Lessons for the Great Recession from throwaway books

This new trend of “eco swaps” sounds harmless enough — people exchanging stuff they don’t want for other people’s stuff they do want, with no money involved. Seems perfect for a down economy.

But don’t be fooled. The eco swap is a boil on the butt of capitalism.

Just take the books-and-music swap that my wife and Transition Voice Editor Lindsay Curren held last Sunday.

The promise of an excuse to finally clear out old copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (who knew it was a trilogy?) along with Enya CDs was obviously too good to pass up for the twenty or so hard-core stuff-sufferers who showed up. They were jonesing so badly that even a mini-blizzard couldn’t keep them from the chance to clear clutter.

But in a brazen violation of the laws of physics, everybody who arrived in hopes of making their unwanted stuff into somebody else’s problem actually wound up leaving with more books and music than they originally came with.

I know that’s true because it’s what I did — I took home more books than I brought. So, with all these new-to-me books to read, I guess I’ll be deferring the purchases on my Amazon Wish List (or anything I’d browse at my friendly local antiquarian bookseller) for a few weeks, a couple months, or more.

And here’s where capitalism feels the pain. Getting stuff for free instead of buying it means I’ll be Slacky McDoodle on helping boost retail sales, failing to do my modest but essential part to push economic growth. Multiply that out by thousands, millions, or gazillions of non-consumers choosing swapping over shopping, and it could eventually spell trouble for the Wall Street Masters of the Universe.

Alexis de Tocqueville

When it comes to pegging America’s perverse democracy, you don’t mess with Alexis de Tocqueville.

Putting the “ill” back in de Tocqueville

Meanwhile, with a stack of a dozen uncracked volumes on my desk, taunting me for my sloth, did I really need to bring home yet more books?

Well, I’ve got a plausible story for each book, no matter how cheesy, and I’m sticking to it.

My first acquisition, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, will only count as cheesy to someone whose idea of political analysis is Sean Hannity’s 2005 Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism

I already had a nicely printed hardbound copy of excerpts from Democracy in America at home. So even at the rightest of prices (free), I was reluctant to add this particular edition from 1969 to my overflowing home library since the dog-eared 800-page paperback with the partially detached cover seemed to be near the end of its useful life.

Also, it was inscribed to Ken and Susan, love Mom, which made me feel kinda guilty for taking somebody else’s gift.

However, skimming through, I couldn’t resist this bit, just shimmering with that old de Tocqueville magic:

Corruption and Vices of the Rulers in a Democracy and Consequent Effect on Public Morality

Sometimes in aristocracies the rulers seek to corrupt. In democracies, they are themselves often corrupted. In the former their vices make a direct attack on public morality. In the latter their influence is indirect but still more formidable.

With admirable economy of language, de Tocqueville shows how plutocracy is baked into the American system, explaining history from From Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific to the Koch Brothers and Citizens United. And then, how a government that’s bought-and-paid for tends to spread cynicism throughout society. That would explain, for example, how Americans care so little about things that matter, like climate change and the use of military drones, while caring so much about things that don’t matter, like professional sports.

Slacker or just unemployed

But cheesy certainly applies to my next find, The Hipster Handbook. Put out in 2002, I’m far too un-hip to judge whether an eleven-year old guide to a current trend is deck or fin (that’s “wired” or “tired” to readers of my generation).

Two hairstyles for him from The Hipster Handbook.

Two hairstyles for him from The Hipster Handbook.

But this book won my heart with its chart of hipster hairstyles for him (including the Tossed Caesar and the Jewfro) and her (ranging from a pigtailed look called Barely Legal to the Bouvier — an homage to Jackie O — to a boyish cut called the B. Toklas).

All it took to seal the (free) deal was the book’s list of acceptable hipster careers.

Then as now, the top hipster job was waiter or waitress. But after the Great Recession, with half of recent college grads failing to find work in his or her chosen field, these days the cool factor has perhaps taken a back seat to the “I have to pay student loans” factor.

