When I was a teenager, my father handed over a Swiss army knife to me and said: “this is yours now”. It was meant to be a less glamorous version of the moment Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars waves his big ears and hands over his lightsaber to Luke Skywalker. As my dad was passing down “the force” to me, the rite of passage ritual was followed by the comment: “you know, you can survive practically anywhere with this knife”. This was meant to tell me a couple of things: first, it signified that I am an adult now. And I have my father’s blessing to be trusted with a survival tool, and be able to use it as well as he did. The second message was more of a warning: that there may be times ahead when survival will actually be at stake, when this knife may actually be needed. Moments that may involve difficult dilemmas, a far cry from the trials and tribulations of selecting the right toppings from a laminated pizza take-away menu. For a teenager that had grown up on American TV shows, ice cream and pop music, life had suddenly gotten a bit more “real”.
So I went along and accepted the knife of course, which was immediately stored in a shoebox along with other miscellaneous items. The list was very long, but I can still remember most of it: first, a bunch of birthday cards which took most of the space in the box, and which had survived a rigorous selection process over the years, based solely on the quality of the front cover illustration. Then, a plastic toy car which I was way too old to play with by now, and which to be honest, I had never loved and had never played with – not once. All it did was roll. That’s it. At the bottom of the box, there was a good selection of random, orphaned old colour pencils, dried up markers, some with missing caps, as well as some rough-looking, severely amputated Crayola crayons, which had over the years turned the white interior cardboard of the box into their own abstract graffiti playground. Even the birthday cards had not escaped from the crayons’ thuggery and vandalism, bearing multiple colourful but quite brutal stabbing wounds — presumably acquired during moments of revolt, unrest and upheaval as the contents of the box occasionally experienced unprecedented “weather turbulence” and even the occasional “collapse”, as evidenced by the state of the box itself.
Finally, a long tail of smaller mystery items was also present, which I’m sure MacGyver would have drooled over: things like paper clips, a few random lego pieces that were probably dearly missed elsewhere in a different shoebox, some buttons, rubber bands, tutti-frutti push-pins, a half-consumed eraser that needed some cleaning itself, and a few screws belonging to god knows what. It looks like the box had all the necessary building blocks for life to re-emerge one day, once the crayons had completely trashed the place, taking their own trauma out on their surroundings.
We all own a shoebox or two filled with a collection of miscellaneous items. These boxes are symbols of our world: a lot of pointless waste, and a lot of brilliant tools that are currently not being used, or being used in the wrong place, for the wrong purpose, at the wrong time. As the trash and the disorder accumulate and escalate, the Swiss army knife is sitting in the corner quiet, posing with its stainless steel exterior and signature burgundy-red metallic finish, almost like the politicians of the planet who just like to throw their heavy weight and big glossy smiles around in the box, but in the end never actually lift a finger for fear they will get a scratch. The birthday cards represent the marketing brochures with all the lies, promises and fake news: looking great on the outside, but once you open them and read the interior, it is full of generic wisdom made to appease, placate and manipulate. As for the miscellaneous nuts and bolts, they are us: they are the people, who are feeling too dismembered, too marginalised, too feeble to be able to organise themselves into a movement that can challenge the elites strangulating the planet’s climate and natural systems. But these seemingly insignificant nuts and bolts are unaware that each and every one of them is, by their own right, a Swiss army knife. Just like the knife, they can be used in many different ways: to create, or to destroy.
The pandemic situation has made us all realise how many tools we had inside of us that we had forgotten we had. It has made us reach for the dusty shoebox at the back of the cupboard. The one that we took with us every time we moved house, without even opening it to check what’s in there. As we begin to realise how wasteful, dysfunctional and damaging our personal life and civilisation was before COVID-19, the same can be said about our economic system: a system which, rather than using the full range of tools available within the Swiss army knife, has instead been consistently using the knife as a stone tool. As a weapon that pulverises nature and exploits humans in order to extract, in the quickest, most damaging and most inefficient way, the profits that in the end go only to the elite, and in the process damage the planet irreversibly.
We all tend to hide our miscellaneous and unwanted parts in shoeboxes at the back of the cupboard. We can all begin to discover the rest of the vastness of our toolset. The toolset that they wanted us to forget we had, blinding us with a robotic life of modern-day slavery and consumerism that has deleted some of our best skills: empathy, compassion, ability to come together and determination to do what’s right, not what’s going to pay our salary. We are all guilty, not just the elites.
But the toppings on the pizza menu are already, one-by-one, becoming extinct. It is time we learn to use the stove, before our young adulthood is abruptly ended. This civilisation is in for a very rough puberty.
(from the book Disposable Earth)