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Life on a Tuesday

| Lewis Akenji

Active Citizenship and the Power of Consumers

It was one of those weekend days that brought out the charm of Budapest. The sun beamed generously; citizens were at leisure, warming their moods to receive the fresh season of spring. Some cafes had braved the lingering remnants of winter and opened their windows for a breath of spring air. Inside, couples sipped from warm cups of tea, some talked intimately, a few browsed through newspapers. Some others watched life on the streets outside through the open windows. Outside on the St. Istvan Korut, family walks were combined with window shopping, comparing the end-of-season sales reductions on display. Spring was coming, a new coat of life.

In a nearby grocery shop a young woman was not pleased. She held an item from her shopping bag and showed the cashier. “There’s no expiry date on this milk,” she said. The cashier took the product, turned it over a couple of times in her hands. She couldn’t find the date either.

“It came in just yesterday,” the cashier said, handing the product back to the young woman. The customer was not satisfied; she asked when the milk expires. The cashier briefly looked at the queue of customers getting longer behind the young woman and, controlling her discontent, repeated her answer.

“So for how many days can I keep milk at home that came in just yesterday before it expires?” the woman asked. The cashier shrugged her shoulders, indicating she didn’t know.

Some of the customers became rather impatient. Yet three or four of them left the queue and went back to relief their shopping baskets of the milk. One asked: “Is there a complaint book here or a suggestion box?”

Missing the Point

Here’s a thought. How often do we stop to ask ourselves about routine things around us? Do we notice when the postman changes; how much garbage we dump per week; when the supermarket suddenly adds ‘bio’ to the name of a product? Equally important: if we notice, do we try to ask why? Are we aware there are channels available to us as citizens to influence the direction in which our society is moving?

We notice when the parking fee increases, when the price of tomatoes falls. Most people call, say Matav, to complain about a suddenly high bill. These services or goods are paid for directly by the consumer, we can see the forints thinning from our wallets and so there is the tendency of our economic upbringing to demand value-for-money, to optimise our spending.

We each have a question or two about the way things work around us, or an idea on how we could make it better. In an active society the individual looks beyond the action he or she is taking, forward to the effect it has on the general stance of things. This is because we each have individual roles in society, can perform differently, and thus make a contribution that at the same time as fulfilling our capabilities satisfies the society. To maintain development and to ascertain sustainability, everyone in the society has to be conscious: Conscious of themselves as unique individuals, as well as being a contributing force to the contemporary paradigm.

Politically, most people imagine that their civic duty goes only as far as voting for the next prime minister or representative member of parliament. And then to sit back and watch on TV as magic politicians wave their wand and correct all the ills of the system. If only it were so. Have you ever asked where the state puts your tax money (what amount into education and public health, and what amount for subsidising or “rescuing” private businesses)? Or what bill your elected MP votes for in your name?

Because active citizenship has always had a political connotation, most people view it to be limited as such – that one should be a rebel to the system, or be ‘alternative’. This has sensitised the public, and placed false barriers around a natural tendency that should be fostered.  Active citizenship doesn’t (necessarily) mean going on strike, or joining the opposition party, or wearing ‘Rebel’ T-shirts raging against an unknown course. Active citizenship is a natural responsibility each of us bears to make our own contribution towards self-realisation and benefit of community – culturally, socially, psychologically, sexually, etc. It is not a role abandoned to the government or businesses or NGOs. An active society satisfies the community by fulfilling the individuals within it.

That we regularly see a need for changes is common both in our private and public lives. If only we had time to make the necessary adjustments, to put in place all that we conceive. But we are all too caught in, too adjusted to move beyond that circle of definition. So we would rather watch on TV how the shakers and the movers make things happen than go out there and do it ourselves. Our modern life is built around such precepts: instant coffee, pre-packaged microwave food, the sofa and a remote control, tour agency-packaged family holidays. 

Someone is thinking for us. Which might not all together be a problem. But someone else is doing all the thinking for us. Technology freaks, capitalists, politicians, lobbyists, and yet according to studies these are the people we trust the least to handle decisions on our behalf.

One does not have to be a western style hero in order to be an active citizen. The beauty of it lies in doing those little things we consider worthwhile and meaningful. Ask why your company offers a shorter paternity leave than others; ask the local council how you can get recycle garbage collection units – better still, organise one with your neighbours and only inform the council to properly dispose of it. In essence, active citizenship means being informed and being involved.

 We asked people what they do, or how they think they can be active. Responses showed opportunities ranging from the simple to the complex. A suggested few though would be most agreeable to all of us.

Communicate your Opinion

Once, Gauder Milan returned home from his favourite restaurant and the first thing he did was “rush to the toilet to pass out all the lunch I had eaten. It was only on a brave subsequent visit that, on inquiring, I found that the place had a new manager who was making all efforts to cut costs.” The “Organic Menu” he usually ordered was now prepared from vegetables that were inorganically grown – Milan is sensitive to certain chemical components of pesticides that linger on in food even after washing. Naturally he suggested that the manager replace the misleading word ‘organic’ on the item, or revert to using organic vegetables. When after another visit he still had to rush to the toilet, he decided to use the official complaint booklet every restaurant is obliged to keep.

