Zombie ecology

Garden centres are portals to the world of the undead.  Zombies stalk their orderly aisles, moving awkwardly in a strange world of fragrances and soft music.  You can see them any weekend – the near and post-retired generation, harassed parents with young children, and young couples trying out lifestyles. They shuffle past the displays, scented candles and hanging baskets, hosepipes and bird food, jams and cushions; or roaming the endless patio outside, with serried ranks of plants, all exactly sized and perfectly in flower, pallets of compost and stacks of pots, and a builder’s yard of trellis, fencing and posts.  Groups of them cluster hungrily around the restaurant, eyeing up the chilli and the bakewell slices.

Garden centres in the modern sense are relatively new on the UK retail scene.  Once, gardeners bought their plants from nurseries, a label suggesting green-fingered plant lovers carefully tending their charges. Some specialised and local nurseries survive, but most have changed beyond recognition. Prior to the Sunday Trading Act 1994, garden centres were one of very few retail businesses allowed to open on a Sunday in England.  In Margaret Thatcher’s ‘free market’ Britain of the 1980s, consumers ruled.  Garden centres welcomed Sunday shoppers with open arms, becoming outdoor superstores, selling anything from strimmers to soft furnishing, tropical fish to fashion.  Many are now part of national chains, and big supermarkets and DIY stores have joined the bonanza.

Garden centres are churches for a secular consumer age: temples of consumption, offering visions of endless summer, neat and docile nature and perfect family life.  They are central to the great pagan festivals of shopping that punctuate the descent to midwinter in the UK (Halloween, Bonfire Night and Christmas).  One I visited in Wales in the second week of October had already established the core of its ‘winter wonderland’ of tinsel and glitter.  One in Cambridge was offering ‘Rudolph rides’ and a visit to Father Christmas by 17th November (£6 per child including a ride with Rudolph and a present).

There is also nothing new about this sort of mass consumption of unessential commodities, or the economic system that drives it. However, that does not mean it is unproblematic.  The global economic crisis of 2008-9 led some commentators to speak of the demise of the ‘neoliberal’ model of free-market capitalism epitomized by the ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘Reagonomics’ of the 1980s.  Yet the world continues to be in thrall to the idea of a free market.  The process of neoliberalization continues, with market-based solutions to the crisis dominating approaches to the crisis. In 2009, Ben Fine wrote of the ‘zombieconomics’ of capitalism: alive enough to consume all other ways of organizing production, yet dead because it offers nothing beyond parasitic invasion of new sectors of life. John Quiggin’s 2012 book (Zombie economics: how dead ideas still walk among us) develops the same theme, from a different theoretical perspective.

It is somewhat unfair to single out garden centres as the focus of consumption: they are not so very different from any other out of town store. Yet they are a classic example of zombie economics in action.  As customers, we keep the wheels of the global economic system turning by satisfying our ephemeral desire to have and hold.  But we shop like zombies: our consumption is blind to consequences.

It seems there are a lot of economic zombies about.  The Financial Times speaks of zombie banks (insolvent but continuing to operate), and zombie companies, which are able only to repay interest on debts and not the principal.  Garden centres are different, in that they clearly offer a perfectly sound business model. Yet they provide a natural habitat for zombie consumers.

Why does this matter for conservation?  Well, zombie shopping creates a zombie ecology. Garden centres are themselves ecosystems, although strange ones.  There are few wild species: insects, slugs, snails, mice and rats are routinely eradicated, although bird feeders may attract common birds, and the odd rook. On the other hand the artificial biodiversity of garden centres can be rather high, with thousands of plants from all over the world concentrated in a small space.  If they sell tropical fish or exotic pets, the resulting diversity of life can be dazzling. And the whole place is plumbed in: water for koi carp and runoff from the roses are both part of the local freshwater ecosystem.

More interestingly, garden centres offer ecosystems in kit form to take away.  Every part of a garden can be bought, installed, and when you are bored with it, changed.  The approach to gardening sold in most garden centres is not about working with nature to yield beauty or pleasure or food, but about design, purchase and installation: gardening is the ecological furnishing of an outside room.  Of course, the creation of complete synthetic ecosystems can be positive for biodiversity. When carefully designed and planted, city gardens can be havens for nature (and indeed allow some urban areas to support more wildlife than farmland).  Wildlife gardening is a recognized conservation activity, and brings huge pleasure to many people.

