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Excess is followed by collapse - learning from history

By Valerie Yule - posted Friday, 30 March 2012

Northcote Parkinson, that astute observer of social trends, noted that the greatest buildings are often erected immediately prior to the collapse of the government. Excess generally has been followed by social collapse – as in 5th century Athens and before the French Revolution. It is a characteristic of the fall of empires and nations.

We can look at our own excesses, and wonder about tomorrow. We could trim ourselves back from the precipice.

‘Excess’ is defined as consuming more than we need, or behaving more stupidly than we need. What is the excess that has taken place in the last five years? Could we wind it back?


The astonishing thing is that most people do not regard our present way of life as excess. The general reaction to any call for personal responses to climate change, polluting emissions and waste of resources, has been loud cries that we will not tolerate any return to austerity. An article in this vein in OLO was entitled ‘sharing pain not wealth’ <> . We have pushed the response and the responsibility on to governments, big business, taxes, and trading mechanisms, but kept our own lives as they are. Few people realise that the past five years have not been times of normal growth but of excess. Even our social problems are ones of excess – such as obesity, drunkenness, drug-taking, gambling and property prices. If we stopped excess, our lifestyles would be healthier and, I think, happier.

The Christian Lent has austerity and self-restraint mainly interpreted as restraining appetite in eating and drinking, but it could go further, and could go on for longer. We could learn to enjoy one drink, not many, at the one time; one flutter that risks one dollar not five hundred; and enjoying the beauty of the real world, more than escaping into a more expensive virtual world.

“Labour-saving” has become so over-valued and excessive that Westerners now suffer from lack of exercise. They drive to gyms to get healthier, while they use electric domestic machines for purposes they could achieve with their own energy not only for the boon these certainly are when saving time and greater power are really needed. Our brains need exercise. Let's apply scientific method to our life-styles, and obtain our exercise for free, by having a more sustainable household which uses “low technology” whenever we do not really need the costly appliances we have come to assume are essential for every little job. Drastic cutting of fossil fuels, carbon-emissions and other pollutions, bills, maintenance, water, material resources, noise, and hard-rubbish waste is all possible once the attitude that “small” is not fit for men’s talk is abandoned.

Another excess is using the five-person cars to carry one person 80% of the time, often for short trips better done on foot or by bicycle. We don’t give a thought to the million-years-old resource we waste.

For the planet's health as well as our own, if we could have ten-years durability for machines, not two or three, we could afford to have both low technology and high technology in our households, “Low Technology” is technology that does not involve highly advanced or specialised systems or devices. This is hardly being mentioned as a way to help cut carbon emissions faster than our carbon-trading-in-the-sky around 2014. Suppose our appliances did not have to be completely replaced with each upgrade, unless there was an advance that required a change of form. Refrigerators for example have hardly changed their form, but they may last only five years or even less. We could have fast, efficient, quiet, manual lawn mowers like the old Australian Flymo H33 for ‘Australian’ lawns, not aspiring to shaven English lawns for suburbia. We can use carpet-sweepers and brooms when vacuums are not really required; shopping jeeps for when a car is not really needed, an improved version of the old Australian Malley’s Whirlpool Twin Tub WTT 623 for small washes and all spin-drying, and use two-tier plastic-covered metal dishracks and two basins as an everyday backup to dishwashers. We could design our houses so that they did not need air-conditioners and central heating, and wear clothing that better matched the weather. In every two-car garage, one car could be a small cheap model like a “citicar” used when motor transport is needed for only one or two bodies - which may be most of the time,. We could have fashions that do not waste fabrics or harm the wearers.

Cheap backyard solar cooking and heating with reflectors, and versatile pedal-power for more uses than just stationary exercise, adapt “low technology” used for developing countries. Long-lasting clocks, toys and emergency equipment do not all need the environmentally-hazardous batteries which often only eliminate the infinitesimal exercise required to wind up a spring.


We could have a Museum of the immediate past, to which we could return for ideas, which we could improve. Old people like me could contribute. Perhaps you might think we belong in a museum anyway. Did you know we laundered once a week, and did not wash clothes until they needed it? We only ironed clothes and linen which required it. We showered and washed our hair according to need, and only washed daily in hot weather. In fact, we old people stick to those old-fashioned habits. A surprising range of old household equipment was more versatile and sturdy than what we use now. A “What They Did Well” exhibition could inspire the development of improved replacements for short-life plastic, based on the ingenuity of our grandparents before electricity.

An argument for our excess today is that it gives lots of jobs. Yet we can think of hundreds of jobs more important to do today , in new enterprises, conservation, research, salvage, and child and aged care, to make up for these unnecessary jobs, but who will pay for them?

Suppose we cut out the unnecessary excess in jobs that make us money. Suppose we stopped being buried in expensive wooden coffins – there are many alternatives today. Suppose we had hair fashions that needed minimum washing and electricity. Suppose we had dress fashions like the Koreans used to have – a basic beautiful form, and fashionability that came in the accessories and the way that sashes and such were used. Our clothes could last for ten years – or like some of mine, twenty or more. We could prevent boredom by interest in nature, people, science and books.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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