We are drowning in material goods, yet we crave ever more stuff.

November 17, 2006 | By | 14 Replies More

See them floundering after their cherished possessions, like fish flopping in a river starved of water. 

Sutta Nipata 777 (From What Would Buddha Do? (1999)).

A friend of mine recently returned from an extended trip to Egypt.  He found it striking that the 18 million residents of Cairo lived in tightly packed conditions and that they owned so very few possessions.  Based on his own observations, the average resident of Cairo owned about 10% of the property owned by the average American family.  My friend’s estimate was about on the mark.  Most Americans would certainly describe most residents of Cairo to be “poor.” 

Amidst this material “poverty,” though, my friend noticed numerous signs of family togetherness and harmony that he doesn’t often see in the U.S.  Parents and children were spending time with each other, smiling at each other, playing together and apparently enjoying each others’ company.  How could this be, that people appeared to be so happy when they owned so little?  As my friend described what he saw, I couldn’t imagine Americans getting along that well if someone took away 90% of our possessions.  In fact, we’d become embittered and we’d be at each other’s throats.

My friend’s comments caused me to think of the enormous amount of material possessions that Americans have and crave.  We have shameful amounts of material possessions.  We have many times more stuff than we need.  Yet we work very hard to have ever more.

We are afflicted with the all-consuming epidemic “affluenza,” according to authors of the 2002 book of that title.  What is affluenza? “A painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” The authors quote T.S. Eliot: “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men.” 

Here’s an excerpt from a review of Affluenza from Amazon.com:

Americans each spend more than $21,000 per year on consumer goods, our average rate of saving has fallen from about 10 percent of our income in 1980 to zero in 2000, our credit card indebtedness tripled in the 1990s, more people are filing for bankruptcy each year than graduate from college, and we spend more for trash bags than 90 of the world’s 210 countries spend for everything. “To live, we buy,” explain the authors–everything from food and good sex to religion and recreation–all the while squelching our intrinsic curiosity, self-motivation, and creativity.

Do our leaders warn us of our materialistic excesses?  They used to.  Consider Jimmy Carter’s televised “Crisis of Confidence” Speech delivered on July 15, 1979.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

We don’t hear speeches like that anymore.  Not from politicians or even from most religious leaders.  Most politicians and preachers who might dare to suggest that Americans were shallow-minded materialists would get the boot. 

In fact, everything was so amazingly peachy within a couple months after 9/11, that George W. Bush commended us for our shopping:

In the face of this great tragedy, Americans are refusing to give terrorists the power. Our people have responded with courage and compassion, calm and reason, resolve and fierce determination. We have refused to live in a state of panic or a state of denial. There is a difference between being alert and being intimidated, and this great nation will never be intimidated. People are going about their daily lives, working and shopping and playing . . .

That’s how bad it’s gotten.  We’ve responded to 9/11 by shopping courageously.  Bush’s statement wasn’t an aberration.  Check out the responses of other leaders following 9/11: 

“People in this country ask what should they do at a time like this,” Mr. Blair said. “The answer is that they should go about their daily lives: to work, to live, to travel and to shop — to do things in the same way as they did before Sept. 11.”

Rudolph Giuliani, the Mayor of New York, has said that his battered city needs “the best shoppers in the world” to return to restaurants, Broadway shows and shops.

“Go out and contribute to the economy,” Alex Penelas, the Miami-Dade County Mayor, said at a news conference yesterday. “As my wife said, it has never been more patriotic to go shopping.”

There is obviously a downside to owning as much stuff as we own. Our stuff fills our garages and basements to bursting.  Most of us don’t even know what we own, because we simply accumulate more stuff than we can possibly keep track of.  Our stuff clogs up our residence hallways like cholesterol clogs our bodies, keeping us from making use of the enormous spaces in which we live. 

How enormous?  We work long hours away from our families–families that are allegedly the most important part of our lives–to afford huge houses.  Houses so big that we don’t any longer need to choose carefully when we buy things with which we will fill the houses; we just buy lots of stuff, much of it not durable, and we toss it into our castles. According to Affluenza, the master bedroom in the 1950’s was about 130 square feet.  Nowadays, moderately priced homes include master bedrooms measuring 300 square feet.  Right after WWII, the average new house was 750 square feet.  Now, it’s almost 2,500 square feet.  

