The Love of Stuff

Nick Thorpe

On my desk stands a miniature of an Easter Island moai, carved for me by a Rapa Nui craftsman. It’s precious to me, hewn from the same stone his ancestors used for the world-famous monoliths, textured with the tiny air-bubbles of millennia-old lava, and carrying memories of the friends I made on my voyage there.

On another level, however, it’s also an uneasy symbol of humanity’s precarious relationship with the material world — because the original thirteen-foot ancestor statues were quarried in the Middle Ages with a fervor to match any modern production line. According to the dominant modern narrative, every family wanted one; more than eight hundred were carved and dragged into position using rope and timber, before somebody cut down the last mature tree on the isolated habitat. Ecological collapse ensued, bringing strife and starvation.

You would think that this blunt (if increasingly controversial) parable of unsustainable consumption would help me moderate my relationship with my stuff. But my mobile phone contract is nearly up, and here I am salivating at the prospect of upgrading it. My desktop moai frowns reproachfully: what kind of icon needs to be replaced every two years? At least statues endure.

We’ve got used to the transitory nature of our possessions, the way things are routinely swept aside and replaced — whether it’s last season’s cut of jeans or computers that mysteriously slow down as if clogged by quick-drying cement. It’s one of the challenges facing the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, whose chief scientific adviser, Professor David MacKay, in January bemoaned “the way in which economic activity and growth currently is coupled to buying lots of stuff and then throwing it away.”

According to data aggregated by the Global Footprint Network, it takes the biosphere a year to produce what humanity habitually consumes in roughly eight months — a situation that is logically unsustainable. And yet we persevere with what the British psychologist Michael Eysenck calls the “hedonic treadmill,” holding out the unlikely hope that the spike of satisfaction from our next purchase will somehow prove less transitory than the last. In fact, the opposite is true. As the American psychologist Tim Kasser has demonstrated in The High Price of Materialism (2002), the cravings of consumerism tend to make us more miserable.

Most of us know this instinctively, and yet remedying our troubled relationship with material possessions is no easy matter. One knee-jerk response is to cultivate a sort of blanket disdain for consumer goods. I catch a whiff of this in my own inverse snobbery about my battered, second-hand bike, or my disdain for designer clothes — a hangover from childhood Christianity, which historically painted the material world as corrupt and in opposition to the soul.

And yet when applied to my whole life, such a hair-shirted response is ultimately as unsustainable as the position it challenges. I inhabit a material body in a material world, and have only to look around me to see the material things that nourish me: the delicious falafel wrap on my plate, the art that brightens the café wall, or even my tablet screen that responds so elegantly to the stroke of my finger.

If Western consumer culture sometimes resembles a bulimic binge in which we taste and then spew back things that never quite nourish us, the ascetic, anorexic alternative of rejecting materialism altogether will leave us equally starved. Who, then, can teach me how to celebrate my possessions with the mindful, celebratory spirit of a gourmet?

The Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda was a self-described “thing-ist,” who has inspired me ever since I wandered through the eccentric treasure-trove of his home in Santiago. Neruda was a passionate socialist and an erudite collector of curious objects — carved pipes, grotesque African masks, ships in bottles, whales’ teeth. “In my house I have put together a collection of small and large toys I can’t live without,” he wrote in Memoirs (1974). He wisely understood that “the man who doesn’t play has lost forever the child who lived in him and he will certainly miss him.” For Neruda, children figured as materialistic in the purest and most playful sense, delighting in textures, noises, colors, the taste of a rattle, the subversive shock of a magic trick.

Neruda saw no clash between this celebratory “thing-ism” and socialism’s impulse towards redistribution. He would give his toys away if guests asked, but expected the same generosity in return. His poems celebrated objects both ordinary and unique — he wrote odes to birds, stones, socks, the Pacific ocean, spoons, salmon-bellied eels, which frequently segued into praising the often hidden beauty of working people. “In my poems,” he wrote, “I could not shut the door to the street, just as I could not shut the door to love, life, joy, or sadness.”

By contrast, the foot-soldiers of General Pinochet who trampled through Neruda’s home on the day of his funeral in September 1973, burning his books and smashing some of his artifacts, were archetypal and literal consumers. Could it be that the problem with our whole neo-liberal experiment, championed early on by Augusto Pinochet, is not that it values material things too much — but that it doesn’t truly value them enough?

In recent years, a range of voices from science, philosophy, political activism and the arts have begun to suggest exactly that, coalescing into a movement that can ground us ever more mindfully in the material world. The “new materialism,” as it was dubbed in a report by the New Economics Foundation in 2012, challenges us to love our possessions not less but more — to cherish them enough to care about where they came from, who made them, what will happen to them in the future.

Environmental campaigners are, in a similar spirit, slowly redefining themselves less by what they’re against (global warming, fossil-fuel extraction, runaway consumerism) than what they’re for: a healthy and balanced relationship with the material world that sustains us in all its delicate, interconnected beauty. But it’s a philosophical, even spiritual position, too. If we could truly cherish the things in our lives, “retain the pulse of their making,” as the British ceramicist Edmund de Waal puts it, wouldn’t we be the opposite of consumers?