But the wildlife garden is still a niche ecosystem.  Garden centre shelves suggest a different approach, involving complete control of nature.  The good garden consists of an immaculate lawn, perfect vegetables and tidy flower beds.  Above all the garden must contain no pests, an aim to be achieved by purchasing aisles full of chemical killers to destroy everything from wasps to moss, greenfly to mice.  There is also an army of machines available to cut, burn, sweep and suck the garden clean.  Garden centres, and the garden worlds they sell, offer no space for dirt.  I recently saw a young sales assistant vacuum cleaning a bin of cheap bulbs: let not the customer get dirty fingers.

Garden centre ecosystems are not just swept clean of unruly nature, but weirdly composed. Because gardens are about visual effect, they combine natural and synthetic objects, living and dead versions of life.  Along with living designer plants are plastic pumpkins with flashing LEDs for Halloween, ‘fish friendly glowing gravel’, imitation plastic pond weed, and oddly scaled outdoor models of animals, including (in one recent survey) sheep, meerkats, otters, hedgehogs, giraffes, dogs, dragons, and robins the size of cats.

Most seriously, zombie ecology too often involves robbing one ecosystem to enhance another.  Despite the rise of product labeling (e.g. FSC certification), garden products are often abstracted from their material context, their embedded ecological relations hidden. Plants come with trinomials that identify their breeder, but rarely their place of origin in the wild: do they come from swamps, savannas or mountains, and if so, from where – the Andes or Caucasus, California or fynbos? Potted plants and trees are trucked in, their origins and methods of production (and the embedded carbon involved) often obscure. Sometimes chunks of ecosystems are on sale.  Veteran olive trees are currently fashionable in the UK, presumably dug from once farmed terraces in the Mediterranean, and you can buy the physical fabric of other ecosystems to create your own: river boulders, gravel, multiple shades of fine broken rock or chunks of slate, all dug up somewhere (who knows where) and shipped over for our pleasure.

It is a commonplace of environmentalism that consumption threatens the biosphere.  A garden centre is probably no worse than any other emporium in this respect.  But it does show our impacts more clearly: for here we are consuming to make a garden, and yet our very consumption degrades nature somewhere else.  Like zombies, we ultimately consume ourselves.

Bill Adams

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10 thoughts on “Zombie ecology

  1. I don’t really agree with the economic opinions expressed here.

    Firstly, the idea of using monetary policy to stimulate consumption comes from Keynesianism, which is associated more with the political left, whereas neo-liberalism stems mostly from the work of Friedman, Mises, and Hayek (who was probably Keynes’ biggest ideological rival).

    The crisis of 2008 wasn’t caused by the free-market; it was caused by years of government intervention in the free-market — the artificially low interest rates, the government-guaranteed loans, etc. All this cheap credit and moral-hazard lead to the inflation of an enormous economic bubble, first in .com stocks, then in real estate and finance, and now in the bond market. Each time a crisis loomed, the government and central bank re-inflated the bubble with more easy credit. Maybe if Thatcher had been in power, she’d have allowed interest rates to rise, which would have plunged us into a deep and severe recession.

    And that would have been a good thing, because the recession is the solution — albeit a painful one. Unfortunately, because the public doesn’t really like recessions very much, allowing them to happen isn’t the politically expedient thing to do. For this reason, governments prefer to postpone the pain to some later date.

    If interest rates were to rise now, there’s a risk it would lead to a currency crisis given the high levels of public debt we’ve accumulated. Just to give you an idea of the severity of the situation: in the United States (whose situation I’m more familiar with), if interest rates were to rise to just ten percent (which, btw is less than what they were in the 80’s), then the interest on the national debt would exceed federal tax revenue. (Just the interest!) It would also cause a very severe recession — as any corporations that are dependent on cheap credit will suddenly find themselves to be insolvent.

    Eventually, the Federal Reserve will be the only remaining buyer of treasury bonds, which might then precipitate a run on the dollar — the result being hyper-inflation.

