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More reasons not to shop
Joanna Blythman: Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets. Harper Perennial £7.99

Supermarkets: places to buy food at low prices, selling a wide range of produce in bright well-lit shops situated in convenient locations, with everything designed to make life easier for customers. If that’s your view of what supermarkets are, then Shopped is likely to change your mind.

For one thing the illusion of choice is just that – an illusion. Many companies make ready meals for a variety of supermarket chains, for instance. More generally, the supermarkets sell what suits them, not what the customer might want. Fruit and veg in particular have to fit a standard model in terms of size, colour and shape, just because that makes them easier (= cheaper) to transport and display. Any offerings that don’t come up to standard (e.g. because of minor blemishes) will be rejected, at the supplier’s expense. This might include, for instance, cauliflowers that are ‘not white enough’. One consequence of this emphasis on uniformity is a drastic reduction in the number of varieties grown, which puts in danger the genetic spread that can help to reduce the impact of disease.

The suppliers (from largish companies to small farmers) are often at the supermarkets’ mercy in other ways too. They may be encouraged to sell their produce to one chain exclusively, invest in new equipment, and then be dropped from the approved list for no apparent reason. If they complain about the supermarket’s stranglehold on their sales, they will be threatened with delisting. Customer complaints are passed on by the supermarkets to the suppliers. Low prices at the counter are enabled by ever-lower prices to the supplier: cereal farmers, for instance, get just 8 percent of the price of a loaf of bread.

Supermarket profits of course come not just from the way they exercise their power over the suppliers, but from the way they exploit their own staff. With pay rates at levels like £4.94 an hour, compared to the £4million that the boss of Tesco’s was paid in 2003, it’s easy to see why some of the bigger chains have an annual staff turnover exceeding 20 percent.

And the ‘fresh’ food they sell is often not fresh at all. It is quite likely picked prematurely, before developing its full flavour, so it can withstand a few days’ shelf life and then a few more in the customer’s home. Taste and nutrition come a long way second to appearance and how long the food will keep. Wholesale markets like Covent Garden now supply greengrocers and restaurants with decent fruit and veg, while supermarket shelves are weighed down with tasteless, unripe pap, much of it grown on vast plantations in places such as Lincolnshire.

Nor is food-selling the be-all-and-end-all. Supermarkets have for some time been expanding into areas like insurance, wills, credit cards, books, CDs, key-cutting, and so on. If they could get away with it, they’d probably stop selling unprocessed food (processed food is far more profitable), but they know that ‘fresh’ meat and veg does get customers into the stores. Tesco is approaching a 30 percent share in UK consumer spending (that’s total spending, not just on food).

One of the blurbs the cover of Shopped says it “should be required reading in every household”. Well, the Socialist Standard would be a better choice for this, but Shopped does give a pretty good idea of the power of big companies under capitalism and the reasons why the customer is certainly not in charge.

The Windmills of Change

In Search of Sustainability. Edited by J. Goldie, B. Douglas, and B. Furnass.
CSIRO Publishing, Australia 2005

Sustainability can be an unquestionably good thing or not it depends on what you want to sustain. In this collection of twelve essays by academics in different fields of environmental research the editors define sustainability as the capacity of human systems to provide for the full range of human concerns in the long term. Sustainability, when applied to humans, refers both to long-term survival of our species and the quality of our lives.

There are chapters on ten areas of concern: health, inequality, limited growth, land use, water, climate change, energy, transport, work and population. A final chapter is about achieving a sustainable future. The recommendations are all of a motherhood nature and well known to those in the environmental trade. For example, children must better understand the ecological framework within which the human species lives, we must shift away from the pursuit of economic growth as an end in itself and promote affordable renewable technologies.

Plenty of talk about key issues we must address, challenges we must face, changes in our current approaches we must make. But not a solid word about the need to fundamentally change the system from capitalism to something else. Capitalism does get a mention in the article on limiting growth, but the worry there is that capitalism will collapse and throw everything into chaos.

