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Written By: - Date published: 8:30 am, November 1st, 2009 - 12 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, Environment - Tags:

I read a fun piece by Charlie Brooker in The Guardian recently:

There’s too much stuff. We live in a stuff-a-lanche.

I’m fairly certain I recently passed a rather pathetic tipping point, and now own more unread books and unwatched DVDs than my remaining lifespan will be able to sustain. I can’t possibly read all these pages, watch all these movies, before the grim reaper comes knocking. The bastard things are going to outlive me. It’s not fair. They can’t even breathe.

Every day we humans gleefully churn out yet more books and films and TV shows and videogames and websites and magazine articles and blog posts and emails and text messages, all of it hanging around, competing for attention. Without leaving my seat I can access virtually any piece of music ever recorded, download any film ever made, order any book ever written. And the end result is that I hardly experience any of it. It’s too much. I’ve had it with choice. It makes my head spin.

In short: I’ve tried more. It’s awful. I want less, and I want it now.

Brooker concludes that he wants “to be told what to read, watch and listen to”, tongue-in-cheek I’m assuming, but the underlying point of wanting less stuff is rather more serious.

First, most of us (me included) have too much stuff. It’s a truism that we live in a “consumer society”, built on production and consumption, geared to disposability and waste. It isn’t rational, it isn’t good for the planet, it isn’t going to last. We’re running out of time on the environment and on resources like oil and rare metals. I believe that these are the decades of “peak stuff”, and that future generations will look back on our wasteful lifestyles with disgust.

Second, it isn’t even clear that (after the necessities of life are met) having more stuff makes us any happier. It’s the points that Brooker is making comically: at some point stuff becomes a burden, at some point choice becomes oppressive. (For some odd reason the latter gets me most strongly with toothpaste. There’s too many kinds. Buying toothpaste drives me nuts.)

So? Well – it would be good if we all took a leaf from Brooker’s book, and wanted less stuff. We could do that voluntarily as a culture. I think it’s highly unlikely, but we could, and we might even end up happier as a result. Or of course we could just carry on as we are and wait. Because the constraints of a finite planet and a fragile environment are going to impose their own reductions on stuff soon enough.

12 comments on “Stuffalanche ”

  1. Rob Carr 1

    Far too true. Since moving out of home I have become increasingly minimalist and have been trying to dump off everything I don’t use regularly if its not a present. It has been a long time since I went and bought a book.

    Most of the time we don’t need to. I rent all my DVDs each week for $1 weeklies it is ridiculously cheap, if I don’t watch them it doesn’t really matter and I end up getting some really class old ones sometimes just by picking up random things. Latest gem I found was “satan’s little helper” I would never have found except for picking out random movies. For books we have a library. You don’t really need to own them anymore. For clothes, stationary etc I really don’t see why it always has to be different, having a few is just as good as having many because you only ever want to wear your favorites anyway or use your favorite pen.

    I have found these days rather than the feeling you get from buying something which takes 5 minutes and then you wonder if you made a mistake there is a far more satisfying feeling in getting rid of a bag of stuff to the local charity shop. It’s the simple life for me.

  2. Zorr 2

    Just to start with, Charlie Brooker is excellent and has produced several excellent shows.

    I am like Rob Carr in that I have mostly lived my life in a minimalist fashion until recently (due to the addition of family which naturally adds to the amount of “stuff” you need). However I don’t think that it is necessarily correct that we need to live in such a fashion. There is a “tipping point”, if you will, where our collections of books and movies turn in to a simple pile of “stuff” which we will never get around to completing.

    To combat this, we just need to turn a critical eye to what we stock our bookshelves with. For me I firstly consider if I will want to share it with visitors – “If I have people over, is this one of the things I may want to watch with them or lend to them?” Secondly, am I going to get repeated enjoyment out of the experience granted by it – “Will I watch or read this again?” And finally, have I enjoyed it enough that I feel considerably moved to give my money to the providers of this wonderful content.

    The problem I see a lot of people running in to on a regular basis is that they like to collect and stockpile. I mean, who knows, maybe they will get around to reading that book one day? I mean, people say it is good right? Never stopping to consider the fact that they won’t due to life requirements or that it isn’t their kind of book and they never stopped to consider that either. As a society we are pressured to consume but, like a someone on a diet, we have to be careful what we take in. Our heads can only hold so much stuff.