    If Thatcher or Reagan were in power we’d have much higher interest rates, which would encourage people to rebuild their savings, which would then drive interest rates down again (rates in a free market are determined by supply and demand of savings). Across the country, businesses would be collapsing, their assets liquidated, and the resources they control freed up and reallocated more productively. A few garden centres would likely be among the casualties. Instead however, the central bank is suppressing interest rates by printing money (stealing value from people’s savings) and dumping it into the financial sector.

    The leftist doctrine of Keynesianism has been employed to prop up the phony economy, postponing the pain into the future where it will manifest as inflation — because if the government refuse to take the money from the people via taxation, and suffer the political consequences of doing so, they do something far worse: they take the purchasing power out of the money.

    But if they do that, our foreign creditors will reduce their holdings of pounds, causing its value to tank. We will be forced to trade inflation for higher interest rates, but the problem is: high rates = massive recession, low rates = massive inflation. That’s the predicament we face as a result of the government interfering with the free market to produce phony economic growth.

    Neo-liberalism might have saved us from this fate, but it would also have made whoever dared to implement its ideas very unpopular. Instead, everyone’s going to blame capitalism because that’s the fashionable thing to do these days; it makes one look open-minded and ‘enlightened’ to reject the very principles to which they owe their comfortable, modern lifestyle.

  2. Hi two questions:

    1) “The process of neoliberalization continues, with market-based solutions to the crisis dominating approaches to the crisis”.

    Do you have something specific in mind? I can’t think of any “(neo)liberal” measures that the UK is using to come out of the current crisis/stagnation. The opposite: They are giving financial assistance to private companies, they are stopping immigration, and keeping import tariffs as high as ever.

    2) “We are consuming to make a garden, and yet our very consumption degrades nature somewhere else.”

    I have no gardening centre experience. What’s being degraded here? Aren’t the plants and flowers sold in a gardening centre grown in nurseries?

    • Daniel D, having quoted Bill as saying “We are consuming to make a garden, and yet our very consumption degrades nature somewhere else”, goes on to ask “I have no gardening centre experience — what’s being degraded here? Aren’t the plants and flowers sold in a gardening centre grown in nurseries?”. The point is that growing plants in nurseries is not the innocent activity that it probably was, once upon a time. Every plant that I have purchased in a Garden Centre comes in a plastic pot or tray and is growing in a lump of peat. In direct sales, garden centres account for two-thirds of all the peat used in the UK. Only 38 per cent of that peat comes from UK peat bogs because we have already destroyed 94 per cent of that habitat type. So now we import peat from Ireland, Latvia, Estonia and Finland (all facts culled from BBC gardening website). Quite apart from habitat destruction, think of the carbon footprint of that peat if we follow its trail from quarrying it in the peat bog, its subsequent bulk transport, right through to the bag in the boot of the car driven home from the garden centre. Peat does an inferior job to compost and could be subsitituted by alternative forms, but as usual Mining Nature generates a cheaper product that more sustainable alternatives. By cultivating a green image, garden centres do indeed lure consumers into more consumption, and into consumption patterns that have large side-effects on habitats, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions — into Zombie life styles indeed. Making your own compost should generate for the gardener carbon tax credits, but that more rational system is not yet operating in Zombieland.

  3. This is really interesting- and it is true people often make frequent and unnecessary change to a garden because of fashion and that is wasteful, but then so is most of our society as you note. Overall it would be nice to have ‘natural’ (but what is that in the UK exactly- we would all have gardens filled with trees?) or wildlife gardens, but would like to ask, aren’t most plants and trees grown especially for sale in garden centres and surely that is rather a preferable activity in terms of its environmental impact than say concreting over masses of land for housing when there are plenty of empty buildings, or factories for other consumer goods? And can’t the activity of tree farming be a way of preserving some ecosystems? to use your example of olive trees, isn’t it better to have olive trees still being grown, than to have this activity lapse and have no trees planted in some areas of Europe at all because the original demand for olives/ oil might have gone?
    my other reaction is that, as a non-gardener, most gardeners I know are amongst the most ecologically aware people, and they do like to nurture and grow things with nature (except those few who do not garden but concrete them over to have somewhere to park their cars). But maybe it is not true of the population as a whole.