The editors believe that sustainability can provide the vision we need to draw together the government, the private sector community and academics to help solve our many deep-seated problems. So no real revolution there, then. Indeed, one of the contributors trots out what amounts to the human nature objection to socialism. Comparing modern nation-states to ancestral warring tribes, he suggests that this competitiveness, selfishness and short termism is deeply programmed into the human species. It may suit defenders of capitalism to draw attention to such alleged deep programming, but socialists rely on other demonstrable characteristics of the human species: mutual aid, co-operation and (despite the dominant ideology of capitalism) the capacity to think and plan for the long term.

SRP

TV Review

Supervolcano,

Sun 13th and Mon 14th March, BBC1

Supervolcano: The Truth About Yellowstone
Sun 13th and Mon 14th March, BBC2

Considering that science is a constant adventure of astonishing discovery it’s amazing how many people have no interest in it, a fact which explains why ‘serious’ programmes like BBC Horizon are nevertheless obliged to adopt a relentlessly sensational and tabloid approach to everything they do. Drama documentaries about super-eruptions killing off most of the USA are the apotheosis of TV schedulers’ attempts to tick their public service education boxes and still keep the viewers. ‘Super-volcano overdue!’ they cry. ‘Millions dead!’ ‘Civilisation in ruins!’ Buried underneath a hundred feet of hyperbole, like a dead dog at Pompeii, is the prosaic fact that this event is only really expected some time in the next 60,000 years and that meanwhile there may be more pressing concerns facing us all.

One wonders if viewers would be so interested if the offending volcano was one of those in the Sumatra chain, like the Toba volcano that apparently brought us to the edge of extinction 74,000 years ago. Or does the idea of cataclysm in the heart of the world’s only superpower carry with it the extra frisson of schadenfreude, as we contemplate the Americans being spectacularly trashed instead of dishing it out for a change? Perhaps it is simply logical that a major disaster in America would have more far-reaching effects across the world because as we all know America is the prop holding up global civilisation.

Interest in supervolcanoes and Yellowstone in particular was sparked by Horizon two years ago, but the recent tsunami has primed the TV viewer for a big ‘what-if’ docu-drama and the sleeping giant in Wyoming is clearly an irresistible subject. Besides, Hollywood proved with ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ that disaster sells, especially if you sex up the boring facts a little. Given that capitalism is such a miserable struggle for existence for most people there’s a strong psychological impulsion to comfort oneself in the knowledge that things could be a lot worse, and for morale’s sake it’s best to find something that can’t be blamed on capitalism.

But for all the Armageddon prophesying, what would really be the result of such an event? The four horsemen of the apocalypse would have to ride forth and ravage the New World in their spare time, since they’re already so busy elsewhere. Imagine making a programme with the idea that five million kids were going to die pointlessly because they couldn’t get decent drinking water. Viewers would switch over to Pop Idols immediately. Natural disasters like that happen already, so what’s exciting about that? Besides, goes the secret thinking, they’re just poor black kids and they’ve all got AIDS anyway.

What would make a programme like this truly scary is if it was made in the context of a cooperative socialist society. Then it would run like this: first you get the disaster, then you get the breakdown of society and the halting of production, then (shock horror!) it might get so bad that you collapse backwards into the barbarity, cruelty and unequal distribution of resources that characterised the previous age – of capitalism. If socialists wanted to give each other nightmares, they couldn’t do better than paint millenarian scenarios of a return to capitalism to each other. But of course, people in a socialist society would be life-affirming and positive about the future, not paranoid and neurotic neurasthenics paralysed into hopeless contemplation of a society that is in reality one long slow-motion train-wreck. Yellowstone wouldn’t kill a fraction of the people that capitalism routinely kills every year. Capitalism is the world’s worst natural disaster bar none. Now, where’s the drama documentary about that?

PJS