Not only are these huge houses sterile depositories for our stuff.  They offer many of us the opportunity of not interacting with those families we allegedly love.  See, for example, this story from NPR:

The big house represents the atomizing of the American family,” he says. “Each person not only has his or her own television — each person has his or her own bathroom. Some of these houses are literally designed with three playrooms for two children. This way, the family members rarely have to interact.

Michael Frisby says having lots of room is a good thing. . . .
“I always wanted a house big enough that my kids could be in their room screaming, and my wife could be in a room screaming, and I could be somewhere else and not hear any of them,” he says. “And I think I have accomplished this with this house, because this house is so big that everyone has their own space.”

How many times have I heard the complaints that people need bigger houses because they are going to have a first or second child when, 50 years ago, that same house provided ample room for a family with five or six children?

Not only do we all crave lots of stuff.  We claim we have the right to be treated like royalty. We insist on a basic right to eat often in restaurants—to have other people prepare our food for us.  Plain food isn’t good enough for many of us, certainly not in public settings.  Executives bringing brown bag lunches to important meetings would be laughed at. 

Refusing to eat the food poorer folks eat is more a statement of status than nutrition.  We insist that we have the inalienable right to eat fruits and vegetables out of season.  The average item of food travels more than 1,000 miles from the point of production to your plate. 

Our stuff constantly distracts us.  Our things suck our life energy from us with their needs to be maintained, repaired, protected, insured and guarded.  In Walden, Thoreau noted that our many empty distractions can take over our souls:

Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; and keep your accounts on your thumbnail…The nation itself, with all its so called internal improvements, which, by the way, are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land.

Professionals have sprung up to help us to declare war on our stuff.  For example, check out Flylady.com and Lifeorganizers.com 

I have yet to meet anyone who denies that most Americans own absurd amounts of ostentatious and frivolous material goods.  So what should we do about it?  The obvious thing would be to give away the things that might have value to someone else and throw away the useless things. Certainly, we need to stop buying so much useless stuff. Flylady.com advises that if you’re not going to treasure it or use it, don’t buy it. As obvious as it is that we don’t need most of all we on, most Americans would scream if you told them they had to give up even a fourth of what they own, much less 99%.  After all, this stuff is why most Americans work so hard.

I don’t know where this topic leads.  It might not have a meaningful wind-up, much less a solution.  Maybe our environment is so incredibly toxic that we are all destined to wallow in it for the rest of our distracted and shallow-minded lives.  Maybe it’s like we are all alcoholics trying to live sober lives in taverns. 

Certainly, our constant rampant craving of non-essential things is expensive and time consuming.  That it is done in all affluent societies suggests that having such things satisfies a deep evolutionary craving.  I would suggest, then, that there might not be any such thing as nonfunctional luxuries. 

As Zahavi has noted, to be reliable, signals must be expensive. Our expensive (but ostentatious) stuff sends powerful and reliable signals that one possesses the resources to provide well for a mate; owning expensive useless stuff is thus reliable advertising for potential mates.  This much is common sense, too: Driving away from one’s expensive house in an expensive car, eating expensive food and wearing expensive clothing attract mates.  Having and craving lots of stuff is highly contagious—it erupts into an arms race.  Rampant ownership of ostentation stuff becomes widespread because good mates are relatively rare.  It’s another example of the “red Queen principle,” the need to run faster simply to stay even.

Whatever it is that makes us this way, it distracts us from spending time with people we allegedly care about and it distracts us from activities that we claim are far more important than working hard to buy more stuff.

[Note:  this is a companion piece to the recent post on the damage caused by ubiquitous advertising.]

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Economy, Food, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (14)

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  1. Skblllzzzz says:

    The Ferengi Rule of Aquisition Nr. 119 has stuck with me for some reason. It paints a perfect caricature of ourselves in this free market driven existence our politicians are ever keen to promote:

    "Buy, sell, or get out of the way!"

  2. gatomjp says:

    This is a subject I care about very much because as I've gotten older I have become less and less patient with the amount of time that my things take from me and I have attempted to lighten my load as I go. But it is hard to buck the tide of consumerism, especially if one is dating, as I am right now.

