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Our ‘consumer culture’ is not ‘a choice’

In Doing it the German way (Guardian, 31 December) Jonathan Glancey argues that the British economy is built on flimsy and unreliable foundations and Britain should be making more things:

At its best, the making of things is an all-absorbing activity. It seems odd to have so many people in Britain making things purely as a hobby, when we might be earning our living making high-quality modern products every bit as desirable in their own way as bright new BMWs. The truth is, a consumer or service economy will never make us happy. It is time to curb the shopping, and the environmental destruction this involves, and to rescue ourselves economically, and in terms of wellbeing, through more of us making intelligent, useful and profitable things contentedly and well.

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Glancey is right to celebrate the increased UK interest in the culture and craft of making But he, and some of the respondents to his article, seem to consider our ‘consumer culture’ to be a choice. It isn’t. Britain was the first country to industrialise and is farthest along the industrial cycle – partly thanks to it not having faced bankruptcy and the complete destruction of its industry by war. A century ago it found a role as the global investor – and latterly a provider of services to other global investors – and it is thus more exposed to global economic developments.

The alternative Glancey imagines cannot be wished into existence. But we could significantly alter the balance of the British economy if we had political leadership that could think big and envision better futures, we took R&D seriously, accepted risk and tolerated failure, thought globally, and trusted ordinary people. The latter is a characteristic of BMW, which Glancey lauds. Any UK industrial policy needs to recognise that BMW’s products are more like mobile computers than cars, and that Britain should be inventing new forms of transportation more than aping past industrial success stories.

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