The other day, Dr. America was searching the America home in search of a widget. He knew it was in one of the closets, but he couldn’t remember which one. And in each closet, there was so much stuff that he had difficulty digging through it. In the process, it occurred to the good doctor that his closets are a museum of American material culture, and all his stuff is a manifestation of American materialism. Each item we own expresses the way we make meanings with the material world. And what we have shapes what we do and who we are (and vice versa). Perhaps, he thought, it’s time to bring materialism out of the closet.
In the past fifty years, the size of American homes has doubled—and closets have become more commodious—while the number of occupants per home has declined. Still, one of the fastest growing industries in America is self-storage, where Americans rent closets for all the stuff that doesn’t fit in the house. Houses and closets and storage bins—along with shopping centers and discount stores—are particular evidence of a system of stuff and its associated social practices. Materialism is the way that Americans manage their resource flows, both intentionally and unintentionally. When a mother buys her daughter a computer, for example, she’s thinking about internet access and word processing, not world processing. She’s not thinking about her laptop as a material witness to the resource flows of her culture and her planet, even though it takes several hundred pounds of materials to make a computer. In our common-sense materialist mindset, we can ignore the environmental impacts of our purchases, because it’s the nature of American consuming to let us focus on our stuff and our desires, and not on the material consequences of our lives. In a provocative book called Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, John Ryan and Alan Durning contend that Americans use more than 100 pounds of resources a day—mostly in the processes that produce all the things we buy. But even though most of us pay attention to the weight of our bodies, most of us ignore the substantial weight of our lives.
The odd thing about American materialism is that we’re stuffed with stuff, not because we want materials, but because we want functionality, and we want meanings. We don’t really want a hundred pounds of refrigerator; we just want our food preserved. We don’t really want a ton of car, but we do want the access to places that it provides, and the symbolic sizzle that comes with it. We don’t need all the clothes in our closets to stay warm, but we do want the expressive possibilities that accompany all our different outfits. We don’t plan to provide a pound of material to our parents, but the gift is a way of showing we love them. In many ways, our materialism is essentially in our minds—until we make our meanings material, cluttering up our closets and filling our landfills.
We’re embodied beings in a material world, so materialism isn’t optional. We will be materialists, but we can choose the shape of our materialism. Right now, most of us practice a materialism that shows little regard for the materials we use in our lives, or for the deep satisfactions that our stuff offers (or not). We need a new materialism, based on a reverence for the material world, and committed to using it only for our essential human needs (including those that are social, environmental, aesthetic, and spiritual). This new materialism will let us de-materialize some of the satisfactions of our lives, and find more fulfillment with a smaller ecological footprint. Etymologically, thrift and thriving are related, and they’ll be related again in our commons sense, as we practice a restraint that increases our prosperity and our human flourishing—for all time. Giving up, after all, is a form of giving. It’s a gift to posterity, because our restraint is somebody else’s reprieve. Our sufficiency provides for the future’s sufficiency too.
If we continue to stuff our homes with stuff without thinking about the consequences, we’ll eventually inhabit a world that has less room for other species, and a hostile climate and fewer resources for us. But if we begin to develop a new and improved materialism–an ecological materialism—we might promote a reverence for materials and for the stuff of creation. This new materialism might revive pre-materialist ideals of thrift, frugality and sufficiency, and it might encourage us to design products for repair and re-use, and to consume materials fully before discarding them. If we practice a materialism that takes materials seriously—both individually and institutionally—we’ll have a better chance of creating a culture in which we have more human satisfaction with less stuff. It will be easier to find the widget we were looking for, and whatever the size of our homes, we’ll feel more at home in the cosmos.