Stuff Happens

A few days ago, I added another bookmark to my browser – I now have 5,473 bookmarks. As can be expected, I never visit most of the sites after bookmarking them, but at least hoarding bookmarks has no negative environmental impact other than me facing an impossible task of managing & organizing them “when I have the time”. (BTW, doesn’t help; it crashes when I try to import my massive file)

Anyhow, this latest bookmarked site is an interesting organization with a nice goal and fascinating studies: The Australia Institute. Their philosophy leans a little left but rings very true:

Private markets, while effective at encouraging efficiency in many circumstances, frequently fail to reflect adequately the ethical, social and environmental priorities of the community. Governments must provide the appropriate institutional framework in which private markets operate so as to ensure that they contribute to justice, equity and sustainability as well as efficiency. Market outcomes are not value free and the Institute reasserts the place of ethics in making public and private decisions.

While the institute is very active in issues relating to climate change and renewable energy, what caught my eye now was a paper called Stuff happens: Unused things cluttering up our homes. It’s one interesting study – and one that is probably applicable to most or all western cultures – of a phenomenon that I believe most of us are to some extent familiar with: we have too much stuff in our homes. Stuff we never use. Stuff we’d be better off without.

There’s even a cute categorization of this clutter:

Emotional clutter – things with sentimental meaning but little financial value –
including children’s toys or drawings, (unused or unwanted) gifts, school or
university notes, and personal possessions of absent loved ones;

Just-in-case clutter – things with little or no sentimental value but that ‘might
come in handy one day’ and that are therefore kept for some time, such as old
bills or bank statements, tools and stationery;

Bought clutter – impulse purchases, often acquired recently, that end up never
being used, commonly including clothes, fashion accessories and books;

Bargain clutter – free or very cheap things acquired at sales, from friends or
family or ‘by the side of the road’ which are discarded only reluctantly
because they were so cheap

What’s interesting is that even though 66% of people agree with the statement “It makes me feel better when I get rid of some of the clutter in my home”, 88% of homes still have at least one room that is cluttered. For many Finns, the “kellarikomero” (a basement closet, sort of a storage space in apartment buildings) is one of the worst clutter dumps. We take stuff there, but we never take stuff out of there. Often they’re treated like miniature black holes.

It’s all stuff that someone could probably use and we still hold on to it. As the report points out, “spending money is now, strangely, its own form of entertainment” and even I confess to sometimes resorting to retail therapy. Why is that? It must be because all that stuff somehow matters to us, even if we never use it.

And it does. The respected State of the World report this year included a chapter on sustainable lifestyles that nicely ties in with the topic at hand. It goes on to explain that:

For a start, it is immediately clear that consumption goes way beyond just satisfying physical or physiological needs for food, shelter, and so on. Material goods are deeply implicated in individuals’ psychological and social lives. People create and maintain identities using material things.
People narrate the story of their lives through stuff. They cement relationships to others with consumer artefacts. They use consumption practices to show their allegiance to certain social groups and to distinguish themselves from others.

It may seem strange at first to find that simple stuff can have such power over emotional and social lives. And yet this ability of human beings to imbue raw stuff with symbolic meaning has been identified by anthropologists in every society for which records exist. Matter matters to people. And not just in material ways. The symbolic role of mere stuff is borne out in countless familiar examples: a wedding dress, a child’s first teddy bear, a rose-covered cottage by the sea. The “evocative power” of material things facilitates a range of complex, deeply ingrained “social conversations” about status, identity, social cohesion, and the pursuit of personal and cultural meaning.

This is all quite understandable. As one of the study respondents noted, “No one’s gonna spot you across the other side of a crowded room and say: ‘Wow! Nice personality!” 😉 But do we have to consume at the current levels to be happy? No, we don’t – and we can’t. It’s painfully clear that the world simply cannot support our “western-level” consumption levels on a global scale – we’re already consuming much more than is sustainably possible as it is. And so we enter the paradox of well-being. But if consuming makes people happy and we specifically want to consume to get physical “stuff”, is there any hope of a change in time?

There is such a thing as sustainable consumption – and there’s also such a thing called diminishing returns, luckily also in terms of consumption. The following graph (from the State of the World report) shows that while money does bring happiness to some extent, its effects soon wear off after certain threshold – after reaching a modest level of income, collective happiness does not increase with income. This, in itself, is not news. But how could we slowly converge the world towards the “happy-but-not-extravagantly-rich” middle ground of sustainable consumption?

The same thought is echoed in the report:

The paradox of well-being begs the question, Why do people continue to consume? Why not earn less, spend less, and have more time for families and friends? Couldn’t people live better—and more equitably—this way and at the same time reduce humanity’s impact on the environment?

Doing so is called downshifting and it’s actually happening – to such an extent that several studies have been made of it:

The downshifting movement now has a surprising allegiance across a number of industrial economies. A recent survey in Australia found that 23 percent of respondents had engaged in some form of downshifting in the preceding five years. A staggering 83 percent felt that Australians are too materialistic. An earlier study in the United States found that 28 percent of those surveyed had taken some steps to simplify and 62 percent expressed a willingness to do so. Very similar results have been found in Europe.

Research on the success of these initiatives is quite limited, but existing studies show that simplifiers really have less materialistic values and show greater respect for the environment and for others. More important, simplifiers appear to show a small but significant increase in subjective well-being. Consuming less, voluntarily, can improve well-being—completely contrary to the conventional model

So perhaps there is some hope.


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