Similarly, a shop in one of the malls had put up a sign indicating a 70% reduction in prices of certain products. When a scrupulous shopper made calculations that revealed a 65.5% reduction (on a 31 000 HUF item) she didn’t find it amusing when the shopkeeper told her “don’t be complicated, 65.5% is close to 70%.”

What most of us may be happy to know is that there are public authorities that take care of such complaints. Consumer complaints are received by the Consumer Protection Authority, or in the consumer section of local government offices.

In our course of activity, however, it is also important to remember not to assume a moral high ground. Society is made of people like us – waiters, managers, stylists, politicians, – with their own loves, worries and passions. If we become intolerant of simple natural inclinations – a man nearly started a fight in a restaurant because he said the waiter was serving him without a smile – and treat others as square boxes, then we’re simply reinforcing the automaton society. It is therefore a responsibility of an active citizen to stay safe, to avoid offending others or getting into people’s personal spaces, and to not invite danger upon their persons.

Initiate Action

When Csaba Madarasz, his wife Adriana and two kids moved into the little picturesque village of Budakalász, near to Budapest, the young family was happy to have found a home in a neighbourhood surrounded by a lake, hills, and Danube-side creeks. Soon they noticed the unusual amounts of litter floating around by the roads and in the creek. “It is disturbing to see so much litter around where you live. I see it when I go to work or return, and my wife when she takes the kids out,” says Csaba. So he decided to do something about it. “I noticed that the hypermarkets ElectroWorld, Cora, Brico Store, RS are all around us and that most of the litter was floating on the creek and by the roadsides is unrecycled packaging from their products.” Now he is working out a plan to get the hypermarkets to jointly provide garbage collectors for the area “in a peaceful, human-conscious way.” Such a plan will fall under Corporate Social Responsibility. Businesses owe it to dedicate a part of their profits to developing the communities in which they operate.

Initiated action could be at group or individual level. Last year one young woman decided she would give some of her free time to the elderly of the community. Once a week after school, she would “visit a sick or elderly person and assist in whatever work I could or just spend the time talking to her.”

Another initiative that could spark further ideas is in building community ties. “At first the young people around the neighbourhood didn’t know each other. We would meet somewhere in the city and be like total strangers even though we lived two houses apart on the same street. Then I suggested to two of my friends to meet sometimes in a bar just down the street. Slowly more and more people will join us. It grew into a kind of neighbourhood meeting. The elders joined. Now, once every two weeks we meet and discuss. Sometimes in one of the neighbours’ house. It’s like a big family and I look forward to it. It has widened my circle and strengthened our ties. I really feel like I belong there.”

Adopt Systemic Thinking

It’s an irony of our school system that it doesn’t teach students how to ask questions. Students are trained to read teachers’ material and respond to exams, but not how to ask the right questions. This is reflected in the society: we apply for jobs advertised by others, we surrender our creativity to mass designed hypermarket products.

In order to ask the right questions we need to adopt systemic thinking, to be able to see things and events in a system. Every thing, every action as a consequential part of a whole -moving it in one direction or another, or stalling it at a status quo. Then we begin to see the effects of our actions at work, at home. With systemic thinking, when we can look at issues as a whole, we can identify the hole, where to direct the question.

In this case, when TESCO dumps down the price of tomatoes to attract consumption, we see the chain of events it ignites. The price falls below production costs so farmers earn less money than they put in; local small-scale Hungarian farmers can no longer compete at the price rate set by the giant so they go out of business; poverty levels rise in the village (suicide, youth migration to cities, despair); another industrial scale farmer takes over supplies; more pesticides are sprayed on tomatoes and more artificial fertilisers used to produce a volume that satisfies the rising demand for the cheap product; the soil and water gets polluted by chemicals (rise in illnesses, use of tax payers money to treat water polluted by private businesses); small corner shops dependent on local producers close down; more people are forced to go to the supermarkets.

This is not fiction or a futuristic scenario. Currently, 70 % of grocery shopping in Budapest is controlled by five major supermarkets. We’ve not even mentioned the loss of variety of products, the rising level of chemicals in supermarket food and the corresponding rise in costs of health care. The market price of tomato not determined by its production value but by super-profit interest is not only detrimental to farmers. We’re all losers when we rush there to shop at such a price, and for that quality.

Participate in Political Activity

It is a curious coincidence that the World Consumer Rights Day, March 15, coincides with the an important National Day, the anniversary of the outbreak of Hungarian revolution (March 15th 1848) followed by the war of independence against the Habsburg dynasty in 1848-49.

