Saturday, October 23, 2010

I Don't Want Stuff, Except the Stuff I Want

CrocsCrocs, Nice, 2010

There was an article in today's Helsingin Sanomat (that's the big Finnish daily) about luxury cars. It was slightly unusual in that it wasn't your usual drooling over the latest Mercedes; instead, it was about the people who own, or want, luxury cars, why they want them, and what they mean for them. It mentioned a professor who has a factory-fresh Porsche in his yard, but never drives it; instead, whenever he's feeling blue, he just goes and sits in it for a bit, starts the engine, and listens to its comforting rumble.

Luxury cars are crystallized craving. Nothing is ever enough; there's always another one to desire, as the one you own becomes the new normal. Even if you were to take the Maybach treatment, spending a million euros on a car, decorated with rare tropical hardwoods and the softest leather to your personal specifications, there would be a new model next year, or that oil-sheikh's diamond-encrusted Rolls Royce to envy.
Were there a mountain all made of gold, doubled that would not be enough to satisfy a single man: know this and live accordingly.
The Buddha

The society we live in manufactures craving on an industrial scale. We have constant feedback loops of creating and satisfying needs for stuff. When such a craving is satisfied, there's a momentary wash of pleasure; a dopamine reward for doing the right thing. Then it fades, and the cues creating new craving start tugging again; the stuff I bought starts to look dated and unsatisfactory and altogether drab compared to the new and much better stuff that's out there. So the cycle repeats. No industry is as perfectly tuned to every last nook and cranny of its customer base.
Not into luxury cars? Check out this dark-roast Fairtrade coffee from the Kilimandjar coffee grower's collective instead? Look, we even put it into a nice, plain, purely functional bag for you. It'll taste really good when you grind it with your German coffee mill and then brew it in your stainless-steel Italian mocha pot, on that miraculous induction hob you installed last year. And you can feel good about tossing a few pennies in the direction of those poor black people in benighted Africa.
This can't go on.

It's just not physically possible for the Chinese and the Indians—never even mind those poor Africans laboring on their coffee farms on the slopes of Mount Kilimandjar—to consume natural resources at the same rate as we Europeans or Americans. There just aren't enough natural resources to go around. And I can't see what kind of ethically defensible argument could be made to demonstrate that we're entitled to it but they're not. "Because we're stronger" is pretty weak as such things go, and anyway it's not likely to remain the case very much longer. Something has got to give.

I don't see any fundamental reason why we couldn't keep running a consumer society even with scarcer primary resources. It would just mean devoting a somewhat bigger fraction of our productive capacity—which is immense—to recycling and reclaiming stuff. It would cost more to recycle our garbage, mine our landfills, and to use renewable resources sustainably, but I have no doubt that we have the technology to do it. Then we could just keep producing more junk from the reclaimed junk, and circulate it in the system driven by the craving factory. We'd just be making a small detour; diverting a portion of our productive capacity to creating the infrastructure for this recycling and sustainable-energy economy for a while. An adjustment, to be sure, but fairly minor as such adjustments go, at least compared to stuff like World War 2.

What can't go on forever, won't go on forever, and we will, eventually, end up with a sustainable way of life. The only question is how, and when, and what it'll be like—the traditional way to curtail consumption is, after all, to have a nice big war and kill off most of the population. Unless we make some kind of conscious, diligent, sustained effort at addressing these problems, the system will rebalance itself in a way that's not nice at all. Post-apocalyptic wastelands make for great movies and computer games, but wouldn't be all that much fun to live in.

Lately, though, I've started to wonder.

The thing is, happiness can't be found at I've looked, believe me. My personal weakness is cameras; I think I've bought about one or two a year for the past ten years or so; some new, some used; some I've sold, some I've given away, some are still gathering dust in corners of my drawers somewhere. It's fairly certain that I'll buy one this year too. I am good and stuck in that cycle of craving; the whispers of Japanese camera manufacturers speak to me loud and clear.

Oh, and I'd quite like an HTC Desire Z too. Is that an apt name, or what?

There has got to be a better way. Somehow, I don't think the traditionally suggested alternative of leaving everything to pick up nothing but a robe, stick, and begging bowl is a fully satisfactory solution either; after all, somebody still has to grow the rice. Soviet Communism didn't work. These neo-Trotskyite sci-fi and fantasy writers have some pretty exciting ideas, but I'm not sure I'd want to live in Armada or Norlonto either. What would a society that's not powered exclusively by craving look like? Would there be a way to get there? Not a clue, here, but I think the questions are worth asking.

