Sunday, August 15, 2010

The World of Too Much Stuff

This post by Ursula Goodenough on NPR's 13.7 blog caputres my feelings:
A lot of the times, store shelves are filled with things I can't imagine anyone wanting.

Sheryl Crow gets to the crux of the matter in her song Soak Up The Sun: “It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

Relatedly, the video The Story of Stuff Project notes that the point of an advertisement is to make you feel bad about what you have.

The notion that material goods don’t bring lasting contentment is hardly some left-wing anti-capitalist rant. The first to leave us with a writings on this perspective were a group of philosophers known as the Stoics, starting with Zeno in the early third century BC and continuing through to the marvelous Marcus Aurelius several centuries later.

In modern usage, to be stoic connotes being repressed and long-suffering, but that was not what the Stoics were after. Rather, the goal is to embrace life’s pleasures, as captured in the title of William Irvine’s recent book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Stoic practice has much in common with the tenets of Buddhism in insisting that one learn to control one’s own negative emotions and appreciate that much of what happens is beyond one’s control and hence calls for acceptance. And they join the Buddha in counseling that happiness entails an avoidance of craving or clinging to… stuff.

Much has been written about our addiction to consumerism and its role as a key driver of our capitalistic system. Headlines of late read “Consumer Spending Falters; Consumer Spending Stagnates,” and the pundits wring their hands. I fully recognize that as long as our economy is based on consumption, including, of course, energy consumption, then to curtail consumption is to inflict hardship on all those servicing the economy by providing “goods.”

While regretting these hardships, I have to confess that I read the headlines with something akin to joy. Perhaps, I think, people will pick up on the ethos of the 1930s, embodied in my grandmother who, although she wound up being quite well-off, only turned on her water heater once a week to take her weekly shower, and in my mother who confessed that she took pleasure in not spending money.

Frugality, which in the case of my mother and grandmother often bled over into flat-out stinginess, isn’t the message of the Stoics, nor of Sheryl Crow’s lyrics. The real challenge is to take joy in what you have and eschew the craving for what you don’t have and probably don’t need given what you already have.

As it happens, and likely because I was raised by said mother and grandmother, a desire for more stuff is not one of my personal vices. But when I have no choice but to go to the mall to replace something that’s worn out, I brace myself for the inevitable heartache –- maybe a more honest word is disgust — as I see all those shelves groaning with stuff that I can’t imagine anyone would want to have, and the lines of folks at the checkout line who’ve filled up their carts with it.
Here's my really, really big bugaboo...

The person in that video The Story of Stuff Project makes me want to puke. She sashays onto the screen with her iPod (I've never had one) and starts complaining about it as "stuff" then she says that she was so "fed up" that she decided to spend 10 years "traveling the world (I travel only to visit friends and family, I don't travel to burn up fossil fuel so I can gripe about other people's "expensive habits"). In short, I find the idiot who is trying to tell me I have too much stuff to be really, really annoying because she has too much and uses too much and then has the audacity to lecture me about having "too much".

I put this in the same category as the video clips I see on the news where the reporter goes into an "impoverished family's home" and talks about their tragic destitution while the camera pans around and shows a place stuffed with "stuff": TVs, VCRs, computer, kitchen appliances, etc. This drives me over the edge. These are "poor folk" for crying out loud! They are complaining about "deprivation" but they are living with so much stuff it pains me to watch them.

I've never had a fetish to "own" stuff. My only real weakness is books. I confess to owning far too many books. But for 30 years my living room table was a cardboard box. I had one old sofa and a rocking chair as my only "furniture" in my living room. I don't have a lot of "stuff". But I really, really hate being lectured at by people who obviously have too much telling me that "people have too much stuff". Nutty!

I believe in keeping a low profile. If you don't think people should have so much stuff... first live strictly to your own ideals. Don't splurge on 10 years of of "world touring" so that you can claim to have "studied" excess. (I remember reading a global warming critic talking about his "realization" that people's excessive use of fossil fuels came to him as he was flying over India seeing all those dots of open fires in villages as he was jetting from one conference on "conservation" to another. My jaw dropped. This guy was burning up more fossil fuel on this one trip than a family in India would in a year feeding and heating its family. And he has the audacity to lecture others on wasting fossil fuels and "global warming"!!!

I have another quibble with the woman in the video. It isn't the "job of government to look out for us". No... government is not parents writ large. The government's job is to facilitate a civil society, i.e. laws, mechanisms for self-government, education, security, infrastructure, a redistributive function to handle excess. But it isn't to be a "nanny state".