  4. Thanks Bill – a very interesting analysis. In response to the previous two responses: neoliberalism is all about the state and intervening in the economy. The ‘free’ market economy cannot function in any other way (which is long known, of course) but this has been intensified under later neoliberalism (from the late 1990s onwards). Hence private sector subsidization fits perfects. And to think that simply ‘demand and supply’ (of interest rates or otherwise) is all there is (or rather: should be) in an economy is to so grossly misrepresent reality as to be almost laughable, were it not that (too) many people still (want to) believe in it and that this has had and continues to have very serious consequences for people and nature.

    What is most unfortunate – as you mention – is that the zombie metaphor can be extended to so many different contemporary realms. But the garden centres are certainly a very apt example giving the hype around their supposed (artificial) ‘naturalness’. Thanks again for writing this.

  5. Thanks for the comments. I probably understand even less about economics than gardening, but Rob’s comment on Keynes reminds me of Paul Krugman’s delightfully bluntly titled article in the New York Times in 2011 ‘Keynes was right’. Lots of people part from Rob disagree. Most commentators on neoliberalism emphasise its continuing grip: Jamie Peck’s ‘Constructions of Neoliberal Reason’ (2010) is a great critique, and his website worth a look for those with room on their shelves. The comments about neoliberalism in my blog piece reflect recent work on the grip of neoliberal thinking on conservation itself, for example in the 2012 paper by Bram Büscher, Sian Sullivan, and others ‘Towards a synthesized critique of neoliberal conservation’ in the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism (a manuscript copy is available at: http://siansullivan.net/publications/ if you haven’t got £23.50 to read the published version: good old Taylor and Francis).

    On gardens, the world would probably be a better place if we grew more of what we ate, and ate more of what we grew. Propagating plants to create beauty and things to eat seems to me an excellent idea – especially where they are native species and local varieties (a growing conservation contribution, for example the work of Landlife) or Flora Locale). Importing plants grown elsewhere seems to me a much less sound idea, even if it makes business sense (because of the glasshouses and trucks). Digging up wild plants (or mature olive trees) seems to me more like rustling than gardening. Buying plastic pumpkins, gnomes or bits of someone else’s river bed simply to make a garden more fun seems a very poor idea indeed.

    • Thanks for the link to the article by Büscher, at al. I’ll read it with interest, although, after skimming through the first few pages, I doubt I’ll agree with much of it 🙂

  6. What is rather fascinating is the number of species now considered invasive in Britain which were first brought here by the horticultural trade (my garden-obsessed dad recalls seeing Japanese Knotweed advertised as an ornamental in seed catalogues in the 1980s). In the Yorkshire lane where I live, we have knotweed, rhododendron, giant hogweed, all non-natives introduced by the gardening trade (we also have beech trees, but people tend to forget they are not native to these parts). With regards capitalism, the paper cited below makes a point that the peaks and troughs in ornamental plant invasions can be linked to economic changes, as well as changes in horticultural fashion.

    Dehnen-Schmutz, K., J. Touza, C. Perrings, and M. Williamson. 2007. The Horticultural Trade and Ornamental Plant Invasions in Britain. Conservation Biology 21:224-231.

  7. Bill – I am a self confessed zombie and have been trying to wean myself off the habit all my life. Despite knowing it to be against all my principles I cannot stop and it intrigues me to know why. In my twenties on a bus trip passing through Gibralter the group stopped for lunch. We all went our separate ways to hunt for the ubiquitous “great little bistro”. On first impressions Gibralter seemed a bit of a dump and I am ashamed to say I ended up in McDonalds!! I have spent the last 30 years trying to work out why. The answer is risk assessment. Is it better to eat rubbish knowing you will survive or to eat local delightful produce with a chance of the runs. Big businesses exploit our statistical, fearful brains.

  8. Bill – I really like this blog because it is so close to answering some very important sociological and environmental questions. I am passionate about both but find great frustration in the fact that all the fantastic work being done by our academics is not reaching ground level in the way it should. A large proportion of our citizens do behave regularly as zombies and there is a very good reason why. What devastates me is that there are thousands of individuals out there who want to live a more responsible life and simply can’t get the know-how to progress. Honestly it is almost impossible to connect.

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