The End of Cheap Materialism and the Value of 'Enough'

Image credit: The Gifted Photographer

Whether it's young couples living simply as an alternative American Dream, TreeHugger founder Graham Hill's LifeEdited project for an ultra low-footprint apartment, or localization advocates exploring the economics of happiness, TreeHugger has plenty of examples of people turning their back on material excess in favor of simpler, more efficient, and more economical living. But is this more than a niche trend? I've recently gotten to wondering, maybe even hoping, whether we are experiencing a wider cultural shift toward simpler living.I recently returned from a trip home to the UK, and was struck by a number of conversations with friends about where their lives were headed, and what they wanted to achieve. Granted, peppered among the conversations were the usual mix of career ambitions and a desire to buy this vehicle, or that house, but I was struck by how much weight was given to experiences, freedom, and quality of life. More than once I heard friends explaining that they would rather work less, and live —talking about 3 or 4 day weeks, living on small boats, or just taking off and traveling rather than staying on the career treadmill. As one friend put it, "I want to live lots of lives. Not one."

Admittedly I write for TreeHugger.com, and am a known composting fanatic, so my group of friends tends to be self-selectively a little on the beatnik side. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but feel that this was about more than just Sami's friends being drop outs. Coincidentally, I've also just finished reading the 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris. While the focus on "living like the new rich" jarred with me somewhat, I was interested to note that the concept of what it means to be rich seems to be changing. "Who's richer," the book asked (I am paraphrasing a little here), "someone who works 80 hours a week and earns 100,000 a year, or someone who works one day a week and earns half that amount." It seems that even the "get rich quick" books so familiar to airport bookshops are turning their back on wealth for the sake of wealth.

I'm not saying that nobody wants to be rich anymore. You only have to look at the popularity of "the real housewives of god-knows-where" to know that there are plenty of aspiring materialists out there. Nevertheless, maybe it's just me, but even shows like the Real Housewives or Keeping Up with the Kardashians are beginning to feel more like a window on a strange and distant world, an almost zoo-like experience, than some kind of aspirational model for us all to live by.

There is, of course, a flipside to all this. Just because you are not into owning as much stuff doesn't mean you are not polluting. Just as the telecommuter who embraces a jet setting lifestyle may increase their emissions (see Matt's response to the telecommuting encourages travel debate for more on that one), so too a person who rejects the McMansion but flies around the world instead may find themselves with a similarly excessive carbon footprint.

Nevertheless, with resource depletion so intrinsically linked to excessive consumption, it is encouraging to see signs of a cultural shift toward valuing experience over stuff, well-being over riches, and lifestyle over salary.

On a final note, I'd like to reiterate what I wrote in my post about loving your stuff—sustainability in no way requires a complete detachment or rejection of the material world, as some folks seem to advocate. In fact, the opposite is true—we need to rediscover our love of the material possessions we do choose to own. Buying for quality, durability and beauty are an inherent aspect of buying greener. So by all means swoon over that next big purchase, but make sure it will be with you for years to come.

More on Materialism, Stuff, Lifestyle and Consumerism
Love Your Stuff: Material Possessions Are Not Evil
Help Design an Ultra Low Footprint Apartment: The LifeEdited Project
Living Simply: An Alternative American Dream
When Neighbors Remove Fences and Start Gardens

Tags: Conspicuous Consumption | Consumerism | Dematerialization | Economics | Environmental Footprint