In light of our bubble’s deflation, perhaps it’s time to rethink how we’ve been generating our wealth.
For the last fifty years, of course, we have doing so by purchasing Stuff, lots and lots of Stuff:
Stuff for the home; Stuff for work; Stuff for the car; Stuff for yourself; Stuff for your mother, your father, your wife, your husband; Stuff for the dog; Stuff for the lawn; Stuff to make you look like you are 26 years old; Stuff to demonstrate your importance and let you feel good about yourself; Stuff you just can’t resist; Stuff to eat and eat and eat and eat; Stuff to be seen with and Stuff to use in private; Stuff that looks way cool; Stuff you can throw out and replace with Stuff twice as neat; Stuff you put on the back porch and now can’t remember how to use; Stuff that gives you an erection that might last for more than four hours, in which case you should call your doctor or go straight to the emergency room; Stuff that famous people talk about; Stuff that brings to mind childhood memories or sunsets over the horizon or beautiful women with big breasts riding bicycles; Stuff that proclaims itself to be unlike anything else in the history of humankind; Stuff that will surely make people love you.
And the economics of Stuff has worked. We’ve spent the last half century consuming our way to the top of the world’s heap and pulling a raft of other nations upward on the strength of our buying binge. But now, simply put, we can no longer afford to buy enough Stuff to keep all of us afloat.
The first two decades of that half century of Stuff were fueled by an enormous burst of disposable income in the aftermath of World War II and with it, the rise of the pursuit of Stuff as a principal of social organization. In those days, men supporting a wife and two children could buy enough new Stuff on a single paycheck to make the economy grow. Then it took both husband’s and wife’s income, then husband and wife working overtime, then husband and wife working overtime plus a line of credit borrowed against all the Stuff they already owned. Then we woke up one morning in 2008 and there was no value left to borrow against. So the credit crashed and the edifice of culturally mandatory, often desperate consumption came down on our heads.
“It’s a Ponzi scheme,” Judy exclaimed when I ran into her at the supermarket. The store was about to fold and everything was marked down. Judy had been a banker before she fled finance for something slower and less hierarchical. “Our consumption cycle has all the features of a pyramid scam,” she insisted. “It requires an ever expanding supply of new wealth to keep purchasing the Stuff that drives the economy forward. Eventually that requirement to buy outstrips the resources available to sustain it. Then constant growth collides with limitations it can’t breach and when it does, people inevitably start falling out the bottom of the economy, just like they are now. We can’t just buy more as a long term economic strategy. It won’t cut it.”
I wasn’t up for a lengthy encounter around the subject so I moved on as soon as it was polite to do so. But Judy started me once again contemplating the End of Stuff.
I soon came up with my five favorite reasons to root for such an outcome:
The dynamic of Stuff has distorted our needs to the point of dysfunction. Economies were engines of survival before they became engines of wealth. In those days, need was defined by the stark physical reality of our biological selves. Since the advent of Stuff, however, need has increasingly serviced our psychological selves, transforming requirements into impulses defined by commercial motives manipulating our emotional confusion. We are left with little idea of what we really need and what we don’t really need, and that inability cripples our capacity to adjust to the new reality.
The manufacture of Stuff is a cavalier use of diminishing resources. Our Stuff syndrome is a remnant of when the world seemed endlessly bountiful and we had plenty to spare. That is no longer so. Instead, all the readily available materials of the Industrial Age are being exhausted at a steady pace and we desperately need to make collective decisions to husband what remains. You can’t do that and chase endless Stuff at the same time.
The sociology of Stuff has warped our culture. We are now a people linked together in a communal identity that is largely shaped by advertisements engineered to get us to purchase maximum Stuff. Thirty second television spots teach most of us who we are and who we ought to be as well as what to buy. The result is a set of self images that bind us to consumption and keep us trapped in a virtual world that is shallow, restrictive, and ultimately manufactured out of whole cloth.
The hegemony of Stuff has set the world on a path that might well destroy it. When Stuff was an American monopoly, it was hard to see the threat it posed. But now the heretofore “undeveloped” world has begun to Stuff itself, gearing up to consume in force. And when they do, not only will materials disappear or inflate in cost, but millions more tons of carbon will be added to the atmosphere, compounding our planetary climate dilemmas, perhaps beyond relief.
And finally, our addiction to Stuff has promoted values that fall far short of what the situation requires. Implicit in making consumption a national commandment has been the nurturing of materialism and obsession—attributes of our lesser selves. If we are to rise to our better selves, as the approaching transformation requires, our reliance on Stuff will be an anchor tied to our feet. We need to value making more out of less, not making less and less out of more and more.