    I've lived in several places in the past several years and at no time does the sheer weight of one's possesions become more literally apparent than when you are packing and unpacking and moving them in boxes. Each time I move I've tried to get rid of more and more useless things. But each time I stand still the things seems to accumulate. I am not a rabid shopper and don't crave the latest "toys", but still, things pile up.

    Christmas is the worst! The pressure to buy something, ANYTHING, for your friends and family is overwhelming. And the waste! I'm getting sick to my stomach just thinking about it.

    So how do you do it Erich? Does anyone have any strategies to share for limiting your material possessions?

  3. Jason Rayl says:

    It's easy to condemn America (Western) material avarice and try to assert that it is an aberration, but when you look at other cultures and the way they very quickly adopt the same practices of acquisitiveness once they get the opportunity it looks more like basic human nature. Making the cave as warm, cozy, comfortable, and self-sufficient as possible is not a perversion. The fact of material possession is not, to my mind, controversial, only our choice of which possessions. I do not have a cell phone, dsl link, brand new car, ipod, gps locator, or cable television. What I do have is a library of books and music. I have a piano, a guitar, and some cameras, all of which I use.

    I eat well.

    But compared to some (many) Americans, I don't have much at all. Modest house, modest cars, an adequate wardrobe.

    Would I like to have more?

    If having more did not impair my enjoyment of what I already have, sure.

    I have heard complaints for decades about our isolation from each other by virtue of our culture–our mobility means we don't know our neighbors, the "barrier" of telecommunications and internet keeps us from interacting with "real" people, the hours we work cuts back on family time. Maybe that's a detriment. Frankly, I know a few of my neighbors and for the most part I don't WANT them as part of my circle of true friends.

    If achieving the virtues noted in Cairo (which, on the flip side, suffers periodic riots, a lot of hunger, sectarian issues which would make our local politics seem like polite dinner conversation by comparison, public health and hygeine problems we wouldn't tolerate, etc etc etc) required mandatory limits on "material possessions" then I suspect they aren't quite the wonderful virtures being made out. If they were so great we would not have abandoned them for what we do have.

    "…people are to be taken in very small doses." Ralph Waldo Emerson

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    Besides the almost undebatable benefit that materialism provides to mate attraction in America, another explanation for it is that materialism is a consequence of America's deep-seated Puritan Work Ethic — the belief that 'idle hands are the Devil's workshop,' so you'd better keep yourself busy with work 24/7. Americans put a *lot* of social pressure on each other to spend time at their jobs. Compared to other developed countries, Americans get very little paid vacation time, get very little paid sick time, get very little paid maternity leave, etc. How many times have we seen co-workers (and ourselves) come to the office when they should have stayed home with an illness? How many Americans accrue more vacation than they ever use? How many Americans spend time at the office merely for the sake of satisfying unstated "face time" requirements? How many Americans realize that their country ranks far behind other developed countries with regard to paid maternity leave — down with Third-World countries such as Swaziland and Lesotho? Simply put, many Americans define themselves by their jobs, and have done so for many generations.

    What does this have to do with materialism? Well, America is a place where long hours of work generally translate into a relatively good income. But what do people do when they are working long hours and making plenty of money, but don't have time to enjoy it? They are unable (because of both corporate policies and social pressures) to step back from their jobs and enjoy some free time, they can't spend their money on long vacations, they don't see much value in adult education, but they need some reason to justify their long hours at work, so they buy things. They spend their money on stuff, because they are psychologically unable to spend it on anything else.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    gatomjp writes: "So how do you do it Erich? Does anyone have any strategies to share for limiting your material possessions?"

    I DON'T do it very well at all. I would get a grade of maybe D+ in my attempts to resist the onslaught of materialistic temptations.  My poor batting average bothers me. Bothers me enough to recognize this huge problem with our culture. But I have a long long way to go.

    One thing that I consciously try to do is to more is to more carefully consider whether I will really make good and consistent use of things before buying them.  This sounds so basic as to sound naive, but it's a first step.  On those occasions when temptation to buy strikes, yet I walk away, I find it liberating. I'm taking baby steps and trying to get much much better at allocating my time to the things I deem more important than owning more things.

  6. Arno Nym says:

    Nice article. Thanks for that.

