Let’s think about things. Things are everywhere. As objects they can be useful, and as possessions, they can be emotionally valuable, but most of us will agree that at a certain point, they can be problematic. There are a few reasons for this.
|The popular Usborne children's books demonstrate to young readers the cornucopia of things that exist in the world.|
Firstly, there can simply be too many things. This quickly becomes apparent when one is moving, or cleaning, wading through the waves of consumer products that clog our lives. As writer and designer, Graham Hill has noted, “personal storage” was a 22 billion dollar, 2.2 billion sq. ft. industry in 2011 (1). The Self Storage Association proudly boasts on its online fact sheet that this amounts to “an area well more than 3 times the size of Manhattan Island, NY” (2).
Three Manhattans worth of what’s essentially dead space, packed to capacity with unused ‘stuff’, junk from all across the United States. While these metrics are from the U.S., this is by no means simply a North American phenomenon. As more countries adopt a Western standard of living and an American conception of happiness and success, thing-overpopulation and the conversion of precious space into storage-wastelands shows no sign of slowing.
This leads us to the second issue with things, their environmental impact. It takes material to make things, and as such, it follows that the more things one has, the more material one uses. This ‘material’ might be water, oil, electricity, gas, minerals, crops, animals, and of course space itself! This is the base ‘resource cost’ of a product. Often, due to the imperfections of our own industrial processes, the acquisition of these materials is inefficient and destructive (e.g. mining in the Amazon). Additionally, manufacturing often involves the creation of unfavourable byproducts, i.e. pollutants. Finally, at the end of a product’s lifecycle, materials often cannot be reintegrated into the biosphere in an environmentally friendly state (hence, for the most part, plastic does not degrade, and heavy metals from smart phones do not just disperse back into rocks). When we combine these factors - resource cost, manufacturing effects, pollutant byproducts, and product-garbage - we get a truly nasty story behind almost every object in our lives.
None of this even takes into account the millions of poorly paid factory workers, mostly in developing countries, who are responsible for the creation of our things, but that’s an entirely different story, too big to tackle here.
These are the physical issues regarding things, but there are also psychological concerns, and even ethical ones. Anecdotally we all seem to know that the more we have, the more we want, but there’s also real science that supports this. While the studies don’t focus specifically on material goods, they do suggest that when people experience privilege or wealth, they consume more, literally.
Some studies involving mock games of monopoly, rigged so that one player started off rich, and the other, poor, also featured a bowl of pretzels positioned at the players’ tables. Along with higher confidence levels and relative rudeness, the rich players clearly displayed greater consumption habits, eating more pretzels than the poor ones.
This even happens at the expense of others. As social psychologist Paul K Piff recounts, the scientists “explicitly told participants this jar of candy’s for children… This is for them… Participants who felt rich took two times as much candy as participants who felt poor” (3). Literally, being rich makes you more likely to take candy from a baby.
There is even evidence to suggest that certain kinds or brands of things can negatively affect one’s consideration of the law, and more abstractly, one’s empathy and compassion.
Studies that measured the relative lawfulness of drivers of different kinds of cars have found that as the expensiveness of the car increased, the driver’s tendencies to break the law increased as well. (This was measured by whether or not the car stopped for a pedestrian waiting to cross. While this would simply be courtesy in T&T, it’s the law in California, where the study was conducted.) Piff says “None of the cars in our least expensive car category broke the law. Close to 50 percent of the cars in our most expensive car category broke the law”.
It’s my own personal hypothesis that here in T&T, (bad-driving taxis aside), pickup trucks and SUV’s are perfect examples of roadway discourteousness. Without any proof to support that claim however, I won’t stick too close to it.
That aside, it’s important to note that these studies simply show correlations, not causation. In other words, the studies don’t show that driving a fancy car makes you inconsiderate on the road. Fancy cars and high end brands of other goods are simply accessories to wealth. It’s that wealth, or the perception of wealth, that seems to be the driver of inconsiderate behaviour. There are dozens of studies that have demonstrated a negative correlation between wealth and compassion, and a strong link between affluence, feelings of entitlement, and an ideology of self interest. As Piff states, “we found that it’s actually wealthier individuals who are more likely to moralise greed being good, and that the pursuit of self-interest is favourable”.
That’s not to say that rich people are bad. Rather, just that wealth and privilege have the psychological effect of predisposing us towards ethical laxness, and greed. This is the underlying mechanism by which greed begets greed, and it’s very likely the means by which consumerism begets more consumerism.
And perhaps the story is even more nuanced. Perhaps when we use high end brands, we internalise the implication of wealth. Advertising has certainly told us as much, and has used this promise to sell an array of brands. We don’t just buy nice things for their quality and longevity, we do it because they make us feel richer, and fancier. These products are not just aesthetically pleasing items, they’re social currency. Perhaps, when we are immersed in a culture of such products, we enter that mental state whereby our moral standards wane. In this scenario, the narratives, branding, and design of products really matter, not just because of their effects on the environment, but on our ethics. Not only do they inform consumer behaviour, but the behaviour of the consumer.
Indeed, the very term consumer may be detrimental. Perhaps it’s time to retire such language, and in the process, reform the way we see ‘things’ and ourselves.
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(1) Graham Hill TED
(2) Self Storage Association
(3) Paul K Piff TED
Consumerism & antisocial effects
Pay it forward: greed cycle
Class & moral deficits
DESIGN & STUFF
Story of Stuff