Sunday, September 23, 2012

Consumerism and its complexities (abridged)

Ban the Barcode (2012) Kodakotype by Pants

I half-heard an item on the radio recently about the possibility that Australia might dispense with coins entirely in the near future. The problem is that few people now pay in cash, even for a couple of supermarket items or a coffee. The Australian Mint is teetering on the cusp of viability. It may be reduced to producing coins for other nearby countries and collectible limited editions for the local market. No wonder ads for these seem to be showing up in my letterbox rather a lot lately.

We've already lost the 1c and 2c coins and prices are 'rounded' if you're paying in cash. The 'rounding' is a bit strange, calling to mind a couple of memories. On my first trip to Italy in the early 1980s, the nation was in the grip of that strange phenomenon of the period, stagflation. The lira denominations were all in thousands and hundreds of thousands. You sure had to keep an eye on the number of noughts on your notes. I actually don't remember any coins, but surely there had to have been some. Rome without coins would be like a movie without popcorn. I do remember handing over a fistful of notes in the supermarket and receiving a couple of boiled sweets as change.

The other memory I have from around the same time, and this really speaks to my general distrust of the mechanisation of human transactions, is that there was a celebrated case in Britain of a bank employee who diverted fractions of interest-earned pennies that would normally go to the bank into his own account. Because there is no such thing as 'a bit of a penny', the bank didn't miss what it didn't think it had. That fractions of a unit that is fixed and finite can add and multiply was just too weird to trust at the time. That was the eighties and this is now. People are making fortunes on any number of things that don't exist.

I like cash. I like to pay in cash. I budget even when I don't need to. This is very likely a self-delusional game that I play to convince myself that I am pious and spartan when, in fact, I could have anything I want within the scope of middle-class reason. But, then again, for someone with a work history for which 'chequered' would appear to be a supreme compliment, I seem to have rather a sound asset base. I must be doing something right. I suspect that something might be a parsimony that frequently topples into meanness.

Not everyone who pays by card instead of cash is doing so to incur debt. A lot of people who could pay with cash use their cards for the 'rewards'. The price paid in lost privacy for a minuscule discount seems absurdly high to me. But I'm one of those people who thinks that someone, somewhere will find a way to use all that data in ways that are contrary to the common good. In my mind, it's entirely possible that, in the future, decisions may be made about a person's entitlement to care or treatment based on this kind of data. 

Paranoid? Very likely. But, market-based economies don't tend to tolerate loss-making activity. Already Australians are beginning to fret about how all those baby boomers are going to be looked after once they stop contributing to the tax base. You see the logic deficit? That's what worries me. I'm at the tail end of that demographic. By the time I reach old age, believe me, they'll be looking for reasons not to care. They won't find them in my credit card bills.

But that's not why I like coins. I have a fair collection of foreign coins, many of them no longer in circulation. I like them as objects. I sometimes use them in artworks, most notably in my only piece of 'public art' back in 2007. Coins are the bones of antiquity and the precious metal of childhood. Oh the joy of filling a Commonwealth Bank money box! It was all so much more seemly when wealth could be weighed.

There is nothing that pleases me more than to spend the last couple of dollars in my purse on something worthwhile, like a second-hand book. When I lived in London I often used to empty all the coins left in my purse in a piece of our shared garden where the children played and listen for their glee as they found them.

In a nation obsessed with an individual's net worth, I make it a point not to care about mine or anyone else's. In any case, one's true wealth is measured in small change.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Go fish

Larrikin's End Pilchard Catch by Pants

For days I've been thinking 'must write something on the blog'. And then, this morning, I woke up with a notion to write about fish - a subject about which I know nothing. That's okay because no one else in Australia does either.

In the last twenty-four breathless hours, our government has conjured a hasty plan to prevent a newly arrived super-trawler formerly known as the Margiris from operating in our waters for up to two years. If successful, the moratorium will, presumably, give everyone time to get a firm fix on the bleedin' obvious, i.e. that it's not a terribly good idea to invite the world to dinner if you haven't done a stocktake on the larder yet. At the time of writing, the matter is still being squabbled over in Parliament.

The Margiris has now been renamed the Abel Tasman after one of our venerable explorers, presumably to make it sound like it's giving rather than taking. This giant Dyson of the seas, which set a course for our fisheries some seven years ago, suddenly appeared as if via apparition, and was greeted with the sort of warmth we normally reserve for asylum-seekers. We specialise in panic politics in this country.

As always with these things, it's not easy to get a fix on the governing 'science' so I'm not going to bother. There's a reasonable round-up of the various opinions here. Instead, I'm going to talk about my own town of Larrikin's End which is, as luck would ordain, a fishing town.

