So sorry to have to do this via WordPress but every few minutes I get I am thrown off Twitter. Even more sorry to do it a day early but I don’t think I will be on line tomorrow and I want to get my ten pennorth in. Bit scrappy and not as clear as I would like, here are some rather jumbled thoughts on

Stuffocation by James Wallman

for the Twitter Sustainable Bookclub #susbc (What? Find out here)

In Stuffocation, James Wallman traces our obsession with stuff back to the original Mad Men who first created desire through advertising. He interviews anthropologists studying the clutter crisis, economists searching for new ways of measuring progress, and psychologists who link rampant materialism to declining wellbeing. And he introduces us to the innovators who are turning their backs on all-you-can-get consumption, and trading in materialism for “experientialism” – where they find more happiness, live more meaningful lives, and express status more successfully, through experiences rather than stuff.

My thoughts

When I was young and trembling on the threshold of life, minimalism was a design concept practiced by a cool elite who could afford to shop at Habitat. Then along came Ikea with its chuck out your chintz ads and do-it-yourself Billy bookcases. Suddenly we could all afford to live clutter free. These days of course minimalism is not just a design concept celebrating clean lines but a way life. Or rather several ways of life.

Initially minimalism seems to reject the accumulation of possessions for their own sake. A few simple, beautiful and practical things are all that are required. It is not a new concept. William Morris (1834-1896) the greatest designer and one of the most outstanding figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement famously said “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”While not a minimalist in design terms, (most of those wall paper patterns are way too busy), his concepts are minimalistically modern. His design criteria was underpinned by political beliefs. He also said “Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.”

th-3His designs and emphasis on skilled craftsmanship were a response to what he considered the ugly issues of his day. It was an era where most people didn’t want to pay for quality and thanks to industrialization, mechanization and a cheap colonial workforce they didn’t have to. They could have loads of cheap, mass-produced products. Yes they were made in the most degrading conditions possible but no one really cared if they could lots of them. Sound familiar?

In his book Stuffocation, Wallman starts with a similar premise; that too much, badly-made, rubbishy stuff is bad for you. That constant consuming will never make you happy but instead leads to a kind of emotional malaise. That there “is a global, rich-world, middle-class clutter crisis”. That too much stuff is “bad for the physical and psychological health of a significant number of people.” The main culprit is “Mass-produced goods, which are the natural product of the system, are the worst of all. They are so stripped of meaning and novelty that they have little chance of genuinely exciting or inspiring us. ”

And finally

“The logical conclusion is one of the darkest sides of materialism: mass production and mass consumption, ultimately, cause mass depression.”

Blimey strong stuff.

And the reason we keep on buying these meaningless goods? They have been given a spurious glamour by spin doctors and ad men. Wallman argues that by the 1930s America was over producing. The dilemma was simple: either the farmers and factories needed to produce less, or people had to consume more. To make the people buy more, they would have to change behaviors and attitudes.

So they made products that didn’t last as long and then (insult to injury), encouraged people to replace them even before they wore out. To buy the new improved model. Often the only “improvement” was in how it looked. The latter is called fashion and has of been happening for ever as far as I can see. To be able to buy the latest fashion is of course an indicator of wealth and wealth means prestige. Buying new stuff indicates that you are rich enough to do so.

As I understand it, Wallman does not say that consumerism is absolutely bad. In fact buying more means we have more which means more jobs which means we have more. That “international trade, with materialistic consumerism at its heart, is pulling more people out of poverty around the world than ever before. Many, including the World Bank’s president, Jom Yong Kim, even believe that we may have virtually wiped out poverty by 2030. For this reason, materialism, fueled by people and nations wanting to keep up with their neighbors, was unquestionably the best idea of the twentieth century.”

The question seems to be how to deal with the unhealthy effects of having to much stuff while keeping a healthy market economy? To resolve the problems of mass production and mass consumption with out causing an economic crash.

He goes on to discuss the different kinds of minimalist. This is not a body of research more a collection of case studies. A kind of social commentary. This is my analysis of his studies.

The Many Ways Of Minimalism

Monk Minimalism the monk tries to reduce their possessions to the absolute minimum. They would be happiest with simple pallet, some robes and a rice bowl. They are into counting how much stuff they have. This kind of minimalism has a sort of spiritual overtone and not so good for continued materialism.

