…in other people’s misery

My worldview was formed in the 1970s, when (it seemed to me) there was no such thing as lifestyle: to say that personal choices mattered, were worthy of attention, was to say that the personal was political, which in turn connected those choices to a whole range of broader commitments. Because it all was connected, if you looked into it; there was no such thing as a ‘single issue’. Nuclear disarmament was linked to nuclear power, which was linked (via uranium mining) to apartheid South Africa, which was linked to Israel, which was linked to nuclear disarmament… and so on. Taking your lifestyle seriously meant that you took life seriously; if you got your veg from a wholefood shop, the chances were that you got your reading matter from a radical bookshop and your clothes (well, some of them) from a fair-trade outlet.

These days, of course, the radical bookshops are few and far between, but the wholefood shops and the fair-trade clothing outlets are doing good business. The general loss of faith in the political – specifically, in a Left that could actually change things – seems to have been compensated by a belief that the personal is political enough: spend your money the right way and you’ve done your bit. It may not actually, visibly, verifiably change anything, but it’s bound to do some good – and besides, it means you know you’ve done the right thing, and that alone is enough to make you feel better. It’s ethical consumerism as a source of emotional treats; you pay more for the Fair Trade label for the same reason you pay more for 70% cocoa solids, because it’s a luxury and it makes you feel good to be able to afford it. The consciousness of living an ethical lifestyle can even be a treat in itself, to go with other treats. We’ve got a food and drink festival starting here soon; its slogan is “Walk local, eat and drink global”. Think local, act global, in other words – food miles, working conditions, global division of labour, it’s all very complicated but at least if you leave the car at home you’ve done something.

It’s ethical tourism, in effect – and the tourism involved can be real as well as virtual.

Guardian Money section, 27/9/08, reader’s letter:

When I finished full-time work, my husband and I took three months off, starting in December, and travelled to Rajasthan (one month), Sri Lanka (another month), and Kerala in India for a third month. … We arrived in Sri Lanka a few days after the tsunami, when all the other tourists were leaving. It was the best part of our trip and we wrote a letter to the Guardian saying that a secondary disaster was taking place because there were no tourists to provide income for the locals. … [We] were charmed by how incredibly helpful everyone was, particularly the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, where people had lost everything.

I’m sure it was worth it just to see the look on their traumatised little faces.

Well, OK, I’m sure people did benefit from those tourists’ money. But on the larger scale these are surely problems that can’t be addressed in the smallest degree – that are more likely to be exacerbated – by means of a nice long holiday on the other side of the world. Third World poverty isn’t going to be alleviated by First World tourism, any more than climate change is going to be reversed by long-haul flights. Of course these are huge, intractable, complex problems, which one or two people aren’t going to be able to solve whatever they do with their holiday fund. But that’s exactly why lifestyle can’t be enough; that’s why, when we start to trace our spending choices back into the wider world, we need to keep pulling on those threads until we’re hauling in the ropes of structural exploitation and injustice. In other words, that’s why we have politics, and political parties, and mass movements.

At least, that’s why we used to.

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