As Christmas approaches and we are bombarded with all the associated advertising and hype, we become more aware of this culture’s obsession with buying things. One of the most insidious aspects of the consumer culture, is the way we give meaning to our life though our accumulation of possessions. This has also crept into our relationships, with great emphasis being placed on buying presents as a way of demonstrating how much we care. It is sad that material things are now used as a proxy, for the time, love and understanding needed to generate and nurture meaningful connections between people. Yet all too commonly, the importance given to these material things overshadows other vital aspects of life.
The way we perceive ourselves and the world around us is integral to how we approach concepts like ownership and personal property. If we shift from the prevailing notion of a discrete self that is defined by what we own, to that of an interconnected, porous being, then we might recognise that we are constantly changing as a result of the interactions and experiences we have. For instance, reading a good book can make an intangible, but undeniable, imprint on our life. However, buying this book and stashing it on a bookshelf is unlikely to be of much further use. Although we might occasionally reread it, or lend it to a friend, it is more likely that the book, as with numerous other possessions in our homes, will quickly cease to catch our attention, simply fading into the background.
The more I delve into the Simplicity Movement, the more I feel the weight of accumulated, but unused, possessions on my life. Ownership is a two way relationship, where everything I own also owns me. The maintenance and guarding of these possessions places a definite demand on my life.
This is not to deny the useful place some material possessions have in our life. What we do need to do though, is to carefully consider the true cost of each item before purchasing it. Everything has a price, both to the planet and us. A rapidly increasing global population coupled with increasing levels of consumption means we cannot continue buying things indiscriminately.
More and more of our planet is being destroyed to make stuff for humans. Yet we rarely consider the true costs of all the possessions we own. Take the ubiquitous book for example. Although books are useful receptacles of knowledge and entertainment, they are made from trees, the very thing that also produces the life giving oxygen we all need to survive. Additionally papermaking uses toxic chemicals, such as chlorine. These chemicals, when disposed of, go on to pollute our ground and waterways.
We are now polluting the air we breathe, the ground we use to grow our food and the water we drink on a global scale. So it is crucial that we consider whether we really need all these possessions to live well. Knowing that the earth has limited resources and a delicately balanced ecosystem, we need to decide what is more important: accumulating personal possessions: or the survival and wellbeing of humans and countless other species.
I am not suggesting that we stop buying things full stop, or that we feel guilty about our purchases. What I am suggesting is that we consider if we truly need to individually own all the things marketers would have us buy. One option is to have more community owned items. A perfect example of this is the public library where collective ownership means that everyone can access thousands of books for free. Toy libraries, tool sheds, bike and car sharing schemes are just a few of the other great sharing initiatives that are cropping up all over the world.
We need to cultivate a way of living that does not have the impetus to individually possess things. So this Christmas (or birthday or any other holiday where giving of presents is a major aspect) why not gift loved ones with your time? Go out and do something enjoyable with them instead of giving a material present. It might not seem like much, but it does disrupt the notion that material possessions are the best way to add value to life. In fact it can be a very difficult thing to do in a society where giving of stuff is so engrained. Yet, every time we do go against this conditioning, we are creating a shift towards a way of living that is more in keeping with the limits of this planet and, I dare say, towards a more fulfilling life.
- The Planetary Boundaries concept is one way in which scientists are trying to monitor the extent to which we are affecting the planet, and to determine the limits we need to honour to ensure our current human-friendly planetary system is maintained.
- Story of Stuff is a great short video on the effects of overconsumption.
- Shareable is great starting point for finding more about sharing initiatives that cropping up around the world.
- For South Aussies ShareNSave is a good tool to find local sharing initiatives.