Any recent grad looking for paying work could do worse than to consult the creative list of hipster professions in the section “Bringing Home the Kale.” My favorite, a real peak-oil career:

I’ve Got a Van –You’ve doubtless seen the posters plastered on telephone poles: “Man with a Van.” Call the number on the flyer and you’ll sometimes find a Hipster on the other end. Buying a van to help others move and transport valuables is a great way to make some quick money and avoid working in an office. Just don’t drive around elementary schools too frequently. A man with a van who drives in close proximity to children will end up in a police lineup.

I did get more books. Many more. Way too freaking many.

But the last one I’m admitting to is a goofily engaging volume of futurology from the past, one more chance to party like it’s 1998, the year this book came out, presciently in advance of the big Y2K shopping season.

Dr. von Smartipantz, meet Alexis from Dynasty

Predictions for the Next Millennium: Thoughts on the 1,000 Years Ahead from Today’s Celebrities does, as its title suggest, open with visions of what will happen between years 2000 and 3000 by stars of big and little screens. But more bizarre than anything from Joan Rivers or Jackie Chan are predictions in the section by Nobel laureates.

Talk about serious brainpower! Many of these advanced thinkers seem to be pioneering a totally advanced idea that humanity can conquer nature and reach utopia through technology. If you keep up with the latest discoveries in various fields, you may have heard this theory — Better Living Through Science:

I predict that Molecular Biologists will find out how to stop the aging process. Then we can all live forever. The world population will grow ad infinitum. A real problem!
— Sir Derek H. R. Barton, 1969 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Drugs that will improve intelligence.
— Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, 1951 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

We’ll make all our “fossil fuels” out of carbon dioxide and water, using nuclear fusion as the primary energy source.
— Dr. Arno Penzias, 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics

Far out! Of course, this kind of big vision may be too mind-expanding for your average shmoe, who’s going to wonder:

  1. Why are modern people who take more pharmaceutical drugs than ever before so unhealthy (and hardly smart)?
  2. How will the world ever have to worry about people living forever when today so many kids die every day from a simple lack of clean water?
  3. And how can anybody who’s not tripping on acid still believe in freaky free-energy schemes when what goes for new energy ideas these days are tar sands and fracking?
Joan Collins

TV diva Joan Collins: smarter than a Nobel laureate?

But other brainiacs in the Nobel section of the book clearly couldn’t see the Big Picture of the Power of Technology to heal warts and most other woes.

“If humans continue to increase the earth’s population, destroy the environment and produce children whose lives are devoid of love, self-respect, culture and respect for the dignity of all others,” predicted Dr. Jerome Karle, 1985 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, “we can expect an increasing loss of quality of life, much suffering and violence, and a return to dark ages.”

For me, responses from the movie and TV stars were surprisingly fun to read and you can see why the book’s compilers David Kristof and Todd Nickerson put them at the start of the book.

My favorite came from Joan Collins, known, as the book points out, as “one of America’s favorite villains” for her eight-year run as Alexis in the 1980s hit TV series Dynasty.

If you’re reading this article on a little mobile device screen, you might just think that Collins sounds like a villain who wants to spoil your high-tech good times.

My prediction for the next millennium is that mankind will become almost totally reliant on the technology of computers.

I believe that this reliance will destroy mankind’s greatest assets, the ability to fend for oneself and think for oneself.

In the past 100 years, many of the things we have taken for granted have been lost. The ability to grow food, build accommodation and the ability to repair anything. Our society now is predisposed to built-in obsolescence and mankind’s weaknesses. I only hope that this does not happen to man.

Now that’s the kind of talk, straight out of Wendell Berry or James Howard Kunstler, that makes me want to double up on learning old timey skills for a post-peak oil world when the electricity goes out and your iPhone will be pretty good for a doorstop.

But first, I have to repent every snarky comment I’ve ever made about an actor in a hit TV series.

Homepage slideshow image by Orin Zebest/Flickr.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

You might also enjoy


  1. says

    For brevity’s sake Erik called this an Eco Swap that “I” threw. The truth is far more subtle — many folks in our local community were involved with planning, promoting, and volunteering for this event.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *