Life is filled with stuff. Yet we've all become aware that having a ton of stuff isn't necessarily the best thing where certain essentials are concerned, like, say, the future of life on Earth. The world is a bit overstuffed as things turn out, and some think the era of "peak stuff" is here. But the question remains: how can we personally unstuff?
When I was growing up, getting stuff was always a positive. As middle class affluence spread, more was better, and people like my mother and father, who both came from modest rural backgrounds, reveled in the sudden easy ability to buy things that were once out of reach. It was okay for awhile. Who didn't love it when Dad brought home a new hi-fi record player or Mom subscribed to the latest Time/Life book series? But then it all turned into a bit of rat race. Instead of owning stuff, stuff was kind of owning us, and it became a bit of a struggle just to keep up with it all.
Now after having vast amounts of stuff for half a century, there are signs we've all had enough. We're realizing that acquiring and maintaining mountains of stuff comes at the expense of things that we actually care more about, like time, experiences, family, and community. The age of Peak Stuff may, in fact, be here.
In Britain, they're consuming less water, construction materials, paper, meat, and textiles than they did 10 years ago. Car use is dropping in Germany, France, Australia, Sweden, and Japan. In the U.S., total truck mileage (think shipping) peaked a decade ago and municipal solid waste has been falling since 2005, which is a key point -- it's not the recession. These trends were clear well before Wall Street nuked the economy.
That said, it's not easy to just step off the stuff treadmill. Old habits die hard and let's face it…stuff is fun at least for a little while. Here are five strategies to get clear:
- Do not buy the spinning mirror disco ball. We did because it was cheap and looked fun. But it sat in the box for two years then was used to negligible effect for 10 minutes at a party before going back in the box for what looks like forever. A bigger waste of money and resources never existed. Learn from my mistake: Before you buy, ask yourself: is it genuinely worthwhile or just a spinning mirror disco ball?
- Redefine "essential." It shouldn't mean stuff we simply really want or just think we need. It's about stuff we actually legitimately require, don't already have, can't borrow or rent, and are unable to find an existing substitute for. "Essential" also applies to size. Is the biggest, fanciest, flashiest model truly essential? Or will a cheaper, smaller, more modest version do just fine?
- Take a vow of poverty. I don't mean live like a monk. I mean live like a person who's set up a new bank account, made it off limits to everyday-ATM-card-access, and each payday fills it with every last penny that they don't absolutely need for essentials (see above). That person has traded pocket change and the dumb stuff they usually spend it on for a fat savings account that'll buy something worthwhile.
- Bury your credit cards in the backyard. At the very least leave them home and use cash for everything. You'll be much more aware of your spending and buying, and when we can feel financial pain at the point of purchase, we tend to purchase less. One fast food study found that people using "fake" credit card money bought 47% more than people who had to pull real dollars out of their wallets.
- When all else fails, pre-owned beats the post-consumption blues. It won't work for food or toothpaste, but almost everything else we need can be bought used for less. You won't reduce your Total Stuff Load, but at least your acquisition won't consume any new resources.
Those are my strategies. What are yours?
The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!