Saturday, 29 January 2022

Valuing the valueless

Did you ever see the 1980 comedy movie The Gods Must Be Crazy?

It follows the adventures and misadventures of Xi (played by Nǃxau ǂToma), a member of the pre-industrial San culture that lives in the wild Kalahari. One day, a glass Coca-Cola bottle is thrown out of an airplane by a pilot and falls to the ground unbroken. Initially, Xi's people assume the bottle to be a gift from their gods, just as they believe plants and animals are. It is clear like water but harder than anything they have encountered before - their desert world has no rocks or metals - and they find many uses for it. 

However, trouble is afoot. The San have no tradition of personal possession as everything is shared for the common good. But there is only one bottle and everyone wants to use it. This causes conflict within the tribe. Therefore Xi decides to make a pilgrimage to the edge of the world (a tall cliff above the clouds) and dispose of the divisive object. Hilarity ensues.


The film is an amusing look at culture clash. On his journey, Xi is exposed to Western culture for the first time and, through his eyes, we see how illogical it all is. Interestingly, Nǃxau - who was a real Kalahari bushman - did not understand it either. He had only ever seen three white people before being cast, and when director Jamie Uys gave him his first cash payment of $300 he let it blow away as he didn't understand the value or purpose or money. 

However, the thing I find most fascinating about the film is how everyday objects are viewed through different cultural lenses. To the Westerners the Coke bottle is just waste to be thrown away, but for the San people who have no glass-making facility, it is an object of beauty and practicality. It can be used to carry water or to pound grain. Children play games of catch with it and one tribesman uses it as a musical instrument by blowing across the bottle's lip. For them, it has value because it is unique. But its very uniqueness creates possessiveness and jealousy and so, somewhat ironically, they choose to throw it away.


At the heart of this story is the fact that everything has value ... if we create value. 

Rather than throwing things away we should be asking, 'How can this be repurposed, upcycled or renovated?' Imagine the reduction in waste if everyone in the UK gave objects a second, or third, or fourth life. Or just extended the lives of the objects they own. 

Did you know, for example, that not taking the upgrade on your mobile phone can almost halve your phone-owning carbon footprint? As carbon expert Mike Berners-Lee points out, 'It would take 34 years of average use for the footprint of the electricity you use to equal the footprint of the phone's manufacture. So, if you keep your phone for twice as long, you drastically reduce your impact on the environment.'

I bet you never thought about your phone as a problem, did you? But it is. In the course of his research, University of East London engineer Rabih Bashroush worked out that the five billion streams racked up by the video for Despacito by Justin Bieber (feat. Louis Fonsi) consumed over 250,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is as much electricity as Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic consume together in a single year. Yes, you read that correctly. The amount of electricity guzzled by five billion mobile phones to watch a single Justin Bieber video comes to more than the amount used by five entire countries for a year. Ouch. 

Mobile phones aren't going to go away and they are going to increase in numbers. But we can offset the damage by resisting an upgrade and by engaging in other recycling activities - anything that reduces the manufacture of new items to replace perfectly functional older items. I'm addicted to shows like Find it, Fix it, Flog it and Money for Nothing where items are rescued from being dumped and are turned into things that once again have value. Okay, so the economics of these shows are a fantasy - any profit would soon be swallowed up if any of the upcyclers were actually paid for their time and expertise. And workshops don't come free either and nor does heating, lighting, electricity, tools etc. But I like the principle and ethos behind them.

Make do and mend. Reuse, recycle, repurpose. We are such a wasteful society. 


I do my bit and I recycle what I can. My food waste bit goes out almost empty each week as I use every scrap I can and what's left over goes in my compost bin. I water my plants and veg with rainwater captured by my gutters and some water butts. All of my garden furniture was either made from scratch using pallet wood or rescued from reclaim yards. Most of my crockery (apart from our posh Denby 'for best' set) came from charity shops. And all of the materials I use to create my sculptures are things that would otherwise be thrown away or things that I've found or people have donated to me. The prices I charge cover my time, materials such as paint and glue, and other expenses such as workshop, lighting ... all the things, in fact, that get missed out by the TV shows.

But the most important thing is this: even though my source materials may have no intrinsic value, the finished sculptures do. Every single one is unique - just like the Coke bottle was to the San people. That's why people buy them - because they like them. I create value.

Oscar Wilde once said, 'All art is quite useless' (in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray). But when challenged on this by a reader, he qualified his comment in a letter. 'A work of art is useless as a flower is useless,' he wrote. 'A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it.'

When it comes to art, value is in the eye of the beholder.

But, for me at least, it's also in knowing that my art is doing its small part in trying to save the planet.


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