This great global recession has given us a chance to reevaluate our priorities. Do we really need the more expensive, brand-new car? Do we really need the home with twice the square footage? Moreover, are these things actually enhancing our lives or detracting from them? Ultimately if we are going to create a sustainable world, we need to let go of blind consumerism and blind materialism. We need to reconnect with the humanness of our culture and ourselves. We need to reconnect with each other, and ourselves, and to do that we may be best off letting go of a little stuff.
Examples from the developing world
During the few years I spent living and working in Armenia, I had a chance to look back at our American materialism with fresh eyes. Like so many other "underdeveloped" countries, Armenia has been quite non-materialistic. It has an ancient history and rich culture. In years since their independence from the Soviet Union in 91, they’ve seen over-night economic collapse, vanishing of life-long pensions, war, economic blockade, and a slow re-emergence of a new economy. In the midst of this, Armenia has a very human centered culture which values human interaction as among the most important things in life. It's common for neighbors to show up with only a knock on the door that becomes a spontaneous gathering and meal that may go on for hours. People plan and schedule very little ahead of time. Armenians are very involved in each other's lives—okay, maybe a little too much sometimes. And, by the way, due to this and other factors, juvenile delinquency is pretty much unheard of, there's almost no drug abuse (with the obvious exception of nicotine), and relatively little alcohol abuse. It's an extremely safe place to be for kids as parents watch out for each other’s children. Outside the capital city poverty is rampant. Subsistence agriculture is the norm with people barely growing enough food to eat and trade for other food to eek out an existence. However, even with such dire poverty, chances are, if you find yourself in an Armenian village, you'll be invited in for coffee that often turns to an impromptu meal. The family may barely have enough to keep themselves alive but they're anxious to share whatever they have while connecting in conversation with a new friend.
In the few short years I was there, I watched the country take a much more materialistic turn. As the economy grew—albeit slowly—those with money started buying the things that demonstrated their status. The number of Mercedes and BMWs increased. The number of $400 cell phones increased. More expensive buildings were built in every corner of the city. Billboards started lining the streets and highways. Although the human-centered feeling of the culture didn't seem to diminish in a major way, this nouveau riche style materialism seemed to be threatening it.
Our lives are not enriched by possessions; in fact they are often depleted by them. I've seen the masses of people living in the streets of New Delhi, beyond poor. But most people I saw living in these conditions appeared genuinely much happier and more fulfilled than most of the people in the US, which by comparison are blessed with so much wealth.
I'm certainly not advocating we give up homes to live on the streets, and it's not that I'm completely anti-materialistic—I certainly enjoy some material pleasures myself—but it behooves us to really take a clear, good look at what aspects of our lives bring us pleasure, what aspects of our lives help enrich us, and what things in our lives might we be better off without—or with smaller or less elaborate or expensive versions of.
What stuff really serves us?
In practical terms, do we need a brand-new car, or are we better off, in fact, with one that's a few years old thus giving us lower insurance rates and lower monthly payments, or better yet giving us the ability to buy in cash thereby freeing ourselves from another monthly payment and interest payments? Are we better off with a 4000 square foot home, or might we be even happier in a home half the size? This is especially important when we consider that not only will our mortgage payment be dramatically less, but the cost of heating and cooling it and filling it with stuff also becomes dramatically less (not to mention keeping it all clean)? In terms of homes, Sarah Susanka has done a great job of articulating this in The Not So Big House books helping us focus on quality in smaller homes that create a more enjoyable experience.
Let us take as one of the silver linings of this global recession that we can recognize not only that we can get by with less stuff, but that we can even live richer lives with less stuff in the way. Let’s look instead to the quality of our lives, the quality of our interactions, the connections we have with others, and even the quality—rather than quantity—of the things we do choose to have in our lives.