My Easter Island statuette means a lot to me because I commissioned it in person from a man who told me about his ancestors as he carved it from the same rock that they had used. Through it, I am linked to him, and he’s linked to them, and the bubbled volcanic rock links us all to the Earth’s primordial fire. Is it really such a stretch of the imagination to believe, like the Rapa Nui, that these statues were animated by mana, the life-force that sustains all things?

Some new materialists come surprisingly close to such a position, albeit by another route. Atoms, quarks, particle streams and matter-energy — the currency of physical science — are arguably just modern terms for what Lucretius called primordia: the building blocks from which we are all made. And you don’t have to get all New Agey to believe that things have what the political theorist Jane Bennett calls a “vital materiality,” or life of their own.

The crisis in Easter Island society, for example, was always more complex than a people committing ecocide, to summarize the American scientist Jared Diamond’s controversial claims in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). Also in the mix were fast-breeding rats that destroyed the palm nuts necessary for forest replanting, not to mention the impact of guns, consumer baubles, smallpox and slave-trading brought by colonial visitors — in short, a vast and interconnected web of cause and effect involving both people and objects acting upon one another in myriad ways.

For a new materialist, the term “inanimate object” is similarly inadequate to describe the things that we collect and discard. In Vibrant Matter (2010), Bennett writes that if we paid attention to the aliveness of matter, we wouldn’t be so careless with our stuff. But the disjointedness of hyper-consumerism conceals the continuing life of objects, built anonymously in distant factories and eventually left to leech chemicals into landfill: “How, for example, would patterns of consumption change,” she asks, “if we faced not litter, rubbish, trash, or ‘the recycling,’ but an accumulating pile of lively and potentially dangerous matter?”

Another name for this is awareness — a spiritual virtue increasingly cultivated in the West through the growing popularity of Buddhism and meditation. By focusing upon a raisin for fifteen minutes, as I was once exhorted to do in pursuit of mindfulness, you can find yourself inside a sensory fractal of awe, tracing its tiny life from seed to sap to vine, to sunbaked plumpness, as if on some benign hallucinogenic trip. It’s certainly never “just a raisin” again.

Indeed, it is often the seemingly insignificant objects that tell us most about ourselves. In his celebrated debut novel The Mezzanine (1988), the American cult materialist writer Nicholson Baker feasts with such relish on physical minutiae — the patterns in a recently vacuumed office carpet; a can of soup rotating slowly at the end of a supermarket conveyor belt — that it is impossible not to feel affinity with them. The entire timeframe of the novel spans only the seconds it takes for the narrator to ascend one floor on an escalator, so dense and vivid are the lives and memories that fan outwards from the things he encounters.

Museums and art galleries feed the same fascination with objects both beautiful and disconcerting — offering the original high-definition, 3D experience to rival all those screens at home. Sir Nicholas Serota’s Tate Modern in London remains the most visited modern art gallery in the world, while the runaway popularity of Neil MacGregor’s book A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010) — drawn from the British Museum — is proof, if any were needed, that we define ourselves by our artifacts.

On a recent visit to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, I was disconcerted to see a display of mobile phones and computers that I remember using only a few years ago. I was reminded of something that the psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in To Have or to Be (1976): “Everything one owned was [once] cherished, taken care of, and used to the very limits of its utility. Buying was ‘keep-it’ buying.”

Not any more, clearly. And yet, as the wistful nostalgia stirred by the phone and computer display suggests, we seem to miss that cherishing. So how can we get back there?

One modest clue lies unobtrusively down an Edinburgh side street, only minutes from the museum. The social enterprise Remade in Edinburgh is one of a growing network of community repair shops dedicated to teaching ordinary people to mend and reuse household goods. Just inside the shop door, a dressmaker’s dummy wears a fashionable “bandage” dress made from an array of discarded men’s ties; handbags stitched from fabric offcuts line the shelves; and disemboweled laptops await the spark of new life, near a sign that reads: “Repairing computers creates over 100 times as many jobs as recycling them.”

The proprietor Sophie Unwin knows she’s tapping into the austerity zeitgeist that’s seen John Lewis reporting a 30 percent rise in haberdashery sales, and a fivefold increase in sewing machine sales, following the 2008 credit crunch. Compiling her own figures (fifty tonnes of usable stuff saved from landfill in the past eight months; more than 2,500 people signed up for workshops teaching everything from household repair to peg-loom rag-weaving), Unwin says: “Sometimes I feel frustrated with our society, stuck in this bubble of perceived consumer need when we really need to rethink our whole economic system. But sitting in a room full of people chatting, repairing clothes, learning new skills, I know we’re already doing something important: we’re creating an experience that’s joyful.”

Far from being a middle-class fad, Remade in Edinburgh draws clientele from across the social spectrum — and yet the suspicion remains that cash-strapped, time-poor households will continue to depend on cheap, disposable goods until something more fundamental changes. “There’s still a long way to go,” agrees Unwin.

