- -  Day # 83  + +

EU > United Kingdom > Edinburgh

Choices, choices

Edinburgh, UK (View on map)

The UK may not be known as the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, but they do have a lot in common with their western neighbour across the Atlantic. Like the United States, the UK has an economy that floats on consumer choice. Former state monopolies have been privatised and are now set to make profits rather than fulfil people`s basic needs.

Katie (23):

`Instead of promoting recycling, city councils often charge extra for people who want to hand in different types of waste separately`
By the beginning of the 1980s, the United Kingdom still had state control over areas ranging from telecommunications to postal services and railways. Ever since, most former state monopolies were privatised, leading to increased competition, and possible even more noticeable: an explosion of consumer choice. It is quite common for UK household to be able to chose from over a hundred different TV channels, including constant on-demand re-runs of the most popular programs. The airline and airport market has been commercialised, leading to incredible price drops and an explosion of international travelling - just another example.

Choose your life
Customer choice is nothing less than abundant in the United Kingdom. People have an endless choice of what to eat, where to travel, what to study, how to amuse themselves and when, how much to spend and what to spend it on. Whoever has got enough money, or can borrow enough of it, can get a life-on-demand - an idea that will sound tempting to many.

TV programs and self-help books will tell you how to boost your social status, which is something Britons are required to at least aim for. If you are not familiar with the expected behaviour of the social layer just above you, just choose one of the many role models produced by the media. Anything to keep moving up the scale. Not moving forward equals moving backward, and there seems to be an enormous pressure on people to overperform. On the whole, it seems as if people put their lives next to a ruler that measures their success and tells them to accept their behaviour accordingly.

By just eating their favourite kind of good and watching their favourite programs, people move the industry towards only providing them with whatever is their favourite. In the meantime, they put themselves at risk of developping a lazy kind of satisfaction and boredom. Everything that is not easy, does not deliver quick results or could possibly fail is put to the side. And if people do experience personal failures, cultural habits will make sure they are swept under the carpet, rather than exposed and properly addressed.

Translating that to supermarket shelves, healthy food is becoming less and less available. Its place is being taken by microwave food, instant meals and comfort food. The packaging of that all involves a lot of plastic in different layers to make it convenient and suitable for serving at any moment and in the exact portion desired. Cashiers will put your stuff in plastic bags without asking you, presuming that they are helping make your life easier.

Because of the overall availability of credit, prices of goods or real estate rise skyhigh. People are expected to pay them on credit anyway, so why be conscious about them. Credit companies provide alternative high-rate loans to people who do not manage to pay off their initial low-interest loans. Charles (25) tells me that people are having their houses expropriated by banks as a result of that downward spiral. The banking sector has no incentive to be considerate. On the whole, they make money on both what causes the problem and what appears to medicate it.

The credit market is only one example out of many. On the whole, companies are providing opportunistic solutions for the problems their original products or services create. Many people tend to chose the option that requires the least effort and the quickest satisfation. They can litterally afford to be lazy. Malnourishment is solved by vitamin supplements and sleep for the overworked is available on request from pharmacies. Plastic surgery only requires saving up money, while fighting obesity by jogging in a park is costing valuable time and energy. Recycling is not something you need to think about, because you don`t get anything tangible out of it.

Incentives and rewards
Katie (23, photo) says the government could do a lot better in stimulating the right behaviour. `I would love to recycle my garbage for example, but there is no point as most councils don`t even organise for it. And if they do, you are likely to pay more for offering your separated garbage to them than you would if you just put it on one big pile`, she claims. However, the situation is slowly improving, as more and more councils are setting up facilities to support individuals who choose to add some more consciousness to their lives.

In the same way, local schools will engage in an experiment that have them provide healthy food to their pupils for lunch, as an alternative for the diet that is currently more common: chips, pizza and sweets. It is one out of a few initiatives taken by the authorities to try and change people`s habits for their own benefit. Media are calling for more, preferably ready- made solutions fighting obesity control, overconsumption of alcohol and the alarming frequence of crime committed by bored youngsters.

From all of the above, you may get the impression that life in the UK must be quite rough and tough. But it`s not all that bad. The average standard of living is high, especially when compared to countries that joined the EU more recently. On top of that, most people put life in the right perspective. They know how to smile and shrug their shoulders whenever either one is needed.

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