I am sitting in one of those great cathedrals of consumption, the mega-mall. This one is in Lisbon, across two huge floors and two huge underground parking arenas. There are many others in the city like this, along with the smaller shopping venues and streets where we all congregate. It is designed to impress, with scatterings of carefully planned seating areas, each with their own bespoke furniture and ‘feel’, plus play spaces for children throughout.
These spaces are branded and policed. Each store fits neatly and brightly within the space it rents. Empty slots are hidden behind hoardings of beautiful people laughing and smiling, like Siren songs beckoning with the promise of a ‘lifestyle’. When I arrived I thought about maybe looking at the sale rails and treating myself to a new dress, but I promptly reversed out of the shop, knowing I didn’t need or want it really.
I watch now, as families and couples, individuals and groups meander through the space. They browse and ponder what to spend their disposable income on, pointing and discussing fabrics, cuts and accessories. It seems like a meaningful task for each and I remember when I too, was entranced with these pretty lies. These are safe spaces, no place where you will be confronted by a drunk or homeless soul, nothing is rough or unkempt. The uniformed cleaners mill about quietly, pushing their tools and seeking out the smallest pieces of detritus.
My spot is on the second floor in a ‘work space’. It has a TV screen playing a film of an aquarium scene and fake books in the friendly, bookshelf cubby-holes. The chairs are comfortable and plush, with three other people also working at their screens on a Sunday. I can smell coffee and I’m listening to an inoffensive ballad through hidden speakers. A child in a small motorised car, controlled by their parents walking slightly behind, powers past.
It is a world within a world. Without links to the outside, we could all be anywhere in anyplace. Voices are muffled and indistinguishable, dampened by the space and the light from outside is obscured by sails positioned across the skylights. There is only one purpose in this arena, to consume, nothing more, nothing less. Without access to money here, you are not welcome or wanted.
As I sit, I wonder how many of these folks understand the enormity of the challenges humanity faces. Probably a lot, maybe not many, regardless, this carefully constructed plot, once home to trees and wilderness, has become an anaesthetic against these horrors. A soulless building, comfortable and manicured, a place to parade through and shop as if nothing in the world mattered. I wonder what everyone would be doing if they weren’t here..?
I can understand the draw of these spaces, although no-one except the hoarding pictures are laughing. Perhaps a few groups of girls, with their excuse of shopping as a socialable pastime. That was me twenty plus years ago, so ingrained by cultural norms that it was our go to activity, embedded in the TV and films we watched — “What are you talking about? Football… What are you talking about? Shopping”.
Everyone here is clothed already, some are carrying bags and bags of items. I wonder how much was really needed, really wanted, and how much will be worn and discarded well before time. All this stuff came from somewhere, was made by someone, someone probably far away, working in a great factory that spans a similar proportion to this space, for pittance an hour, for a vast chunk of their lives.
What would happen if we all stop consuming these things and the economic system, built on this constant cycle of consumption, discard and more consumption stopped? It is hard to consider. The wealth measured by our Governments relies on this constant level of spending and consumption. If we start saving and stop buying we fall into recession. What would the workers do with their time, here and abroad, what would fulfill their lives in the same way? It is nearly impossible to detangle the processes and implications of reduced consumption.
Perhaps, we will all move into a virtual world, start buying virtual goods for our virtual selves. What I’ve read so far about these digital spaces doesn’t fill me with contentment, although I see the potential for open discourse and learning from other cultures in far-flung places. It currently feels that they are constructing the same systems into these places, not surprising given our existing western lives.
What would a world without mass consumption really mean, where would we do to fill the time we now don’t shop? I imagine most of the people in this place have hobbies or activities that give them joy. Is it here that we can prise them away from the safe spaces and towards paths that are more meaningful? If the energy that was being given now, by all the people pacing up and down around the tracks of shops, was redirected towards their communities, what might be achieved?
I don’t have the answers to mass mobilisation. I want to stand and shout, or randomly ask people as they pass these questions. But, this is not the space or time, and I’m fairly confident security would quickly hurry me away so as to not disturb the status quo. Privatised and public, but only if you are good and only if you can afford it. No awe, no nature, just a reductionist and passive space to while away our short lives. Piped air and piped music.
I can only speak for myself when I talk about my humaness. I can watch my children and imagine their worlds, remembering the fullness of make believe and wonder. Their’s is not mine though. My memories of these dream worlds are faded and fogged by the past, a distance long-gone. Their’s are vivid and lived, as they crash over sofas, screaming and shouting, raising merry hell.
My humaness resides in middle age. Awake and aware, receiving a constant stream of information and learning, knowledge sought deliberately and news not wanted. Am I odd when I smile at the flight of a bee, or delight in the songs of the birds? Do these small wonders affect others in the same way, or is this now an old way dying?
Attached to a handheld computer with the sum of all human knowledge seemingly at our fingertips, collectively we have a vast wealth in our hands. Where is the spark this evolution has provided? My late Dad was in awe when he viewed a video on a mobile, remembering how he had wheeled the gramaphone across to his local park, spending the evenings listening to jazz and drinking with his friends.
The people next to me are together and not. Both engrossed on their screens, in a cathedral to consumption, consumed by unreality. They are not smiling, just watching something and scrolling by. Two older men are dozing in the booth opposite, perhaps waiting for their partners, taking time out for good behaviour. The only people not playing by the rules in this place are the children in meltdown, no longer satiated by the plastic play spaces or fast food.
I want more than this. This place is suffocating me and deadening my brain. It is my hell. I want a breeze and sky, spots of shade as the clouds pass by. I want fragrance and sound, stuff that cannot be bought here. I am more than this. More than just a debit card spending money, more than just a minute piece of a economic system. The artist in me sees more, feels more and wants more. I want it for everyone. A power, a spark, the joy of wonder and imagination, creation and action. More than a cog in a wheel, a manifestation of stardust and luck, walking in a body that is only partially human, realiant on beings unseen.
To provide this sense of wonder to everyone, is to provide a space to reclaim our power. My internal voice is chattering and wondering — are others doing the same? Where next for our human story? What potential lies beyond the horizons, future-imagined places where progress and advancement lie beside respect and nuture, in an abundant and thriving natural world. We need to get there fast and break out of these conventions that have bound us culturally. There is more to this life than the anaesthesia of consumption. These might be difficult paths, but at least we will feel alive.