I especially object to her curious technique of trying to sneak around government and get her views imposed without a democratic process. She's for "fixing" a problem she sees as purely one of persuasion. Funny, that's just how the "big corporations" that she hates do this job. But I don't see social change as "persuasion". It is a problem of governance where people come together, share views, respect others, and come up with mechanisms to accomodate everybody while moving an agenda forward. That's quite different from imposing my personal agenda on everybody else by doing a "sales job" like this woman is doing in this video.

When I keep hearing her saying "we are running out of resources" I choke. That's been a slogan to box in and control the poor for hundreds of years. I don't see her cutting back on her "stuff". Instead, she jets around the world for 10 years taking in the sights so she can come back and tell everybody "you can't go anywhere because we are 'up against limits'!" Nuts to that.

You can tell that this woman is a nut when she claims "in the past 3 decades alone one-third of the planet's natural resource base has been consumed... gone". That is just plain flat wrong. That is the kind of doomsday rhetoric that the nutcases use to try to stampede people to whatever bandwagon they are selling. This from a person who has just admitted that she spent 10 years traveling around the world. This from a person who claims that others are using "more than their share". Well, what share does everybody have in "traveling the world"? Ten years of traveling the world? What if China's 1.3 billion and India's 1 billion spent 10 years "traveling the world". Why is this woman on a soapbox preaching at me? She is an utter hypocrite. She wants to stop others from getting "stuff" but she hasn't stopped her own extravagance.

More idiocy: she says "toxics in toxics out". This from somebody trying to sell "recycling". Guess what. In the real world one organisms toxin is another's food. Plants excrete oxygen, a deadly toxin. Animals take it in and turn it into carbon dioxide, a deadly taxin. Guess what... plants take that toxin in and turn it into oxygen. Where does this idiot woman get off talking about some "iron clad rule" of toxins in toxins out. That's the very opposite of what real recycling is about. Real recycling converts one organisms toxin into another's food by recycling!

She's the worst kind of scare mongerer. She is half-informed. She runs off her mouth with only half an understanding. Her crazed complaint that flame retardants are "neurotoxins" so we should stop using them. Nuts to that. There is a trade-off. No flame retardent, more deaths from fire. Some flame retardant, less deaths from fire and... drum roll... no deaths from neurotoxin! Sure, if you swill a whole bottle of the flame retardent you would kill you brain, but at the levels used it is safe. That's exactly why we have government, to check products and decide on safe levels. Here's a woman who claims she wants government to "act as our parent" but doesn't recognize that product safety is a function of government!

She is a propagandist because she has no respect for truth. She puts rural-to-urban migration into a segment on toxins and pretends that people move from rural areas because "big corporations" have poisoned the environment and they have no other choice but to go live in a dismal urban slum. No! People move to better their lives. Rural lives are not idyllic. It is hard work trying to scatch a living in a poor rural environment. The fact that she is willing to do a Madison Avenue sales pitch, a bait-and-switch classic in this case, shows me that I can't trust a word she says. She is a ruthless, unprincipled person out to sell a message. A message about you cutting back your enjoyment of life so that she can continue to enjoy her jetting lifestyle where she spends 10 years flying around the world to "check" on you and me to make sure we are "wasting" resources.

Argh! This woman is terrible. It is a person using "leftist" jargon to sell an elitist agenda, an agenda of "trust me" I know what's best for you, forget your political rights and economic rights, I'm going to centrally plan your life and tell you what you can consume, where, and when because "I know best". Nuts to that!

Bottom line: I enjoyed Ursula Goodenough's personal statement, but I hate -- really hate -- this propaganda of The Story of Stuff Project that she points to in her post. That video is the worst of the slick propaganda from the "trust me I know what's best for you" crowd and the "do what I say, not what I do" crowd.

Update 2010aug16: Here is a BBC report on the "cult of less". My only comment: This reminds me of the "back to the land" movement of the late 1960s/early 1970s. It was a pipe dream of dyspeptic upper class youth who could afford to live off money from the parents while they pretended to be "rebels". Sadly, a number of middle and working class youth got seduced by this "fad" and paid a big price. They didn't have rich parents to rescue them from their mistake.

A word to the wise: avoid fanatics no matter how persuasive they may seem. The Greeks had it right, sophrosyne.

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