The Larrikin's End fleet operates as a co-operative with around a hundred boats fishing Bass Strait. Our area is part of the Commonwealth Small Pelagic Fishery, a constituency that covers roughly a third of Australia's coastline. The new super-trawler would be operating in these waters too. The Co-op itself has around 80 full and part-time employees and runs a processing plant, fishing supply and equipment business, (which includes the sale of fuel), as well as a fresh fish market and takeaway chippie. I would guess that the fishing industry supports ten per cent or more of local jobs, depending on the season. Most of the catch is exported but there is still a plentiful supply of cheap seafood for restaurants, residents and tourists.

Local gossip has it that the Co-op is not particularly well run. For reasons that have never made any sense to me, the usual reaction to a community-owned business that is 'not particularly well run' is to replace it with an offshore, multinational Godzilla rather than call in a management consultant or TV programme to help it sort out its 'issues'. Not that I'm saying that such action has ever been on the cards here, mind, but it does seem obvious that if a giant floating fish factory shows up, it would tend to raise the question of whether or not there are enough fish in the sea, so to speak, to support both industry models. You can imagine the sort of scenario that might play out, given a fair wind and the usual menu of worn clich├ęs if push came to shove.

Australians are obsessed with the concept of 'food security' which, given that we waste roughly half of the food we buy, is something of an irony. Even more peculiar is that our paranoia is much more likely to be focused on land-based production, (which we can obviously control), rather than offshore capacity, which is clearly vulnerable to covert exploitation. Bordering on the absurd, is the argument that the perceived solution to this imagined 'food security problem' is more likely to involve the participation of an agri-leviathan than it is small, locally owned and run community businesses. Despite the Government's rushed proposal bearing the hallmark of a panic attack, legislation to prevent the possibility that the oceans might be emptied by stealth while everyone is watching a football final one Saturday afternoon seems like a reasonably good idea.

Here in Larrikin's End, food security isn't something we talk about a lot. It is probably the most food-secure place on the planet. In addition to our varied fish stocks, we are surrounded by dairy and beef cattle, sheep and poultry farms, fruit and vegetable growers and, crucially, wineries. Most of these are co-operatives and/or family-owned enterprises. Even Seat of Pants has a credible vegetable patch. But do you hear about these successes? You do not. You hear only that we will all starve without bio-monsters to feed us. Oh, and we also have a very visible population of the kind of cuddly marine mammals that often end up in super-trawler nets along with the charmless creatures destined for a future as fish fingers, i.e. dolphins and seals. To us, a super-trawler is about as welcome as a vegan at a barbecue.

Another of our national obsessions is something we call 'stainabiliddy'. We do not know what it is but, by crikey, we are scared of it, or the loss of it, or whatever. Now, I cannot advise on who one should believe when it comes to information about whether or not our fish stocks are 'stainable'. It's clearly difficult to verify because fish are a bit hard to count. I do, however,  know that it is quite easy to tell when there are none left. By then, of course, it's too late to do anything about it. One can hardly start protesting while a super-trawler steams away with its giant belly bulging, leaving us with only a semaphore message reading, 'so long and thanks for all the fish'.

For purely practical reasons, I would suggest that local fishers are always a more reliable source of accurate information. They and their antecedents have been fishing their waters for generations and have the means and motivation to compare fish numbers from year to year. Their vested interest lies in leaving some fish in the ocean for future catch. The owners of a super-trawler have no such incentive. If they deplete fish stocks, (as the Margiris apparently has done in northern waters according to Greenpeace), they can simply up anchor and move on to another piece of ocean without the bother of having to explain to their neighbours why and how they have managed to fuck the forseeable future.

At the moment, all is conjecture but it seems to me absurd to be living in a country where officials are constantly banging on about 'maintaining biodiversity' and 'protecting fragile ecosystems' and thinking that only means safeguarding platypus habitats and encouraging people to grow kangaroo paw in their gardens instead of English roses. Here in Larrikin's End, we do have a 'stainable' fishery with many inter-related industries, all built on local expertise and tradition. This town's identity and strength is fish and fishing and it supports a wide web of professional and recreational activity. And it's owned and controlled by local people with local knowledge and local interests. 

I'm not concluding that the future of our town is necessarily threatened by the presence of one super-trawler in our hemisphere. I'm merely suggesting that an understanding of the value of accumulated local knowledge and expertise and the basic human desire for autonomy and co-operation doesn't seem to be factored in to the cost/benefit analyses that appear to be influencing our politicians when it comes to helping us to work out how to live. I agree that it's terribly important that world leaders concern themselves with making sure that there is enough food for everyone. The solution, I venture, lies in tackling what is not working rather than fucking up what is...