we generally accepted that burning and slashing forests and combusting shite was bad news for us all, we began to destroy on an even higher level. The general and gradual improvement of our thinking around race and gender, sexual and liberal freedoms – unheard of in recorded times – coincided with toxic levels of life-threatening proportions.

In short, manufacturing and despoliation went hand in hand with our growing liberality.

Our concern about seemingly everything, from the blue-nosed whale to the destruction of indigenous peoples and their language, has therefore come at an enormous cost. You might even say it is because of consumerism and its attendant pollution that we have got more caring – which we wouldn’t have done without the vast freedoms and improvements of our lives as consumers.


The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

That our sense of powerfulness and need to intervene in the at times justice-free world grows from our power before the marketplace. Our widening ability to buy more and more of capital’s junk has made us strong enough to complain.

How many of us now would buy coffee or tea that didn’t have a trail of stickers on it showing contented pickers and a rainforest guarantee? Perfected as product endorsement whilst wholesale destruction gallops ahead.

So many complex purchases take place now against this backdrop of despoliation. China has become a major vector in all of this, providing high toxicity levels where once it was a land of fields and agriculture. Why? Because China has been brought into the capitalising nexus as it makes my notebook, my pen, my phone, my computer and even my coffee mug.

This crucible of destruction coincides with our increasing concern for justice and freedom

Against this background you still have the politics of telling off. Of telling off the very people we turned into billionaires by lifting them from obscurity and penury into billionairism by buying their essential crap.

By operating ideological wars around left and right we have invested incredible political energies into this divide at a time when the planet goes up in smoke. Perhaps the left-right, goody versus baddie worked when the world’s population hadn’t reached two billion, but when it’s over seven billion, all aspirational to get their hands on products and consume, then the kettle of fish is different.

I suppose real deep understanding of us and our path from hunter-gatherers and prehistory has never been achieved. We have in some ways gone from slug eaters to deodorant users and have not quite understood the process. We have narrowed our vistas as a species to more comfort and more distraction rather than more understanding of life, science, art, the spiritual, etc.

As if to underline this strange phenomenon of modern life I went into Liberty’s near Oxford Circus in central London the other day. I had known the shop for decades but had not been in recently. I was looking for a notebook to buy and remembered it sold them on the ground floor. Only to find that the whole ground floor has had the gifts and books washed away, replaced with a sea of skin preparations. An army of people busily rushing through their appointment with looking good in a factory of foundation creams and makeups. It was formidable, the level of energy!

You could blame Liberty’s but they sell stuff. And they obviously realise that all that face stuff brings in the real bucks. Like the billionaires they largely only make the crap we crap ourselves over if we can’t get our hands on it.

And this crucible of destruction coincides with our increasing concern for justice and freedom. They go hand in hand, it would seem to me.

The old telling-off politics is rotten and a destruction because we are all elements in this destruction. And the sooner we invent new politics and new thinking around turning round pollution and getting rid of the energy we devote to blaming, then the sooner will we bring the future a future.