Saturday, June 16, 2012


For all of my radical politics, there are few things I find more important and harder to live by than anti-consumerism, and this summer I've repeatedly found myself slipping.  This isn't just important for ideological reasons--my life gets terrible when I start defining myself and seeking happiness by spending.  Today's post is about physical objects, and what knowledge I've scraped together about how to deal with them.  Some of it is what's right for me, but I'm hoping to develop a more widely applicable approach. . .

1.  People are always more important than objects

I learned this lesson by living with my oldest sister and her husband when I was about thirteen, and I really have to thank them for it.  You wouldn't get yelled at for spilling, loosing, or breaking things.  It was understood that you would try your best not to do it again.  People--and not just their physical welfare, but their emotional state--were always more important than physical objects in that household, and it was a much happier way to live.    

2.  Things belong with the people who will use them best.

This is an obvious efficiency maximiser.  To best enact your values in the world, your resources (including your physical objects) should go wherever they will best enact your values.  Sometimes, that means somebody else gets the treadmill you use once a week, because they'd use it every day.  Sometimes it doesn't.

3.  Have respect for embodied energy: things are someones' life.

All person-made objects represent people.  The makers aren't going to get that time and effort back; it's been released into the world in the form of your object.  While these embodiments are less important than living-breathing-people-in-front-of-you, they're still important and worthy of respect.  Because of this, I try to primarily own objects which are sturdy, well crafted, and made by well compensated workers--and to make things last "a boringly long time."*

4.  Accept that you need to own objects, and that they will require time and care from you.

Whatever your needs are, you will not be able to meet them without some physical objects.  Almost certainly, you will need to own some physical objects.  Like pets (but less so), possessions require attention and upkeep.  Like certain combinations of pets, possessions require upkeep both individually and as collections.  This is a bitter taste.  Get used to it.  

One of this biggest gaps remaining in my personal algorithm for dealing with physical objects is the question of how much time and care they should receive.  Really good tools have improved my life dramatically.  At the same time, I struggle not to be owned by my things.  

5.  Cultivate a sense of security.  

I'm not 100% certain this is true, but for the time being I've found it helpful to postulate that being well supplied in general will carry you through famines, rather than making you soft.  Feeling insecure is distracting and stressful, and it makes you less good at life.

Economic security is an impossibly distant wish for many--possibly most--people.  Still, I find it helpful to know what I'm shooting for.  Supposing I had a steady income adequate to sustainably meet my needs, I would try to cultivate a sense of security regarding objects by (a) being very aware of what my needs were, (b) owning a sufficient kit of durable, high quality stuff to meet my needs, and (c) keeping a cash reserve specifically budgeted for replacing said objects when they were lost, damaged, and broken.  I would use my bountiful circumstances to develop skills which would help me do without, if necessary.  I would also try to plan well for retirement, life changes,** and emergencies, and follow the financial habits which correlate with happiness.  I shall try to post and/or link to those at some point soon.

Some people attempt to achieve greater economic security by storing objects, rather than cash they don't have.  This makes a lot of sense--in our present economy, you can find absurdly inexpensive consumer goods on a random basis.  By buying everything at its lowest price point and storing it for future use, you can have access to a lot of objects for very little cash.  You must also budget time and energy to organize, store, and maintain these objects when they aren't in use--and spare time, storage space, and energy are also frequently as short supply, when you're poor.  For some people, this strategy works very well, but it requires a lot of skill, planning, and investment of self into caring for things to work well.

A sense of security can fight the fear of being without, as well as the excessive attachment to objects that comes with fear.

6.  Fight hard against hedonic adaptation, aka "necessity creep."

I think everyone is vaguely aware of this problem.  Actually fighting it is another matter; this is the best I've come up with.  Figure out what your needs are.  Write them down.  If you discover them changing over time, take some time to decide whether or not they're changing in a healthy way.  When deciding whether to acquire something, think hard about how it will relate to your actual needs.  If you frequently find yourself justifying purchases which you later find excessive, maybe sit down for a minute and write about how the item you plan to acquire will function in your life, and whether it really serves your needs as much as money in the bank or a donation to your favorite charity would.