Assert your political right. Run for or vote for public office; campaign on issues close to you; boycott where you find necessary. Talk to your representative member of parliament; ask questions at the local council. It is surely not wrong to think that the governments are there for us, after all we elected them. But it is also naïve to sleep with the assumption that the government is going to do all our work. In a democracy if the people cannot do their part, the government becomes unable to function. Or begins to function for itself, and goes in a direction that is out of touch with the people.

Support a Civil Group

In the main, NGOs stand as the last frontier of organised representation of civil society that is not yet bought over by the struggle for political power nor corrupted by a quest for financial profit. As shown by public opinion in surveys, while governments and businesses have become too complex for ordinary people to follow, NGOs can boast of representing real and timely needs of society. Governments have become too cumbersome to, or unable to directly respond to certain public needs, those also easily ignored by businesses because they are not financially profitable.

Part of the allure of civil non-profit organisations is that they do not stand for themselves. NGOs wouldn’t exist if there was no public necessity. Yet because they are a recent niche in our public/social life, our institutional set-up is unable to sufficiently allocate the necessary funds for them. And because most of them do not want to be influenced by commercial interests, they depend on public funds, private foundations, and individuals.

Which brings us back to the point. Here: NGOs need you.

‘We’ doesn’t have to be the Association of Conscious Consumers – the publisher of this magazine. Pick any civil organisation of your choice, one pursuing a course of action you identify with. Any good NGO is an arm of the civil society acting for the good of all. If one benefits from your support, we all benefit.

But wait a minute, it’s not about your money. There are a thousand ways in which you could give a hand.

Give your time, expertise or experience; volunteer for a civil or non-profit cause. If you have any particular expertise you could give a few hours of consultation to a project or program. Find a membership organisation and join. You may not participate in every activity but your occasional presence and contributions give it more weight.

Support with assets. Do you have office space you wouldn’t need for a few months? It would save rental costs. A computer you don’t need? A conference hall that is not booked? A desk and chairs abandoned to dust? What you don’t have use for might be helpful to us – or to your neighbour.

Share the message. If you like what we do, or what we write, and you think someone can benefit from it, share it (Sharing is caring, remember?). Invite your family, friends or colleagues to have discussions around important themes. Make critical comments, tell us what you think. We need to learn from you to be better.

Yes, we would be happy to receive your financial donations. Send a cheque to a civil organisation of your choice or make an anonymous donation to their account if you so prefer. While companies are digging through the pockets of your wallet, as society becomes more and more overwhelming, a big challenge would be to give civil organisations a firm enough foundation to be able to face their mandates. The civil society has come this far, it will continue to need your support.

Live by your values

Assert that your beliefs, if exercised, are not harmful to nature or to future generations, and then try to live by them. If you realise too much packaging is merely fanciful and wasteful to resources then buy in bulk or choose a brand that offers less packaging. If you realise flying by plane is financially cheap but environmentally harmful, use the train. If you think food grown locally has better quality, buy from farmers’ markets.

Every single action is a statement, and in a system it counts. To find a sustainable balance between our modern lifestyle and the environment, there are many excesses we need to curb. Start with the amount of industrial meat we eat to the number of flights we take per year. Living per one’s own values is probably the easiest and most satisfying. And given that we need a critical mass, exercising these values might just let another friend see the benefits in your conviction.

We don’t have to be absolutists – it’s not sustainable. One person can only do so much but together every little earnest effort we make is a gain for everybody. We must realise the need to act, fast, to each do the best we can.

Let’s face it, without active citizenship life would be as grey as a Tuesday, turning slowly with no colour. The post-weekend euphoria has been waned by Monday chores. Next weekend is too distant to look forward to. There’s no parade in town to watch. All friends answer their phones from the office. Life on a Tuesday, all we can do is follow routine. Catch up on that work we didn’t stay in long enough to finish on Friday and were too hung-over to do on Monday. Listen to the kids’ complaints. Watch TV. We are stuck, where we’ve been since we can remember.

It is neither the adherents nor the opposition that kill dynamic communities. It is that complacent group in the middle that does not like any of the available options and so withdraw themselves from participation instead of initiating what to them is a better alternative. Complacency is a worm that can chew through the fabric of a strong community.

What’s at stake here is larger than the money that leaves your wallet. It’s the need to think, more so beyond the value-for-money concept of capitalism: to strengthen those unique individual capabilities and responsibilities that create consciousness in society, that transcend individual satisfaction and become common good, community wealth.

The term active citizenship has been usurped and misled to deliver implications of public hell raising or to give only political connotations. Hardly so.  It should be a reminder to us of ourselves, to shape society in that way that matters to us. To live more as humans and less as automatons. And to know that we as individuals are not lost in the mass but all have unique roles and contributions that would lead to a better society for us all. Making one’s self useful; bringing a better quality of life for the entire community by acting on one’s values and positive perspective; feeling good about something worthy one has achieved, initiated or participated in. Fulfilment for us today and a gift for generations of the future.

This article first featured in the magazine Tudatos Vasarlo. All rights reserved.

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