Take a leaflet, destroy a tree, every pizza saves a piazza

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S a leaflet on the floor of the 'Global Partnership' exhibition at Olympia in Kensington, which I pick up, and I'm just about to tuck it under my arm along with the other leaflets and brochures and direct mail-shots, some of which I've already glanced through, all of which I intend to keep for a while, when I change my mind and decide to read it.

So I shift my balance, still listening to the plaintive wailing and strumming of the African singer in the middle of the hall, and hold the leaflet entitled 'Population Concern' up to my face. It says: 'Every minute there are an extra 177 people; 255,000 new faces each day.' You can open this leaflet up like a concertina; on each panel is a new set of statistics. One panel tells me that there are 90 million more births than deaths each year, that two babies are born with every beat of my heart. This should terrify me, but it doesn't. It simply doesn't worry me. Why? Why does it not twitch the needle of my worry-meter in the slightest? I open the concertina out a bit more; the next panel asks me to send for more information, for the 'World Population Data Sheet'. Is this what it will take? More information? A greater depth of statistics? I doubt it. But why? Why am I not visualising thronged streets, filthy public lavatories, piles of dead? Surely I believe in them, don't I?

This is an important question. Yes, I think I do believe that this stuff will happen, has happened already to some extent. But I hear a new scare-story every day. That's the problem: information technology has penetrated to the point where pretty well anybody can run off a brochure with pictures, statistics, catchy phrases. My mind is full of little information-bites and the rumours and talking- points they generate, some true, some a little bit true, some hardly true at all. We'll run out of food. Tap water is carcinogenic. Buy a pizza and help to stop Venice sinking. We'll all be baked alive. Soon there won't be enough room to move around; we'll go mad, like lab rats. Many people are incubating mad cow disease. Computer viruses will rip through the international money markets. Aids will kill off the human race. And now, a new one, from this Population Concern concertina that I'm pulling open: 'It is wrong to suggest that the spread of Aids, now causing such disquiet in both developed and developing countries, could solve the problem of massive population growth.' So Aids is . . . not bad enough? Now that makes you think.

And then something happens, slowly at first, a minor tremor, a tiny sliding of glossy paper on glossy paper, and I can feel the balance shifting, and I try to move my arm, but too late, the big central well of my stack of information starts slipping out, falling, so that my immediate remedy, trying to squeeze my elbow tighter on to my ribs, only serves to accentuate the problem, and . . . blam] It's all on the floor, in a big messy pile.

What a pain. I squat down, looking at the splayed, mucked-up papers for the length of time it takes for 30 or 40 babies, mostly in Africa and South America, to be born, also for hundreds of truckloads of trees, most pertinently in Ecuador and Papua New Guinea, to be chopped down by exploited local workers, some of whose employers want to plant grass in place of the trees so they can graze cattle where the trees used to be in order to make hamburgers which will be sold in Styrofoam clip-together boxes, which will eventually be tipped into enormous landfills, vast holes in the ground filled with rubbish.

How awful - people, all dressed in natural-fibre clothes, some of the women with ethnic skirts, are looking round at me. Embarrassed, I begin to pick the leaflets up. Here's one, a poster, given to me by a woman from The Animals' Defenders. It shows cartoons of suffering animals, a rabbit saying: 'I'm sure you know how much it hurts when you get shampoo in your eyes . . . imagine that, all day, and not being able to rub them or wash them . . .' A hen is saying: 'I should be free but because you want cheap eggs we're crammed into tiny smelly cages for our whole lives]' Well, I do believe that, and, momentarily, my heart goes out to them, like it did when I first read the poster half an hour ago.

I'm stacking the papers in order of size now. That was the reason for my mistake - there was a wad of smaller brochures, the little pocket ones, sandwiched between two of the larger ones. So what I should do is put, say, the 'Concern Worldwide' foldaway handout, which tells me that every year, four million children in the Third World die of preventable diseases, along with the 'Tourism Concern' brochure, and the Greenpeace Ozone handout - 'the incidence of malignant melanoma in the UK rose by 67 per cent in the decade to 1986'. Yes, I can stack these with the 'More Slaves Than Ever' brochure.

More slaves that ever? But I thought . . . No, 200 million people are slaves, according to Anti-Slavery International. The newsletter quotes a 24-year-old Haitian: 'A Dominican soldier in an olive-green uniform arrested us and put us in prison . . . He told us we were going to cut cane. When I told him I didn't want to cut cane, he hit me with his rifle.'

Here's a glossy sheet I got from a Welshman at the World Goodwill stall; he told me in a monotone that his organisation: 'exists to encourage and promote right human relations as a means of solving humanity's problems'. I nodded. He continued: 'We believe that goodwill is the key to creating a peaceful society.' On the sheet is a prayer: 'From the point of Light within the Mind of God / Let Light stream into the minds of men.'

There. I've stacked them, and I kneel down, using the hard floor to knock the edges straight. That takes five seconds - eight births, hundreds of burning drops falling into rabbits' eyes, people being tortured, the Welshman handing out one more prayer brochure. The African is still wailing, moaning. I get up, put the brochures into a bag, and walk into the street, pushing through the early Christmas shoppers.-

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