The Love of Stuff. Bluff or Guff?

Rapa Nui

A colleague sent me a link to a article from Aeon magazine with the above title (without the “enough”).

The author, Nick Thorpe, sums up his thesis in a few paragraphs.

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… 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 last sentence telegraphs the rest of the article. Well, almost. Thorpe spends several paragraphs touting the sharing economy constituted by people sharing (renting) things they own to others, which seems to me has little to do with taste. The things they share run the gamut from rooms in one’s house to small tools. Why people do this is a question? Barter economies are nothing new, but disappeared as cheap goods became readily available. Over time, the institutions that supported sharing have all but vanished replaced first by corner shops and later by Target and Walmart. But the economy of barter has not gone. For occasional use it is still much cheaper to rent, until one factors in the transaction cost—finding the item, getting it, insuring, returning it, and so on. With shrinking disposable income, the economics of sharing have begun to look more and more favorable.

My question here is does the increase Thorpe notes have anything to do with people’s aesthetic or environmental attitudes as he suggests it does. He says people who share are happier, but than what is left silent. Are they happier about reducing the material load on the Earth or happier because that have a little more money left in the pot. Or perhaps because sharing allows them to do something they could not do otherwise for lack of ability to purchase outright the necessary tools.

I found this discussion a distraction for what seems to be his main theme: if we begin to regard our belongings as “beautiful,” we will come to love them and take care of them. His example is a replica of the monoliths at Rapa Nui (Easter island) that he keeps close. It’s made from materials from the island and reminds him of the wonderful experience he had during a visit. That works for him, but not for most of us that come home with dozens of tchotchkes, made from local shells, cloth, etc. If my experience is general, they sit around gathering dust until they are sent to a local thrift shop, given to grandchildren, or eventually chucked. He had his replica especially made for him endowing it with something different from the outset. But this hardly applies to the predominance of artifacts we acquire. The manufacturer may advertise that they were designed just for me, but that’s always a lie, except in the rare case of buying individualized hand-made objects. Custom design of clothes, for example, once thought to be the new way to dress oneself, never took off. I spoke too fast, one can fly to Vietnam and have a dress made, or order a customized t-shirt online, but you get the point.

He uses these examples to argue that we do not value our belongings enough to maintain and retain them, and if we did we would hold on to them, reducing the load on the Earth. The headline metaphor, the love of stuff, seems overly strong, and set me back at first because it seems to convey a very thin expression of love. But as I write this, I have changed my mind but this takes a little explanation. When I use the word, love, I always refer to the way that it is defined by Humberto Maturana, “Love is the domain of relational behaviors through which another (person, being, or thing) arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself.” That’s always a mouthful that’s hard to swallow, so here is an alternative, “Love is comprised by the actions one takes toward another living or non-living being out of the acceptance of the legitimacy of the existence of the other to be just what they are, no more, no less.” This is a mouthful too, but perhaps the active feature of love is clearer. Love, spoken in this way is not a feeling in the ordinary sense of being hot and bothered. It is an emotion in Maturana’s sense that emotions are states of the body that predispose the kinds of actions one can take. When I am experiencing the emotion of fear, I cannot extend my hand.

The emotion of love gives rise to actions that fit the definition of care, actions directed to serve the existential or emotional state of the other. For humans, empathy, the consciousness of what that state is, is an essential part of caring. Love and care, as actions, are essentially the same. There never is some economic or other calculus used as a precursor. This is the essence of Kant’s imperative. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means.”

It seems to be quite straight-forward to extend care of humans to care of other life and even of the non-living Earth itself. The absence of care, perhaps due to the prevalent misinterpretation of love as a psychological feeling, is certainly part of the reason we see the deterioration of our life system. The extension to manufactured artifacts, not found in nature, is a bit dicier. Do they have a legitimate right to exist? Yes, if we begin with the right of humans to tailor the earth to our specifications. The premise of private property would imply such a right. One reading of Genesis also would give us dominion over the earth.

To figure this one out is going to take more than one blog post that is already getting long enough, but I will conclude by going back to the author’s claim that, if we come to love our stuff, we will take care of it. Their significance is not clear, but some suggest they are representations of the people’s sense of the sacredness of the connection between the Earth and the Sky. The builders appear to have gone too far and undercut their own survival by deforesting the island to build them. Caring for the statues was a surrogate for caring for the Earth. The same relationship goes for many other spiritual objects.

I am as yet unable to go that far with lawnmowers and iPhones. I know my grandkids see the latter as sacred. I do agree with Thorpe that we should take care of our artifacts in the sense of keeping them in good working order for a long time for practical reasons. But maybe Kant’s imperative does apply to them after all? They certainly are means; that’s why we have have them. They do something for us, if only trigger good feelings. But if we make a connection back to the Earth from which they came, perhaps we should love them in the same way we should love the Earth, itself. What a different Planet this would be and still can become.

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