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The production of cheap toys in China for Western demand spoils our children and the process of making and transporting them hurts the environment. Short of suggesting that we confiscate our children’s GI Joes and Barbies and replace them with pieces of bamboo for whittling, Leonie Joubert suggests a more austere, and far greener, approach.

The problem is simple: We’re all too damn rich and it’s spoiling our kids – and our planet – absolutely rotten. This thought dragged itself through my addled end-of-day brain earlier this week while I was waiting for the traffic lights to change. Prompting it was a cloud of translucent pink beach balls, hovering at the car window, courtesy of a grinning hawker.

At the centre of each ball was an inflated Barbie rip-off. Descending ominously behind this was a cumulonimbus of red-and-black balls, this time containing something akin to Spiderman.

Above all, they were so paper-thin and rickety that there’s little chance they’d survive more than a morning in the hands of your average six-year-old. But don’t worry – these are just cheap Chinese imports which can be replaced by the time you reach the next set of traffic lights.
The problem with a flood of cheap goods, in a world where so much disposable income makes even our pre-teens the viable target of advertisers, is that it fuels a consumerist toy market that is just plain irresponsible and, though I dislike using the word, unsustainable.

Here’s a question: If we knew we only had, say, 10 years worth of accessible oil left in the ground, would we allow any of it to go into manufacturing more “disposable” junk for our already overindulged, developed-world children? There certainly isn’t an endless supply of the black stuff and though it won’t run out overnight, it’s going to get increasingly expensive to extract.

Then there’s the carbon footprint. Oil is shipped from the Middle East all the way to a Chinese refinery*. It’s moved to a factory to be transmogrified into a play thing, and then shipped back across several time zones to a South African traffic light, only to end up, shortly thereafter, in a pile of discarded junk in some kid’s room.

Since the natural system is running out of ways to scrub excess carbon from our atmosphere, it seems a bit of a waste to use up what is left of these scrubbers to clean up emissions produced in the making and shipping of a toy that will hold little Jimmy’s attention for all of 30 minutes.
A friend of mine didn’t give his kids toys when they were youngsters. They were given materials and encouraged to make their own toys, and apparently it kept them entertained for hours. It probably also taught them to think creatively and work through their boredom, which is a useful skill since, let’s face it, life can be pretty mundane at times, whatever your age.

My friend is, as Richard Dawkins would say, on the sandal-wearing side of the green movement, so the fact that his kids are now emerging into successful adulthood could have more to do with solid parenting than an alternative view towards toys. Still, there may be something to it, particularly since having too many toys is known to aggravate attention disorders.

As another affluent Christmas approaches, maybe it’s time for a more austere approach to selecting the stuff we give our kids. Maybe dressing down should be the new “bling” – not only to save them from becoming spoiled brats, but to cut the planet a bit of slack.

* China currently imports 32% of its oil, over half of which comes from the Middle East, and according to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, that is expected to grow to 70% of its imports by 2015.

 

 
 
 
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