I have problems with this because for the first 24 years of my life, I was so intent on avoiding hedonic adaptation that I failed to recognize my real needs, let alone fight to meet them.  Arriving at a healthy willingness to recognize what is really necessary for me to flourish took more than a year of therapy.  This habit turns the fight against necessity creep into a tightrope, on which I feel I'm constantly overbalancing one way or another.

7.  Seek the elegance of just what is needed--seek less and better. 

For me, ultimate luxury would involve not owning anything that I wouldn't be using within the year.  The cost of owning and maintaining objects is high for me, because I get stuck on decisions that don't seem terribly hard for other people, because my health problems make it difficult for me to physically maintain things, and because I don't have the habits and/or mindsets of a skilled housekeeper.  I find a lot of elegance in simplicity.  When I dream of a perfect home, I see spaces which have everything in them which is needed, and absolutely nothing more.  

Starting in the real world and trying to accomplish this, I try to focus on the ratio between stuff and usage.  The goal is to get the greatest amount of use out of the smallest amount of stuff, without this project interfering with the rest of my life.  Owning beautiful things helps optimize your stuff/use ratio.  Taking pleasure in an object is a kind of use; therefore, maximizing use means, if possible, owning only objects which especially bring you pleasure.

8.  Don't get sucked in.

Minimize your exposure to advertisements and window shopping; shop only for items that you have noticed a need for in your day-to-day experience.  Do not go to places of commerce for pleasure or comfort.   

Take care of your feelings.  Try to notice and address what you feel.  Focus your life on the things that will actually make you happy--relationships, experiences, satisfying and hopeful work, and connection to something larger than yourself.  Seek pleasure and comfort in these things.

*where is that line from?  such a good line. . .

** this might be obvious to everyone else, but the materially expedient way to meet your needs will change with your circumstances.  Therefore, whenever you move to a new place, you're likely to need a certain amount of different stuff. . . etc.


  1. Hunh, I don't feel a connection to this.

    I don't actually understand point 3, as I don't connect labor and the object created, other than seeing one as causing the other. That may seem weird, but I just don't have the sentiment.

    My consumption habits are relatively stable. My relationship to possessions is very detached. I have little issue in cutting consumption, and I've even stopped buying $1 TV dinners in favor of 70 cent cans of beans and 40 cent cups of ramen. I also don't have the air conditioner on despite the southern summer, and recently even stopped buying soda for consumption at home. I consider these actions matters of indifference, not an active ascetism, a resistance to consumerism, or even a mental stabilization act. I simply see it as a way of cost-cutting.

    I guess I bring this up because wide application may have to recognize people as insensitive as myself.

  2. Yeah. . . I'm entirely aware that I wouldn't have needed to put so much thought into this if I weren't, in certain regards, unfortunately fragile.

    I would say, within my model, you must be in a position where your needs are pretty much met (or as met as material things can make them), if you can indifferently reduce your consumption in this way. There's got to be some amount of mental balancing act going on, though, or you wouldn't have made the decision to switch from one consumption pattern to the other. Perhaps there was a level of convenience and/or pleasure you previously thought you needed or wanted, but then discovered this was not the case compared to the money you could save.

    I don't mean to project my values onto others--merely to make my reasoning available.

  3. Day, I'm pretty neurotic, so don't worry. I have my own fragilities that others don't always share. :)

    I can see that. It's just that my threshhold appears significantly lower than most people, and without much of an ascetic desire on my part. I'm just cheap, Day. :P

    Ha ha! I don't see this as value projection, only as an effort towards intersubjective understanding. This always involves taking what is subjective, and trying to extrapolate and see where it goes.

  4. You know, I think I might have had something to do with point #3. I think that generally I don't own anything that represents another persons time and energy in my mind, unless it's something that they've made themselves and have given me. You told me that the way that I express love and friendship is by giving time to produce something useful and/or beautiful for another. I think that the industrial revolution business model that we're still stuck on has made objects so de-personalized that those objects no longer represent the sacrifice of another human being to bring you joy or beauty or comfort or a reduced workload. there's a massive craftsmanship rant in that but I won't fill up your blog with my tedious ramblings.

    I do think that point #3 is important though, especially for those who are anti-consumerist. I don't think objects are inherently bad, I think they're like sugar. Just a little every now and then is all you really need. I think it's worth recognizing that some objects are good. But then I am an artist, so as a producer of objects I might be a little biased.