Recommended reading

Paul Lafargue: Le Droit à la Paresse
Bertrand Russell: In Praise of Idleness


  1. Lately for me it's been, what do I want, and WHY do I want it? When I start to look at the whys about the wants, the wants seem more and more silly. My current dreams for things I'd like include a house with a yard so my kids can play outside and we can garden, a kitchen knife set, a used 4-door car and a DSLR camera. There are some other odds-and-ends, and most of those are equipment or items that I need to be able to do/make more stuff at home, so that I can be less consumer-driven. There is a movement out there of people that want to move towards a more self-sustainable lifestyle, and I think just moving in that direction is a real solution for some of the problems you bring up here.

  2. Same here. I've discovered, though, that I'm really good at inventing excellent reasons for buying whatever it is I happen to want to buy, regardless of what that something is.

    My consumption patterns have shifted, and in a more sustainable direction. I still have a pretty atrocious carbon footprint, though, and there's not all that much more I can do about it without some fairly radical lifestyle changes that would effectively break with the whole system. I have an aversion to moves like that; I'd prefer to find a way to stay within the system and pull it in a better direction. I'm not a revolutionary, Communist sympathies notwithstanding.

  3. It comes down to the difference between want and need, I think. We need very little as human beings to survive and be happy; some food, some water, each other, and a bit of shelter and clothing. Even a little pampering from time to time is I think a valid need, especially when it's a gift from or to someone else. The problem is, we give too many gifts to ourselves, at the expense of others getting none, or having them taken away.

    Like everyone else, I grew up in a lifestyle of want, but minus the resources to satisfy it much; I can remember at 8 or 9 wanting a Barbie Doll with a superhuman craving for almost a year before I got it. I dreamed Barbie weddings, Barbie and Ken at the beach, Barbie fashion shows, etc. Every time I saw a Barbie doll on TV or in the store, my insides would knot with frustrated desire. Finally I had saved up enough dimes and quarters from taking back pop bottles and so forth to actually buy the doll. I was in transports of ecstasy for about a week, til I realized I had no money to buy her clothes. One Barbie dress, one tiny pair of plastic shoes, and all day to take them off and put them on...I looked at the price of a Barbie wedding dress, and it represented six more months of toil, scrimping and saving and going without popsicles. I gave my Barbie to my middle sister, and never wanted anything like her again, not out of noble renunciation, but because it had made me feel foolish.

    I think not having the resources to gratify all one's wants helps a lot to limit one's cravings, and put them in a rational light. So maybe the answer to sustaining a fair world has to do with managing one's resources with self-discipline, and looking at the need behind the want. There's nothing wrong with a little pampering or self-indulgence or material reward, but I think you're very right to try to put it in a larger perspective, and distrust that society-sponsored craving for more and bigger and better.

  4. The problem is, we give too many gifts to ourselves, at the expense of others getting none, or having them taken away.

    That's the crux of it, I think.

  5. The thing is, the choice isn't between a capitalist world and Soviet Communism. There is a tendency, when I read posts that try to look forward to where the human realm is heading and envision solutions, to sort of gag when it comes to the post-capitalism part. We are, I think, within a generation -- perhaps two -- of the endpoint of capitalism's logic. Unfortunately, I think it will come at the expense of large migrations and even a possible culling of the human population due to ecological conditions.

  6. The thing is, the choice isn't between a capitalist world and Soviet Communism.

    Absolutely. I think it's fairly clear that Soviet Communism is a non-starter. Capitalism has reformed itself once before, though, in the face of the specter of Communist revolution. That gave us the social democratic welfare state—markets balanced out by government redistribution. It worked pretty well for 50 years or so. It's now in crisis, primarily due to constraints with ecology and raw materials.

    Will capitalism be able to reform itself once again, before it collapses catastrophically? I don't know. But what can't go on forever, won't.

  7. Earning less money is a good way to limit consumption, as I've learned. I make so little on my current grant that I really cannot buy lot of the stuff that I otherwise might.

    Also, in a paid position, less money usually also means less stress and more time for other things...

  8. Are you happy about it, or would you want your previous income back?

  9. Well, I've never exactly made huge amounts of money, so maybe I just don't have a good reference point. Still, I don't really miss the increased ability to acquire stuff, at least not yet. For me, the main attraction of a decent income is not needing to worry about money.

  10. Are you sure a decent income would help you stop worrying about money? Speaking only for myself, changes in my income haven't correlated very strongly to changes in worrying about money.

    I've never been really poor, but I did live several years on a fairly small and very irregular income. The biggest (positive) change in getting a steady, salaried job was paid vacation—I still can't quite wrap my head around being able to lounge under an olive tree sipping a nice cold glass of rosé wine, while being paid for it. But it didn't affect worrying much. And I'm quite certain that I wouldn't worry less if my income suddenly doubled, and if it was multiplied tenfold, I would worry a great deal more.

    Speaking only for myself, of course.