    • lprent 2.1

      My problem with books is that they are so damn unportable. I have a very high reading with retention speed and routinely read a book a day. I also reread books because you often don’t get it one decade, but do the next. It is mostly science fiction, history, and science. Those I’ve found bear rereading.

      Consequently I have a an ever increasing stockpile of paper books.. Biggest hassle is that they complicate my occassional moves through shear bulk.

      However I’m now starting to get them all in formats that my iPhone can read on Stanza. Its only flaw is the occassional habit of freezing up (typical of java), and that they don’t have a desktop version for linux (and since it is java, who knows why).

      I’m looking forward to my books steadily dropping in bulk to a DVD…

      • Draco T Bastard 2.1.1

        I try to get all my books in e-format now. Hell, it’s why computers were invented 🙂

  3. Yes I can’t believe the ad industry lied about this but it turns out material acquisition isn’t actually a very effective path to self-fulfillment and happiness.
    A bit of rain and some nice loamy top soil is all you really need.

    • Zorr 3.1

      haha… so true.

      Myself, I am a video gamer mostly. However, unlike what seems to be the craze at the moment of buying everything in store I much prefer to pick a select few games I will enjoy and supplement with some of the wonderful free offerings out there. Just mentioning this as it seems to be very analogous to the discussion on film/books.

      And outdoor activities can be very enriching too (even though I don’t do them nearly as much as I should).

  4. RedLogix 4

    If Rob is at the start of adult life, and Zorr somewhere in the middle… I’m definitely off at the back end of it… yet we share the same feelings here.

    At my stage of life I’ve managed to accumulate a reasonable net worth, but still my partner and I have eschewed accumulation for it’s own sake. Indeed if many of you could actually see the very, very modest 100m2 house we live in, the 16yr old car I drive (but at 5.2l/100km the Dutchman in me just won’t let it go), the clapped out 18’TV we watch, the ordinary practical clothes we wear, our mismatched tired old furniture… most of you would be surprised, if not a little shocked. Seriously.

    All of our tenants have better things than we do.

    We don’t do gadgets, no wide screen tv, the ‘puter I’m typing on is a recycle from work, no fancy big kitchen, no bloated barby rusting on the back lawn, no motorised junk… at our age we can still move house in one smallish vanload.

    The other thing missing in our lives is unproductive debt, no credit cards, no HP. Yes I have a substantial mortgage, but it’s working capital that the cash flow readily covers. There is nothing wrong with debt IF it is spent on an asset that produces income… but you have to be very clear where to draw the line.

    The trick is to only attain and keep things that are of real value to you. The next trick is to be clear on what these values are. What we do have is a lot of tools, a big garden, several good bicycles and some very carefully chosen tramping gear. If I need something we haven’t got we rent it… always more cost effective.

    Usually I’ve got three months income sitting in cash for emergencies.. or what a very wise friend once called your “get fucked money”, because one day you be forced to choose between keeping your job…and doing something you will end up hating yourself for. I’m a ways short of financial independence, but with luck (and you always need that) I should reach retirement without needing National Super.

    In many ways my role model, when it comes to money, is the father of an old friend. He’s worth more than John Key, a lot more… yet he his influence is primarily the reason why I’m a socialist. Nor if you met him would begin to guess at how wealthy he is. He lives in an nice but unremarkable house, and nothing about his lifestyle would give much clue as to his real wealth.

    The crucial lesson he conveyed to me is that wealth is only a tool that is given to you in stewardship. And as with all tools you either master it, or it enslaves you.

  5. Quoth the Raven 5

    This is a good read: MOLOCH: Mass-Production Industry as a Statist Construct. In it Carson demonstrates the pernicious influence of the state’s interference in the market tipping the balance of favour towards mass production, the corollary of which is supply-push distribution and mass-consumerism.

  6. Deemac 6

    research shows (I know, I know) that beyond a simple level, choice does indeed stress us out. People can cope with a choice of economy jam, luxury jam, or regular jam (for instance) but give them a choice of dozens of jams and they are more likely to leave the shop with no jam at all.

  7. randal 7

    hey you just gotta have stuff or you are a nobody.
    you just gotta go somewhere and burn up gas or you are a nobody.
    modern civilisation is predicated on turnover and stuff and oh I forgot making a noise to show that your stuff is better than anyone elses. i.e. louder.

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