Image credit: Emma LB, used under Creative Commons license.
It's not just Britain's urbanists who are discussing the London riots. The events of the past week have kicked off debate between folks of all backgrounds and political persuasions about what caused this, and what to do to prevent it happening again. Sadly, extreme events have pushed people to extreme and polarized responses. Either these kids need to be rounded up and shot, or it is all the Government's fault and this is simply a rising up of "the people". But there have also been some more nuanced, and interesting, responses to what is going on.
What role, for example, does rampant consumerism play in encouraging such violent destruction? When scanning the Facebook posts of friends back home, one in particular caught my eye. "What", asked a friend, "have these kids got against furniture stores, shoe shops and stereos?" It was a tongue in cheek comment, but it had a serious undertone to it. Because the targets of the kids' rage were not authority figures or symbols of the political establishment. They were almost exclusively retail outlets of one kind or another—from Carharrt stores, to high end stereo equipment, to the latest sneakers—kids as young as eleven were willing to put lives at risk, including their own, to get hold of these items that their circumstances (whatever those may be) had apparently denied them.
As this viral video (warning: strong language) of a brave woman in Hackney showed, this was not people rallying for a cause, but "running down Footlocker" (a popular shoe store).
Meanwhile a pair of young girls gave vague and unconvincing political justifications for the riots, telling the BBC that this was about "showing the rich" that they can "do what they want".
Zoe Williams over at The Guardian has a great piece about the psychology of looting, arguing that this may be the first time the UK has seen "shopping riots" characterized by their consumer choices, not their attacks on authority:
How can you cease to believe in law and order, a moral universe, co-operation, the purpose of existence, and yet still believe in sportswear? How can you despise culture but still want the flatscreen TV from the bookies? Alex Hiller, a marketing and consumer expert at Nottingham Business School, points out that there is no conflict between anomie and consumption: "If you look at Baudrillard and other people writing in sociology about consumption, it's a falsification of social life. Adverts promote a fantasy land. Consumerism relies upon people feeling disconnected from the world."
When I wrote before about consumerism as a mental illness, Tea Party Greenie derided me as an idiot. So let me be clear, before the vitriol breaks out again, I am neither offering excuses for the violence, nor suggesting perpetrators should not be held accountable. What I am saying is that if we choose to live in a society that focuses on material possessions above community, holds monetary wealth as the primary barometer of success, and fails to find ways to encourage common ground and a sense of purpose in our youth, we shouldn't be surprised when the most disenfranchised among us turn the consumer dream into a nightmare.
In Lloyd's post he lamented that the problem is too big to fix with urban design alone. Likewise, I am under no pretenses that ridding the world of Carharrt jeans is going to restore peace in the streets. But a crisis is an opportunity to look deeply at the world we see around us, and to question what values we are all choosing to live by.
Hopefully it is just one more push to look for something better.