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Do we need so much stuff?!

  • by JW

“Alarmed by the rising tide of waste we are all creating, my family and I decided to try to make do with much less. But while individual behaviour is important, real change will require action on a far bigger scale.” [Chip Colwell: “Stuff”]


We could actually make less stuff, use less stuff, buy less stuff – and feel better for it.

This is what Sarah Allen, Exmouth mum and founder of “Rhubarb and runner beans”, has been saying for some time – that we reuse stuff and we buy less stuff!

And it’s what Chip Colwell says in a new book just out: So Much Stuff: How Humans Discovered Tools, Invented Meaning, and Made More of Everything. Or, as the publisher’s blurb says: How humans became so dependent on things and how this need has grown dangerously out of control.

Peter Carty writing for the i-news sees this as a “chilling study of materialism” – and gives an example from our evolutionary past:

Neanderthals wore animal skins as clothing, but it was homo sapiens who started to sew garments together and adorn itself with jewellery. Colwell tells us of many archaeological breakthroughs, including the discovery in the Italian Alps in 1991 of a man killed five millennia back. He was so well preserved by glacial ice that his finders assumed he had only just died and the police were summoned. But the truly dramatic surprise was the extent of his personal effects. The man – subsequently nicknamed Ötzi – had a backpack and was wearing and carrying no fewer than 400 belongings. Why he was killed remains mysterious, but it could be related to his possessions. “He might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Colwell. “But he could also have been killed because of his things.”

Chip Colwell himself penned a long read for the Guardian, asking if we can solve our addiction to consumerism. Here are a few paragraphs:

Alarmed by the rising tide of waste we are all creating, my family and I decided to try to make do with much less. But while individual behaviour is important, real change will require action on a far bigger scale

I had been drawing inspiration from a range of so-called minimalists and wanted to give it a try. I had investigated the likes of Lauren Singer, who lived a “zero-waste lifestyle” in Brooklyn, limiting her trash of eight years to so few items that they could fit in a single mason jar. I’d read about a family of four in Los Angeles who had given up all plastics. I had learned about Lara Joanna Jarvis, a mother of two in Hampshire, England, who didn’t buy anything for a year and saved £25,000.

There are those who refuse to bring more stuff into their lives. Elizabeth Chai, a 40-year-old in Portland, Oregon, got rid of 2,020 possessions and didn’t buy anything in 2020 except food, drink and toiletries. Others refuse to buy certain things, such as anything made of plastic. Others may give up single-use gadgets or fast fashion or things that just seem wasteful, such as paper plates.

Then there are individuals committed to the ethic of reuse, who throw away less and save items that would otherwise be tossed. In recent years, the app Nextdoor has gained popularity: neighbours use it borrow tools, trade items and give away things headed to landfill. Nextdoor reports that it is used in 11 countries and in nearly one in three US households. Similarly, Buy Nothing – a social network group founded in 2013 and dedicated to the “gift economy” of sharing and loaning items that would otherwise be bought or tossed – has a massively popular app. Creative reuse is also central to Singer and others seeking a “zero-waste lifestyle”, which requires reusing items (such as cloth grocery bags), borrowing others’ items (such as wine glasses from a neighbour for a party), and repurposing or “upcycling” an item (such as turning wine corks into a countertop).

Finally, there are those who reduce, as with my family’s attempt at a slow-buy year. Some have reduced their possessions to just 100 things. The 2021 Netflix documentary The Minimalists: Less Is Now challenges viewers to consider getting rid of one thing in the first month, two things in the second, three things in the third, and so on – selling, giving away or trashing the items. Another version is the rise of a kind of “heirloom materialism”, in which people try to purchase only items that will endure for many years – planned perseverance instead of planned obsolescence. 

I came across a harsh but hilarious screed against minimalism, written by Chelsea Fagan of the Financial Diet blog. Fagan levels multiple arguments against all forms of minimalism. She writes that it is classist, a fad for the rich, because people in real poverty don’t have to worry about what not to buy, and because of how expensive “sustainable” and “heirloom” items often are. “‘Stop wasting money on all that Ikea nonsense!’” Fagan imagined a minimalist saying. “‘With this $4,000 dining table hand-whittled by a failed novelist in Scandinavia, you will never need another piece of furniture!’ – which really just points to having enough disposable income to ‘invest’ in your wardrobe and surroundings.” Furthermore, she derides the idea that a simple aesthetic and decluttering equals moral worth, a “faux spiritualism”. Every form of minimalism, Fagan concludes, “is just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way of saying to the world, ‘Look at me! Look at all of the things I have refused to buy, and the incredibly expensive, sparse items I have deemed worthy instead!’”

Marcus Eriksen believes the primary responsibility for solving the environmental crisis belongs to businesses and governments. Those who produce materials, and those responsible for overseeing it, can act at the scale necessary for real change. “We’re fooling ourselves if we think that individual actions are going to move the meter,” Anna Cummins, co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit focusing on reducing plastic pollution, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “Every little bit helps, but public policy and corporations have to change.”

Eriksen believes the overall strategy must involve moving from a “linear economy” to a “circular economy”. This is a shift from a single-use, throwaway economy, as he wrote in 2017, to a model “with end-of-life design, recovery, and remanufacture systems that keep synthetic materials like plastic in a closed loop”. Ideally, synthetic materials are increasingly replaced by less environmentally harmful and less wasteful substitutes. Businesses can develop innovative packaging and delivery systems, such as returnable and reusable boxes.

Still others argue that the circular-economy idea merely reframes rather than rejects the corporate and capitalist assumptions that got us into this mess in the first place. Instead of challenging the goal of growth, circular economies create a new form of growth that is still in the hands of industrial corporations. The accusation is that the circular economy has become a corporate slogan that depoliticises our environmental crisis by seeing the answer as a technical one to be solved by industry, rather than tackling an unjust economic system that gives power and benefits to a few at the cost of the many.