Whilst there are undoubtedly things poverty covets from our wealth, there are also many things our wealth could also learn from poverty: not least the valuing of what we have got.
Around the streets of Cebu, all different sorts of repair shops, such as this street-side shoe repair stand, are a familiar sight. Meanwhile, in the UK, where cobblers, tailors and the like were also once common, they have all but disappeared from our high streets. Once, shoes were re-heeled and torn clothes mended. Many items which have become disposable with our increasing wealth were once considered too valuable to just throw away. Here, they still are.
Last summer the zip on our tent broke. Determined not to throw away what was, otherwise, a perfectly good tent, we sought to have it repaired, but in the West Midlands, the second biggest conurbation in the country, we could not find a single repair shop that could do the job. For me it came to symbolise our throw-away culture: these places don’t exist, because there is no market for them. If something is broken, even slightly, the common immediate reaction is to throw it away and buy a new one.
And it goes further still, because not only do we throw away and replace that which is broken rather than seeking to repair it, but we don’t even have to think before discarding something which is no longer flavour of the month even if it is in perfect condition. While on one level I appreciate the existence of charity shops full of quality clothes in near-perfect condition, allowing me to clothe myself very cheaply; on another level, this symbol of extravagance distresses me: we live in a culture where good-as-new is already good-to-go.
Here where incomes are lower and budgets tighter, people have to think twice before throwing things away, because “just buying a new one” might not be an option. There is still a sense that “stuff” is worth something and possessions and materials are valued more highly.
As is common in many schools, here the summer holidays were a time of refurbishment and repairs, among which the wooden floor in the gym was replaced. When the floor boards were taken up, they were not thrown away: the ever resourceful TVED department used them to build beds for the incoming boarders. The alternative wasn’t to “just buy a new one”, it was sleeping on the floor.
In local shops it is common to buy soft drinks in glass bottles; with the expectation that you will drink them immediately, on site, and return the bottle for cleaning and reuse (like milk bottles in the UK) While clean and sterile, it is not unusual for the outside of the bottles to be scuffed and scratched, something which the western market would perhaps find hard to accept, in a culture where even fruit and vegetables are expected to be a uniform shape and colour. Seeking perfection in what things look like has replaced a real sense of valuing what things are worth.
A sign of extreme wealth; our profligate throw-away culture shows not only a disregard for the planet, but maybe tells us that we have got too much.
Maybe we should throw away a bit less, and share a bit more.