Green Minimalism where people have less because they want to consume less of the planets scarce resources. A political school of thought and pretty much opposed to continued materialism

Cant Be Arsed Minimalism. Why work harder just to get more stuff? Be happy with the minimum. Not so good for continued materialism but not necessarily a challenge to it either.

th-5Design School Of Minimalism. They like the look of it. They have no political or moral issues with stuff. They will buy stuff, use it, then throw it away just to keep the place looking uncluttered. When they need it again they will buy new. Excellent for continued materialism.

The Buy The Best Minimalism. Will only have a few things but they will be the very best quality items. Can be replaced with more of the best. Good for continued materialism.

The Memories Not Things Minimalism who replaces possessions with memories. Rather than buy another vase you go to the theatre. No kind of ethical  or political justification as such. This is Wallmans preferred option. Good for continued materialism.

So everybody can be a minimalist but for very different reasons. But will this really cure the “physical and psychological health of a significant number of people?”

It is an interesting read and a useful introduction to the many school of minimalism. Wallman illustrates that everyone from the deepest of greens to shallowest of designers can be a minimalist. But the reasons for being so are very different to the point of being ideologically opposed.

I am a mixed up minimalist. I am for example a Design School  Minimalist. People visiting my house say it will be nice when its finished. When I say it is, they look shocked and ask where my stuff is. I don’t want stuff.  I hate clutter and I look the look of clean spaces. But I would never discard a useful object. Indeed I find that idea offensive on so many levels that I now feel uncomfortable calling myself a minimalist. Basically I prefer to live this way and would be unhappy if I couldn’t but many people feel uncomfortable my “impersonal” house. So I am not sure that having stuff is all that is making people unhappy. There is more to it than an over abundance of ornaments. If people are buying stuff because they are unhappy that is of course a problem and possibly buying less stuff might make them look at the reasons for their underlying sadness. But that is as far as I would go.

And yes I am a Memories Not Things Minimalist. I do think that experiences are better than stuff but if that means flying to Paris every weekend then I don’t. I think that is just another form of consumerism and as unhealthy as any other kind.

I am also a green and can’t be arsed minimalist but I don’t believe I am any greener than a green who hoards everything because it might come in handy. With stuff or without I think greens are more content because of their ideology. They tend to be less selfish, more responsible and inclusive. Even those with the rainbow mobiles, dream catchers, wall-hung tree-of-life bedspreads and bloody fairy lights. If you are of an environmental disposition you try not to over consume but that needn’t stop you having a hundred spider plants.

Brave New WorldBrave New World

Wallman quotes Brave New World which reminded me that I hadn’t read it in a while. I downloaded it free from Project Gutenberg . Loved it. Written Aldous Huxley and published in 1932, the novel is about a benign but negative utopia where mass consumerism and controlled hedonism keeps the genetically modified inhabitants healthy, content and soporific. Full of fantastic snidey digs.

“Primroses and landscapes, he pointed out, have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes”

And this

“strange to think that even in Our Ford’s day most games were played without more apparatus than a ball or two and a few sticks and perhaps a bit of netting. Imagine the folly of allowing people to play elaborate games which do nothing whatever to increase consumption. It’s madness. Nowadays the Controllers won’t approve of any new game unless it can be shown that it requires at least as much apparatus as the most complicated of existing games.”

Sound familiar?

Looking forward to what everyone else thinks. Once again I am using my twitter feed app so please use the hash tag #susbc. Then even if I can’t access twitter I can see what you say.

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8 thoughts on “Stuffocation

  1. Some brilliant quotes from William Morris there and proving this has been in existence for a long time, something that’s going to be hard to train out of us! 🙂 see you at the next #susbc

  2. Both great books! Thank you so much and I am honoured you have nominated me and that you like the blog. Milk bottle petition is going well!

  3. Great review and I love the different definitions of minimalism. Like you, I think I’m a mix of a few. Really excited you mentioned Brave New World. I’m just finishing it for our Book Group and am planning to do a post on it – what an interesting prescient novel. By the way I’ve nominated you for an Infinity Dreams Award but please don’t feel you have to respond. Just wanted to acknowledge that I find your blog very inspirational.

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