In Sacred Economics, the invaluable free e-book by Charles Eisenstein, the author calls for a new materialism, and I agree with him. It seems paradoxical that strong opponents of consumerism see something positive in stuff. We all know where our stuff comes from, we know about the morally indefensible sweatshops and the physically unsustainable processes of resource extraction, so all we need to know about stuff is that it’s bad, right?
But the stuff is not the root problem. It’s our relationship with that stuff. Ask yourself what role that stuff is playing in your life. It is an illusion to think that it is merely “practical”, merely means to an end (our convenience), as if emotional attachment to stuff is something we consciously control. The stuff that surrounds us also exists as stuff inside our minds: There it constitutes the backdrop of our being-in-the-world, the background we choose when we are staging ourselves.
The reasons why people buy stuff have been well documented, because the profit of many corporations depends on it. It is no secret, that buying new stuff is addictive, and people do it in order to escape the emotional emptiness of their lives, or to indulge in the auto-illusion of freedom of choice they experience when they pick product A, rather than product B, from the shelve in the department store.
But kicking against, or mourning about, the dominant system, is not going to save our souls.
Let’s talk about how we could also see the stuff. Because, like it or not, we are surrounded with lots and lots of stuff, endless objects that have a lifespan much longer than consumerist propaganda will let you believe. Stone, glass, porcelain, metal, plastic objects will just last if we don’t destroy them, but industrial objects that haven’t been produced with calculated profit-maximizing short lifespans, called “planned obsolescence” will last many lifetimes.
The way I see stuff will sound ludicrous to the ears of anyone who feels comfortable on their consumerist thrones. What I do is I take the perspective of the stuff. I look at the world through the eyes of this chair, these jeans, this knife, this book, these sunglasses. I ask myself how can we make their time on earth worthwhile? Not by treating them like dead objects, like symbols of our power, cover-ups for our lack of relationships and the lack of trust we fear to confront. Not by buying them when they’re fashionable and tossing them in the garbage when the hype is over. Not by treating them as commodities, as temporary satisfaction for our craving for feeling secure, successful, and even, loved.
A smarter approach is to let go. Looking at the world through the eyes of the things can be a relief. Neither the bottomless pit of our modern nihilist selves, nor the post-modernist venerated Other, takes center-stage, but the things. We develop empathy for things, we try to help them to be the best they can be. This directly affects our emotional life, because the stuff lives inside our minds. We dream about it. At the same time, the stuff belongs to the material world, so the way we deal with it will have a very real impact.
How do we help stuff to be the best it can be? How can these shoes be “good”. What about couches, or cars, or corkscrews? We can look at the entire period they exist: from their creation out of unsustainable mines, cotton fields, or cattle ranches, through their “consummation” as commodities, to their disposal and ultimate destiny in crematoria for stuff – incinerators. If we take the perspective of the thing, we do this for our sake. Of course we need to apply anthropomorphisms.
When we ask “what would these trousers like?” we are going to mean “to fully realize their potential as trousers, to be worn by many legs, and perhaps, in warming these legs, make a modest contribution to the higher Purpose, where the legs are walking (when they belong to people like Mandela on his long road to freedom, for example). We teach ourselves to honor the things for the purpose that we once put in it. In other words: We pretend we are high and let the things speak for themselves.
I take on the perspective of this t-shirt. There is misery involved in its birth, as it is produced from unsustainable cotton fields in India, sewn in deadly sweatshops in Bangladesh, and shipped by a fossil-fuel hungry transport network, before being advertised by sexist media and sold to people who neither can afford nor really need it. And now this t-shirt is speaking. “I cannot wash away the sins committed in my name”, it says (if it’s a Catholic t-shirt), “but I can be worn by many, I can give joy to people, until I wear out and then I might be used to clean tables, to polish shoes, and eventually I’ll become insulation material or part of a child’s improvised soft-ball.” Our t-shirt, by recycling or up-cycling itself, will never be able to undo the harm done by the industrial production and supply chain that produced it. But that doesn’t mean the t-shirt can’t protest. Yes, it can contribute in its own modest way to revolution. Because it can speak to us.
The t-shirt says: I fit you. You can wear me in remembrance of the horrendous exploitation that produced me, and then pass me on to somebody else.
The bicycle says: I am your size. You can drive me in remembrance of the forest that once stood where my iron was mined, and then give me to somebody else.
The computer says: You can use me to accomplish something good in remembrance of the many modern slaves involved in my production process, then pass me on.
Perhaps the things, from this oblique perspective, show us a better way to reconnect to who we are, as finite organic beings sitting on top of an enormous pile of inorganic stuff, the result of many centuries of accelerating materialistic civilization. Perhaps we can learn to see ourselves through the imaginary eyes of our environment and the things that surround us. And perhaps that allows us to see with greater clarity what we need to do.