    I am always amazed by how most people don't understand that the stuff does not only "clog the arteries of their houses" but actually enslaves them. Just look at most people's net worth. What they have to show for their life of work is a huge pile of toys.

    If you spend your hard-earned dollars on consuming, you enslave yourself for a lifelong suffering of work. It takes away your freedom. I have seen the 50 something year olds breaking out in sweat and seen the panicking look in their eyes when they might be fired. They spent all their life energy on toys or meaningless gizmo.

    If instead people would lead a modest life and save their dollars, they can buy themselves freedom. If there's no need to work, work can even be enjoyable. But you have the freedom to choose.

    They should teach some basic economics in school. Like, spend less than you earn. The power of compond interest. The distinction between investment and consumption. How to value.

  7. Sid says:

    As for buying all those needless gifts. One year when we were all self sufficient, my mother simply said "OK, we are not kids anymore, we are all well off, anything we need we have already bought. Therefore, for Christmas all I want is the gift of your presence around my dinner table. If you all come, then you will all have given each other the most precious of gifts." And that was that (nobody argues with mom).

  8. Gerry Connolly says:

    I find it hard to sustain my goal of living more simply. Talking to friends and finding ideas and support can be helpful; knowing that I'm not doing this on my own. Many trappings of modern society leave me uncomfortable. Running a second car is my chief complaint. Everytime the insurance bill comes I ask myself whether there is an alternative. The average age of the cars is 14, and the prospect of having to replace one soon when we can barely afford to is daunting. One area that has proved successful for our family is relying on hand-me-downs from family and friends as the source of 95% of our childrens' clothing. Our eldest son periodically bugs us about getting a play station. He is the only boy in his class without a game system. Yet he seems to accept our decision that he won't be getting one. Its amazing how much we depend on the library for the kids' reading. We are there every 10 days or so, and the (non-cable) TV is chiefly used for videos. These steps might not work for everyone, but I think our lives are better for having made these choices.

  9. Webomatica says:

    Have you heard of this photo journalist book: Material World? It pretty much documents the materialism in America and the rest of the western world. Basically people are asked to move all their possessions outside and the photographer takes a picture. The result is either "wow look at how poor other countries are" or "gee, we Americans are grossly materialistic." I take the latter view. I think we spend too much time obsessing over money and the things we can buy. Ultimately, none of this stuff really makes anybody happy after the basic necessities are met. And unfortunately, middle class americans think we need a lot more crap than we really do.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's a video by NPR's Scott Simon regarding Affluenza. Lots of vintage video clips. Lots of thought-provoking statistics. http://www.badcyclopedia.com/affluenza/

  11. Dan Klarmann says:

    Good Affluenza video. A nice blend of old commercials and new ideas. I watched the whole thing. It's the first issue I've seen on which I completely agree with Focus on the Family.

  12. holly woolley says:

    For Christmas gifts and presents I only give food and fruit baskets now. It gets used and doesn't get wasted or stuck in a landfill somewhere. It can easily be taken to work and shared with co-workers or used at holiday family gatherings. The bus driver and post man get a plate of cookies. Grandma gets nicer gift from Figi's containing nuts, fruits and her favorite chocolates. I make my husband his favorite cake from scratch, and the children now don't get as many toys as they used too. They all wound up broken or in landfills. They now get one toy and a nice outfit to be used all winter long. And the best part of this, is I can bake ahead and store in freezer so unlike others waiting in busy lines at a mall, I'm all done. I worried people would call me "cheap", instead they complimented the taste of the food and didn't mind at all. For some, this was the only time in my life I got a "thank-you". No more Visa and Mastercard. I am out of debt now and made different life style choices and this is the way I feel good about living now. Christmas is more special now– it's become a joy to give and not a burden. It feels good to "free" yourself, whatever steps you have to take, just stop worrying about what others think of you and concentrate on what is best for you and your budget.

  13. I just ran across your blog today. Very nice. And it made me laugh. In the way that things that are true and sad can make me laugh sometimes.

    I was wandering around the web looking trying to find how many possessions are in an average household. Apparently no one has counted yet. (God knows, I am not going to spend my time counting in my own house.)

    I do an series of ‘Overstuffed’ seminars, and am re-working one today. “Overstuffed: How to enjoy more, spend less, and be kinder to the planet.” They are in a similar vein.

    Cheers!

    Nicole

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