I humbly thank you
for this life
our shared love of the land
& sustaining hope for the future
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is.
And they lived happily ever after (?)
Secondly, even the brief golden age of the last half-century may turn out to have sown the seeds of future catastrophe. Over the last few decades, we have been disturbing the ecological equilibrium of our planet in myriad new ways, with what seem likely to be dire consequences. A lot of evidence indicates that we are destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption. Finally, we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented accomplishments of modern Sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals. Much of the vaunted material wealth that shields us from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens. Over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth. If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history. When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans.
The Age of Shopping
The modern capitalist economy must constantly increase production if it is to survive, like a shark that must swim or suffocate. Yet it’s not enough just to produce. Somebody must also buy the products, or industrialists and investors alike will go bust. To prevent this catastrophe and to make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism. Most people throughout history lived under conditions of scarcity. Frugality was thus their watchword. The austere ethics of the Puritans and Spartans are but two famous examples. A good person avoided luxuries, never threw food away, and patched up torn trousers instead of buying a new pair. Only kings and nobles allowed themselves to renounce such values publicly and conspicuously flaunt their riches. Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing. It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves, and even kill themselves slowly by overconsumption. Frugality is a disease to be cured. You don’t have to look far to see the consumer ethic in action – just read the back of a cereal box. Here’s a quote from a box of one of my favourite breakfast cereals, produced by an Israeli firm, Telma: Sometimes you need a treat. Sometimes you need a little extra energy. There are times to watch your weight and times when you’ve just got to have something . . . right now! Telma offers a variety of tasty cereals just for you – treats without remorse. The same package sports an ad for another brand of cereal called Health Treats: Health Treats offers lots of grains, fruits and nuts for an experience that combines taste, pleasure and health. For an enjoyable treat in the middle of the day, suitable for a healthy lifestyle. A real treat with the wonderful taste of more [emphasis in the original]. Throughout most of history, people were likely to be have been repelled rather than attracted by such a text. They would have branded it as selfish, decadent and morally corrupt. Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology (‘ Just do it!’) to convince people that indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression.
It has succeeded. We are all good consumers. We buy countless products that we don’t really need, and that until yesterday we didn’t know existed. Manufacturers deliberately design short-term goods and invent new and unnecessary models of perfectly satisfactory products that we must purchase in order to stay ‘in’. Shopping has become a favourite pastime, and consumer goods have become essential mediators in relationships between family members, spouses and friends. Religious holidays such as Christmas have become shopping festivals. In the United States, even Memorial Day – originally a solemn day for remembering fallen soldiers – is now an occasion for special sales. Most people mark this day by going shopping, perhaps to prove that the defenders of freedom did not die in vain. The flowering of the consumerist ethic is manifested most clearly in the food market. Traditional agricultural societies lived in the awful shade of starvation. In the affluent world of today one of the leading health problems is obesity, which strikes the poor (who stuff themselves with hamburgers and pizzas) even more severely than the rich (who eat organic salads and fruit smoothies). Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world. Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice over. How can we square the consumerist ethic with the capitalist ethic of the business person, according to which profits should not be wasted, and should instead be reinvested in production? It’s simple. As in previous eras, there is today a division of labour between the elite and the masses. In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny. Today, the tables have turned. The rich take great care managing their assets and investments, while the less well heeled go into debt buying cars and televisions they don’t really need. The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’
Mottainai feels like sacrifice at first. Then it feels like the only way to live.
Lagom is the most important Swedish word you will ever learn. It goes deep into the make-up of every Swede, at home or abroad, and is part of being quintessentially Swedish. The word lagom is said to derive from the folk etymology in a phrase used in Viking times : laget om – meaning ‘around to the team’ – which was allegedly used to describe just how much mead one should drink when passing the horn around in the group. This etymology is commonly accepted to be right, although some parallels are made with the Law of Jante and the common set of rules about how much one should have of something – again, things go back to the greater good for the whole group.
The word means ‘just right’. It also means ‘just enough’, ‘sufficient’, ‘the correct amount’. In Finnish, the word is sopiva; in Norwegian and Danish, the word tilpasselig is the most fitting. It means ‘not too much, not too little’ and also means ‘fair share’. This single word denotes all of those meanings, simply depending on the context in which you use it.
There is an old saying in Sweden, lagom ar bast ( ‘lagom is best’ ), which really sums up how Swedes think and act in everyday life :
How much slice of cake would you like ? Lagom.
How are you ? Lagom.
The weather is lagom.
You drink a lagom amount of wine.
To understand lagom, you first need to first understand the Scandinavians – in particular, Swedish cultural psyche, which is one of consensus and equality for all. Swedes don’t overdo anything, there are no over-the-top buildings, no flashy show-offs. Everything is middle of the road, fair and just the right amount.
People often wonder why, with the amount of cake we eat in Scandinavian and the number of sweets consumed, are we not all as big as houses. Its because, we, lagom. Most Scandinavians wont have two buns with their fika bread, only one. One of those big bags of to-share chips may be opened alone, but you wont eat it all in one sitting. There will be mayonnaise on the open sandwiches, but its on one slice of rye bread, making it all very lagom and balanced. ‘super-size’ in fast-food restaurants isn’t really that popular – it just isnt lagom.
Its impossible to define the word lagom as a specific amount because it varies so much between people. How much cake is it appropriate to eat ? how hot is lagom when it comes to your coffee ? its a feeling, its something engrained in the culture and psyche of the people that is almost impossible to learn. But the amazing thing is : if a Swede asks you how much coffee you want and you say lagom, they will know exactly what you mean.
Look of the week
After the feminist literary festival we walk into town and go to our usual spot in Chinatown for dinner, a crowded back room where the food is cheap and the service reliably rude. Soon a couple sits at the table next to us. They’re in their 70s, and have that look that couples get when they have been together for decades – they’re not dressed alike but are certainly in sync with one another. Lightweight dark turtlenecks and city trousers, quilted coats that seem smart rather than country. The man orders two bottles of beer as they sit down. “This beer,” he says to the waitress. “We’ve been coming here for years and years, and we always have this beer.” They fuss for several minutes with their bags, ensuring they’re safe from being snatched while they eat (they are), and then she helps him choose a dish that’s in line with his various dietary requirements, and they settle.
What is it about love and friendship that spans the decades like this? On a dark cold night in the crowded city, it appears like a neon sign in a window to say something like: there are always ways to be happy together.
– The London Review of Looks by Ana Kinsella