Stuff: How Much Do You Really Need?


Photo: PBS From the book, Material World by Peter Menzel.

Lloyd's recent review on The Power of Less, a book about uncluttering one's life, reminded me of an opinion piece I'd seen, following the tragic aftermath of the recent Australian bushfires. To date 210 people are confirmed dead, and 7,000 are homeless, with at least 1,800 homes destroyed. And in light of such devastation, the article, written by a university student, discussed what it was that we really valued. For as one bushfire survivor put it, after barely escaping with her life, yet losing her house and all her possessions. "It's just stuff."

Having moved house recently and personally boxed up everything acquired throughout my life, I came face-to-face with my own mountain of 'stuff.' It was daunting. How much of this was really important to me? What did I really, truly need? From the gathered mass, I confronted with a question, which I now pose to the Treehugger readership:If faced with an impending cataclysmic event like a fire, hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, landslide, etc, that was going to wipe away your home, your accumulated possessions, what would you take with you, if you only had a handful of minutes to pack?

In the Australian bushfire catastrophe it seemed like the first things many folk thought of, after the people around them, was their pets and the family photo albums.

What's Important?
We work long hours and long years so we can afford 'stuff.' Stuff that uses up a world's worth of materials, energy, land, water and creates enormous waste. But when the chips are down, and the brown whatsit is hitting the spinning thing, what is it that we really cling to as being important? It doesn't appear to be the plasma television or coffee maker that spring to the frontal lobes. It is those things that connect us to one another. MasterCard had it right when it advertised that there are some things that money can't buy. The 'priceless' in our lives.

And it is this that we gather to our bosom when loss is imminent. The irreplaceable. The photos of little Johnny or Janey playing in the packing box of the TV are worth so much more than the appliance itself.

It can be an enlightening exercise to list, say, only 10 things you would want with you, were you never to see your domicile again.

Your Money or Your Life
This sort of evaluating and prioritising is part and parcel of the book, Your Money or Your Life. A seminal publication, first published in 1992, but based on experiences road tested by Joe Dominguez as far back as 1969.

One of the exercises in the book is to "Go through every room of your house and inventory everything." The authors say, don't let embarrassment or guilt discourage you. Because as they point out, you simply come away with gratitude for the things you do own. A revelation, which may assuage that otherwise nagging need for yet more stuff. "So much dissatisfaction comes from focussing on what we don't have that the simple exercise of acknowledging and valuing what we do have can transform our outlook."

As the environmental educator Steve van Matre saw it, "The key to a good life is not having what you want, but wanting what you have."

Living with less (or not desiring more) can be the route to a simpler and happier life. And it sure makes it easier to decide what to take with you, when the carpet is suddenly pulled from beneath your life as you knew it.

More Thoughts on Stuff via TreeHugger
The Story Of Stuff (video)
Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things (book)
Happy Kids Want Less Stuff

Tags: Buy Nothing | Conspicuous Consumption | Consumerism