Our Stuffed Existence
By the end of this month (September 2009), my roommate and I will have to move out of our current apartment in Toronto. Luckily, another friend has generously offered us to “double up” in her place. “To double up” is a fairly common practice for those without shelter these days. It comes in variations, but it essentially means sharing the same place with many others until things become easier. Increasingly, this has become the trend in North America and the U.S. in particular, and the growing rate of doubling up is actually a powerful indicator of the precarious economic situation in a hyper-marketized society. This is because there is very little public support for those without shelter and when “free markets” reign, those with leaner pockets are outta home.
In our case, however, it was not so much being unable to afford another place as the oddness of our timing. In two and half months, I will be leaving this city for a longer field research back to Nepal. My roommate's plans are totally up in the air. And, in this city, you cannot normally get to rent a place for yourself unless you have a contract at least for a year.
That aside, when you have to move, you begin to realize that you have to deal with things. All of a sudden, the television needs packing, so does the sound system. And you have accumulated umpteen pairs of pants and several dozens of shirts, at least a dozen coats, and the carpets. The drawers that are filled with them needs to go, too. The table you will not need has to be disposed of. Books you bought as you loitered around the book shops and saw all those pricy deals need to be shipped. The kitchen pots and pans need to be bubble-wrapped. Cutlery sets that you get as gifts from your loving mom are too precious for you to throw.
Moving is a moment of revelation as to how “over-stuffed” has our existence become. If one pays serious attention, it is also one of those rare moments when we begin to see that so many of the things that we have accumulated are utterly useless for our lives. Well, useless in terms of the satisfaction we derive from them, or the need that they satisfy. After all, a dozen pairs of pants or less are comfortable enough to keep us warm in winter and cool in summer, for instance. What does another dozen add up to other than filling up a bigger wardrobe space or additional storage boxes? In December 2008, I visited Nepal and met a few people, some of whom had built multi-story houses. One particular gentleman showed me around the rooms in which he planned to have computers and flat-screen television sets for each of his two growing kids in them. The irony was we had had over 14 hours of electricity outage in the country.
This love for stuff is created through 24/7 barrage of visuals. We are increasingly converted into desiring machines. Well, some of us exercise choices, but the impulses coming from mass media cannot be underestimated. And the way economies are structured, buying more and more stuff is becoming the foundation of success. Love of things is becoming synonymous with survival of the industrial economy as we know it. But it is this love that is not making us any happier or healthier.
In fact, Wolfgang Sachs, the prominent German environmental activist-intellectual says in his book Plaet Dialectics that our love of stuffs are inversely proportional to our quality time with other people, things and other living beings. His observation is simple. Love of people requires investing our time with them. It requires talking to them, hugging them, kissing them, simply being with them, going out to eat with them, organizing potlucks, playing with them, trekking with them, looking after them when they are sick and in trouble, and writing love letters to them. We can make long list, but the point is all of those things we need to do to build human relationships require time. Sachs says, “Consider that, beyond a certain number, things can become the thieves of time. Goods both large and small must be chosen, bought, stored and disposed of. Even the most beautiful and valuable objects unavoidably gnaw away at the most restricted of all resources: time. The number of possibilities — goods, services, events — has exploded in affluent societies, but the day in its conservative way continues to have only 24 hours.” It is my general observation that those who are obsessed about their stuff are generally the ones who have very narrow friendship circles. Not that most of them want to be excluded, but simply because they have little time left for investing in friendships and human relationships.
A friend recently sent out an email to friends asking if they could consider coming to her house and contributing labour to dig up the lawns for raising a vegetable/fruit garden as their birthday gift for her boyfriend. “It will be followed by a potluck,” she reminded. In a society, where the visceral desire to have the industrial products as gifts is normalized and has become a part of the dominant economic logic, contributing labour as birthday gift might sound patently arcane. But let's not forget, the industrial model of producing and consuming ever more things out of limited natural resources is not only keeping us from enjoying what Sachs calls “non-material pleasures”, but it is also creating unmitigated destruction of the very foundations of life itself — the air, water, soil and biodiversity. The British government report Prosperity Without Growth says 60 percent of our natural ecosystem is at various levels of degradation. In other words, more things are not making us happier and, in fact, having much is contradicting with living well for increasingly large numbers of people.
Health researchers have also begun to show unequivocally that beyond the provisioning of good food, comfortable shelter, and clean living and working environment, production and consumption of more goods and thereby the higher economic growth does not lead to any health improvement at all. If at all, it seems to be having detrimental effects as forests begin to diminish, soil fertility declines, glaciers recede, biodiversity shrivels and urban areas become choked with smoke and dust and clogged with sewers and waste. In a multi-decade study of the twenty-four rich countries, Richard Wilkinson has found that what matters for health, after necessary human needs are met, is not so much the increasing volumes of wealth but the level of equality among humans. The higher the equality, the better is the quality of their relations. It's time we think of well-being, instead of well-having, Sachs reminds us, because that is becoming the only way we enhance our happiness and at the same time save the planet.
(The author is interested in contributing to the development of alternative indicators of “progress” — such as growth of food security, soil fertility, forest cover, fish in the river, air quality, morbidity, longevity, and equality.)