A few months ago, when a crack in the display of my e-reader rendered it unusable, I experienced something of Unwin’s “joy” in recycling. I managed to source a £60 replacement screen from an internet trader in Hong Kong, and spent an hour, working painstakingly with a trembling screwdriver and repeated replays of the instructions someone had kindly posted on YouTube, before I lit up (like my new screen) with, well, sheer joy. There’s no better word for that sense of empowerment and accomplishment.

On the downside, I’m told that later models, costing barely more than I paid for the screen, are glued rather than screwed — built, in other words, to be binned. This is why the much talked-about circular economy has to operate at more than a local workshop level, and be programmed instead into the DNA of multinationals who currently rely on the built-in obsolescence of things. Which brings me back to my ailing two-year-old smartphone, suspiciously malfunctioning at exactly the time my contract is up.

If I’m ever going to respond more consciously to my knee-jerk replacement anxiety, I need a product designed to last. With that in mind, I’ve been looking with interest at the Fairphone — launched by a Dutch start-up in December to model what a smartphone might look like in an economy that deliberately and mindfully honors the origins of things. Built from non-conflict minerals, with an open-source operating system that allows users to get round obsolescence, it has two SIM-slots for those who might otherwise need to carry two phones for work and home. It even looks rather cool. But will it make enough money for any long-term market presence, if nobody needs to replace it? I will watch with interest.

I have a more fundamental conflict of interest when it comes to curbing my own consumerism. I genuinely believe that we all buy too much stuff, and yet I make my living selling books I’ve written. Amazon’s flourishing and accessible second-hand book trade — undeniably a good thing, environmentally — now means many customers buy used copies rather than committing to the new book sales I need to feed my family. My dilemma will be society’s too, if we ever decide to halt the churn and disposal of so many consumer objects: what will fill the gap as manufacturing and retail industries shrink?

In its clear-eyed manifesto The New Materialism (2012), the New Economics Foundation explains that creating a society in which things last longer and are endlessly reused will necessarily entail a major shift to the services that keep things going, thereby creating employment to replace lost manufacturing/retail output. Here, Herman Daly, editor of the journal Ecological Economics, calls for the “subtle and complex economics of maintenance, qualitative improvements, sharing, frugality, and adaptation to natural limits. It is an economics of better, not bigger.”

I suspect that will mean paying more, but less frequently. And so, in the spirit of Daly, I’ve started weaning myself off craving bargains and willing myself to pay more for better-made things (recently, a stylish but well-stitched pair of waterproof leather shoes) in the hope that they will last longer and bring more pleasure.

There are some indications that the fetish of ownership is passing in favor of a “sharing market” already estimated to be worth £22 billion in Britain, according to a report commissioned last year by People Who Share, a nonprofit social enterprise and campaign group for a sharing economy. Its survey found that around one in six of us is already opting to hire tools rather than buy them, and 80 percent of those questioned said that sharing makes them happier.

Meanwhile, films and music are increasingly available by subscription, via digital services such as Spotify or LoveFilm — calling time on those unrecyclable CD, video, and DVD formats that often end up in landfill. And, as our beloved museums and galleries continue to offer us access to beautiful objects — aligning themselves with providers of children’s playparks, flexible public transport, car-sharing schemes, and natural beauty in communal spaces — there is less and less cause to call all these things “mine.”

The New Economics Foundation predicts that the new materialism will lead to more emphasis in spending on “experiences rather than disposable goods,” which means less shopping and more music, film, live performance, sport, and socializing: more lasting satisfaction and less of the transitory hit of ownership. This in turn might lead to a proliferation of festivals, sporting competitions, and cultural events celebrating the talents we share and occluding the endless proliferation of retail stuff.

Interestingly, this was more or less what changed for Easter Islanders when it became obvious that building totemic tribal monoliths was not going to save them from the ecological abyss. Instead, they evolved a new system of governance based on an annual festival known as the Birdman Rites. This colorful and demanding event pitted the fittest young men against one another in a death-defying swim to an islet a mile offshore. Their goal was to be the one to find the season’s first egg of the migrating sooty tern and bring it back, unbroken, to their tribal sponsor — who then became the ruling “birdman” for the year.

If not an obvious recipe for social stability, at least it focused on an iconic object that did not require unsustainable quarrying or tree-felling: the egg, a thing of fragile beauty, is a universal symbol of rebirth and sustainability.

The Birdman Rite outlasted a rocky period of tit-for-tat statue toppling, and seemingly even suggested a way for the Rapa Nui to recycle and repurpose their ancient stone ancestors for a different age. Look closely at the back of the famous Hoa Hakananai’a moai at the British Museum, and you see much later carvings of birdmen and the sooty tern, whose eggs came to symbolize the true power on Rapa Nui. “There is something poignant in this dialogue between the two sides of Hoa Hakananai’a,” writes MacGregor in A History of the World in 100 Objects, “a sculpted lesson that no way of living or thinking can endure for ever.”

There are many who believe that our own society is in the process of learning a similar lesson. But a more thoughtful commitment to love and cherish what we already have might yet save us, too. And leave us more deeply connected to one another.