By Alec Dubro
As long as you’re stuck in the house, you might as well save the world. Because this hiatus from ordinary life gives us a chance to review once more our relationship to material things. And have no doubt: Our superfluity of things is what has led us to the environmental precipice. Global warming is just the most immediate crisis. Plastic waste, water pollution, deforestation, extinctions all can be traced to consumer goods and services.
Right now, we are being denied at least some of our usual stream of stuff, but most of us are not experiencing actual privation. In fact, many people are feeling some relief from the usual regimen of shopping and consuming. This particular plague-driven diet can’t last, but it can give us a chance to separate our needs from our excessive wants.
The first step is an honest examination and appraisal. I think few of us can actually grasp how much most of us actually consume — and that includes followers of Marie Kondo. But a mere inventory of items isn’t the whole consumption story. Consider these figures:
· According to an often-quoted statistic, the average U.S. household has 300,000 things — from paper clips to ironing boards.
· The average American home has tripled in size in the last half-century — necessitating much higher energy and water use as well. Couples and single people buy four-bedroom homes — often just for room to store their belongings.
· According to a survey published by Ladder life insurance in May 2019, the “average American spends almost $18,000 a year on nonessentials.” That’s 28.5 percent of an average income of $63,000.
· Since WW II, our spending massively and steadily risen to unprecedented heights, and has gone on so long that we think it normal. We currently spend 70 percent of our $21 trillion economy on consumer goods and services.
· As a result of this accumulation, Americans use about 100 quadrillion BTUs per year — the equivalent of having 75 servants for each US resident. Just in our homes — which use about one-fifth of all energy consumed — we have the equivalent of a staff of 15, all working to please us.
And we, in turn, must work to keep this system running: to create, distribute and maintain the goods and services that keep us supplied… and oversupplied. Even if those things are in some manner useful, the machinery of supply can produce dolorous results. As Karl Marx said, “The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.” And much of our malaise comes from our inutility, and the only way we seem to fight that is to produce and consume yet more frantically.
In our hearts, many of us know this but feel powerless to stop it. Possession begets further possession. Possession necessitates replacement and upgrade. Loss of possession can hurt deeply. And we also know that this enormous wealth is very unequally distributed, a source of not only social unrest but personal uneasiness.
It’s difficult to overcome this excess and none of us can escape this culture entirely. But it must be done — sooner, not later. The surging environmental crisis is entirely due to our level of production and consumption. Whether those goods are ordinary or Green makes too little difference: This is about the sheer quantity of our material edifice.
So, maybe this disease-induced period can force us to do what we’ve so far evaded: reduce our frantic pace, assess our consumer needs, think about surviving on a lot less. Because in the near future, you may not have the opportunity to make a leisured choice. This isn’t the last time the system will grind to a halt, and only vast and system-wide change can forestall that.
The way forward is not simply discarding items or services but making collective decisions to make constant growth and consumption less possible. The answers are neither a Marie Kondo downsizing nor a switch to more efficient versions of the same things. Rather, the goal is to never make these things in the first place.
Through political action — including voting — and through organized refusal to buy and consume. We can’t depend on economic downturns. We must begin the process of detaching from the level of materialism that has brought us to this point.
Perhaps, this enforced period of observation and contemplation will clarify how little use or satisfaction we get from our accumulations. And, maybe point the way to a different kind of life… probably a better one. As Bertrand Russell said, “It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly.”
Alec Dubro is a veteran writer who began as a Sixties rock critic and became an investigative reporter and who’s now an opinion writer and graphic artist. He lives in Washington, DC.