Flickering Green Light

Pop a teaspoon in your pocket.

Fitzgerald’s enigmatic anti-hero in “The Great Gatsby” has seen a resurgence in popularity at the dawn of the 21st Century as a poster child for optimism, tenacity and the power of a bit of hard slog. Yet, it is the crass desire and dishonesty contained therein that rings so very true today, here in China and far beyond.

This century is a pretty radical place in which to live. Last season’s wardrobe is not fit to wipe your shoes with once the new season hits the stores, usually a good two months before the weather has any inclination of changing. While hard-loving protagonist Gatsby, whose lust for his former love ultimately leads to an empty victory, one in which neither he nor she finds the happiness so long awaited, so too today, consumerism is gobbling us up. Unrequited desire is chomping away at the soul of humanity. Jay Gatsby knew all about it. Fitzgerald called it in the midst of the swinging Jazz Age. In a world where out with the old and in with the new is the new swish-swoo, what then, is the cost of achieving goals or attaining the objects of our hearts desire?

As a species, we now prefer to drill into the earth to extract petroleum, then refine and process it into a plastic spoon to use once and dump it into an unlined, unrefined landfill in the subcontinent, rather than wash a spoon after ourselves. Taobao has stolen Christmas’ thunder, parcels and presents, along with the anticipation, delicious and dripping, that went with receiving a long-awaited gift. Grit and resilience come from training the mind to wait, to be patient; to work toward a goal. Just as Jay Gatsby amassed a great material fortune to try to fill the void left by spiritual dissatisfaction, so too do we sacrifice the pleasure of receiving a long-awaited spoil.

Birthdays are now a head-scratching dilemma; what to buy for the person who has everything? The fast fashion industry, which keeps us all in our glad rags, season in, season out, is crippling local textile industries in East Africa by flooding the market with cheap, second hand clothes. In 2016, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda announced a phase out of all imported, used clothes for the domestic market in an attempt to revive their flailing textile industries and create employment. In March, 2018, the USA imposed monetary sanctions on Rwanda, restricting its permission to export certain items duty-free to the US, a status it enjoys under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).

Both Tanzania and Uganda bowed to pressure and will continue to import used clothes from America, even though it is crippling their own garment industries.

The US has been criticised for punishing the tiny, landlocked African country for trying to protect and potentiate its nascent garment industry, whilst humming and hawing over how to remonstrate its mega-rich buddy, Saudi Arabia, for losing journalists in the Saudi Consulate of Turkey.

On the moral ambivalence that seems to accompany the malaise of “disposable culture,” Pope Francis, in his 2016 encyclical, Laudato si, addressed the ethical responsibilities that come with wealth and power, criticising the “attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals”. This tendency to stick to the letter of the law, in the case of Rwanda, regardless of the equity or fairness of the issue, is symptomatic of this disposable culture.

Pope Francis calls it a “throwaway culture” and links many of the current ills of the world to its incipient spread throughout the globe. The tendency to dump stuff, rather than reuse it, leads to a constant race for the next bigger, better, sexier status symbol. Chillingly, Pope Francis also contends that this tendency towards discarding rather than reusing extends as far as people themselves. The current trend of disposing of unwanted babies, the elderly and the poor are offered as examples. Contentious issues such as abortion, euthanasia, divorce and the treatment of developing countries by the first world have spearheaded this critique. It would appear that mercy should only be shown to the strong, and compassion to the unrepentant.

It is easy to say, “Not Me”, but with the closure of the subcontinent as a dumping ground for the excesses of the Western world, soon the evidence of our throwaway lifestyles will literally pile up on our front doorsteps. With the advent of the Chinese ban on recycling imports of 24 varieties of solid waste (adding 32 more types to the list by the end of 2019), the developed world is scrambling to deal with the excesses of its own waste.

Australia recently announced measures to bury its excess recycling waste in landfill due to the prohibitive costs of processing it. An interesting point to note is that of the two sub headings in a CNN story reporting thereon, one focuses solely on how the “ban could hurt consumers”.

China’s stance on its role as trash disposer for the west reflects its maturing attitude as a nation. Basically, as China gets richer, it gets choosier about what it imports and from whom. Establishing itself as a main player in the global economy, China too reaches a point where it has its hands full cleaning up after its own waste, leaving the western world with a mountain of rubbish and no idea what to do with it.

The Great Gatsby tells the sorry tale of Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire obsessed with winning back the heart of his beloved Daisy. While he amasses a fine fortune, throwing sick parties every weekend with the sole intention of catching her eye, Gatsby spends his nights staring across the bay at the green light on Daisy’s porch, dreaming of the day when she will be his once more.

We, the readers, are left with a stone of pity in our stomachs for the bootlegging rascal. Even when he achieves his heart’s desire, Gatsby’s mind is already racing ahead to the next goal, the next achievement, the next triumph; that Daisy must declare that she never loved her husband to begin with. Human nature is a sticky, tricky thing.

Like Gatsby, we have amassed such a vast amount of stuff, we do not know what to do with it. Yet, the gnawing persists, but perhaps now, we can pause a moment, and look down from the green light for long enough to see below the sea of trash that threatens not only our planet, but our very humanity. Pop a teaspoon in your pocket. Make a change today, for the Great Gatsby is back in fashion.

First Published in The Nanjinger, Dec. 2018

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