Now that I’ve decided 2017 will be my most frugal year ever, I’ve been working on finding lots of free things to do to fill my days (boredom is a huge spending trigger, after all). Earlier this week I went to go see a free showing of the 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes, followed by a Q&A with the producers. I’m not just happy I saw this film because it was a free way to spend an evening; I’m thrilled I saw it because it shook me to the core.
Have you ever looked at an item you wanted to buy in a shop, under bright store lights and posed tantalizingly on it’s display, and think, where did this object come from? I know it may say made in China, or India, or Italy, etc, but do you know exactly where? Have you thought about the person who held that item in their hands as they made it, or assembled it, or packaged it up, so it can eventually land in your hands? Speaking of packaging, where did that wrapping come from? Who are the people that helped produce that wrapping, then ship it out to wherever your new item was, wherever it was at that stage? Who put it all together? Hey, how did item arrive to my country, my city, my local mall? Did it come on a ship? Then trucks? Oh wow, how much fuel did that all take?! How journey did this shiny new object take to get here?
This film had me asking all of those questions, really opening my eyes to the hidden journey almost every item I own has ever took. I realized that the short lifecycle of me going to the mall to pick up the item that’s been displayed and then styled for sale by a retailer is the last 5% of that item’s journey up until that point. The other 95% I am pretty much oblivious to. It also made me realize that when I throw away an item, the short lifecycle of trashcan to curb to truck pick-up to landfill is also just the beginning 5% of that item’s exit journey. When it comes to the truth of where my cornucopia of things I possess really come from, I’ve been completely living in the dark; a bright, stylized, beautifully-packaged and LED-lit darkness.
In short, the doc explored the changes we make to the world’s landscapes in order to produce goods, extract resources like coal and oil to create and then move the “things” that make up our modern lifestyle. It wasn’t an environmentalist’s manifesto and there was no narrative telling us to use less or to fight for any cause; in the words of the producers, this film was not meant to have a politicized tone (so that it can reach more ears, unfettered by politics). However as a human with any sense of empathy, I can’t help but look at the images with horror and a sick sense in my stomach that I – yes, me specifically – contributes to that pillaging of our earth.
The majority of the doc is shot in China, and profiles some of the mega-factories that produce goods you and I buy like fans or food processors. Row upon countless row of workers at repetitive tasks for hours a day so they can make me my things. One focus was on a young woman, perhaps my age, who works hours a day puncturing earphone pieces with a needle so the sound can travel through. That’s it. Thousands of little punctures, in a factory, for hours, for days, for years. You begin to wonder, what is it that truly makes a life. I wanted to slap myself silly for complaining about my tedious job that simply isn’t my passion. To think the people making my myriad of unnecessary goods find their wildest passions in putting together iPhones or J. Crew sweaters.
By the time the film covered the “e-waste” that is over 50% of the worlds discarded computers that wind up in Chinese ports, then shipped and dumped in the middle of a city so that their citizens can heat up the boards and strip them for their parts, I felt thoroughly ill. The film illuminated that the heat on these boards lets out emissions of cadmium, lead, and other toxic metals. You know which city takes care of e-waste because you can smell the toxins from about 10 kilometers away. The citizens now must bring in drinking water as these piles of our e-garbage sitting in the middle of their town squares releases chemicals into their water table every time it rains and now everything is contaminated.
Where my heart really broke is realizing that landscape has been changed so much by my waste that there’s nowhere for the kids to play but on top of these piles of garbage. One shot showed a group of adorable little girls climbing onto a pile of plastic discs that once fit on top of our rotary phones. If you wonder where all those rotary phones we all had once went after we tossed them in the trash, well I can tell you that as of 2006, they’re sitting in the middle of a town square in China.
Once the film got to the young men in Bangladesh that wade in and out of oil and toxic chemicals every day to rip apart the old oil ships that likely brought some of the oil and gas I use myself for my lifestyle, my own voice kept screaming at me internally that I cannot buy any “thing” new, ever again. I can’t keep contributing to this destruction, to the utter demolition of the planet – my planet, my home – because of the manufacture and shipping and then waste management of the hundreds upon thousands of “things” I’ll use in my lifespan that we’ve decided here in the West makes a worthy life. I have a roof over my head filled with beings I love, enough items to keep me clothed and able to carry on a healthy lifestyle and participate in gainful employment. Anything else new I get at this point is excess and gluttony. To anyone who thinks this is extreme, one look in my closets and drawers proves I’ve been quite extreme in my accumulation and gosh knows I have everything I need to survive… and then some.
So what does this mean for me? It means I’m going to really appreciate, cherish, and get good value and use of the things I’ve already purchased, really honouring and respecting the resources, human efforts, and money that’s already invested into each item. When it comes to clothing, shoes, knick-knacks, et al, there is no item that could wear out that I wouldn’t have dozens of replacements for. For home goods that may reach their end- blenders, vacuums, coffee tables – there is such a large secondhand network here where I live that it would be silly to waste resources gaining something new, and I’ll get an opportunity to salvage something that may have been turned into waste, and/or guzzled resources to be shipped to become waste elsewhere. Between craigslist, kijiji, letgo.ca, and many Buy Nothing compacts out there, I’m certain I can source anything that needs to replacement any potential worn or broken down objects.
I should note I didn’t grow up buying used, and my family entrenched me in what Mrs. Frugalwoods describes as the “myth of the gross used things.” Which is ridiculous, considering that our “new” things have lived amongst gosh knows what in shipyards and containers and warehouses and stockrooms before we purchased them. I’m ready to fully let go of the gross used things myth now. Seeing how much of this fragile earth I destroy whenever I buy another unnecessary thing makes me feel much more disgusted and gross then the thought of scrubbing down a previously used coffee table.
I know this is anything but a feel-good post, but this is an ugly truth. I think we often learn to shift away from the uncomfortable to the feel good, from heavy burdens we share the onus for to small, light wins. But I can’t ignore my role in this. Saving money didn’t make me stop shopping, my colossal debt didn’t make me stop shopping, and the thought of building a solid financial future didn’t make me stop shopping. Maybe it’s high time I pulled out the big guns and realized that taking care of the planet I live on and not exploiting those I share it with be the reason I make a change, and that I make it now.