18 May 2007

Middle class guilt and doing the 'right thing'

filed under: journal  :: environment  :: modern life

I caught the last half of a somewhat quirky documentary on BBC Two the other night, called The New Middle Classes (it was part of the excellent Time Shift series). While it was talking about the "new middle classes" in the UK (which still has to be one of the most class-conscious nations in the world), one point they made rings true, I think, for 'middle class' people everywhere: the sense of guilt alleviation and self-satisfaction that is brought along by doing the 'right things'. The right things include eating (and shopping for) organic / locally produced / free trade food, recycling (those PET bottles of Fiji Spring Water for instance), composting, and such.

I think that we are pretty much middle class, and so are most of our friends and family. Just about everyone I know does all of the above to varying degrees. Yet, as the documentary pointed out, almost none of us are willing to make sacrifices in other ways, such as eschewing air travel (made ever more affordable by low cost airlines), giving up the family car or cars, the second home that can only be reached by plane or a long car trip, or even giving up bottled water in favor of tap water. The quintessential image is of the earnest middle class couple or family driving around in a gas-guzzling SUV to purchase organic/locally grown food at the farmer's market. And, most of us don't really eat organic local food all the time either, especially when it's inconvenient for us, such as in the middle of winter. To make up for all that we try to do the 'right thing' with the organic etc. purchases. The documentary mentioned that the top selling organic / free trade etc. brands tended to be the ones that are most on display for other people to see, like colorful organic juice packs and fair trade chocolate.

The show even went as far as saying that in a largely secular society (such as exists in most Western European countries, Japan, and in at least some regions of the U.S.), there was a need to have other ways of alleviating our sense of guilt, and recycling and so on filled a spiritual need. Far fetched? Maybe, but not by that much. Buying tree saplings to offset our CO2 emissions may be the new form of tithing.

(So, is blogging about eating 'right', growing our own vegetables for the sake of high princple, and such a new form of public confessional?)

I guess it's all better than doing nothing at all though.

For the record, we don't own a car (but it's not so inconvenient not to, given the quality of the Swiss transportation system). We grow some vegetables and herbs in the garden and we try to more or less eat seasonally and locally and organically (though the motivation for those things has more to do with a selfish pursuit of taste, quality and price than trying to 'be good'). I've been a long time fan of Body Shop products (though my favorite face concoctions are from Shiseido, which is definitely not new age-y in any shape or form, and comes expensively shipped from Japan). We recycle all the paper and cartons and bottles an so on (but our local garbage disposal regulations more or less mandate that) and compost our vegetable waste (to feed the garden). But, I can't totally get away from buying bottled water because of the convenience, though at least we don't buy water from far-off Pacific islands. And we travel quite a lot, by air. We're planning a trip, by car (though not SUV), to Provence in a couple of weeks, and we're even thinking seriously of trying to buy a small house there, eventually.

Time to plant some trees.

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