FROM AEON MAGAZINE
On my desk stands a miniature of an Easter Island moai, carved for me by a Rapa Nui craftsman. It’s precious to me, hewn from the same stone his ancestors used for the world-famous monoliths, textured with the tiny air-bubbles of millennia-old lava, and carrying memories of the friends I made on my voyage there.
On another level, however, it’s also an uneasy symbol of humanity’s precarious relationship with the material world – because the original 13ft ancestor statues were quarried in the Middle Ages with a fervour to match any modern production line. According to the dominant modern narrative, every family wanted one; more than 800 were carved and dragged into position using rope and timber, before somebody cut down the last mature tree on the isolated habitat. Ecological collapse ensued, bringing strife and starvation.
You would think that this blunt (if increasingly controversial) parable of unsustainable consumption would help me moderate my relationship with my stuff. But my mobile phone contract is nearly up, and here I am salivating at the prospect of upgrading it. My desktop moai frowns reproachfully: what kind of icon needs to be replaced every two years? At least statues endure.
We’ve got used to the transitory nature of our possessions, the way things are routinely swept aside and replaced – whether it’s last season’s cut of jeans or computers that mysteriously slow down as if clogged by quick-drying cement. It’s one of the challenges facing the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, whose chief scientific adviser, Professor David MacKay, in January bemoaned ‘the way in which economic activity and growth currently is coupled to buying lots of stuff and then throwing it away’.
According to data aggregated by the Global Footprint Network, it takes the biosphere a year to produce what humanity habitually consumes in roughly eight months – a situation that is logically unsustainable. And yet we persevere with what the British psychologist Michael Eysenck calls the ‘hedonic treadmill’, holding out the unlikely hope that the spike of satisfaction from our next purchase will somehow prove less transitory than the last. In fact, the opposite is true. As the American psychologist Tim Kasser has demonstrated in The High Price of Materialism (2002), the cravings of consumerism tend to make us more miserable.
Most of us know this instinctively, and yet remedying our troubled relationship with material possessions is no easy matter. One knee-jerk response is to cultivate a sort of blanket disdain for consumer goods. I catch a whiff of this in my own inverse snobbery about my battered, second-hand bike, or my disdain for designer clothes – a hangover from childhood Christianity, which historically painted the material world as corrupt and in opposition to the soul.
And yet when applied to my whole life, such a hair-shirted response is ultimately as unsustainable as the position it challenges. I inhabit a material body in a material world, and have only to look around me to see the material things that nourish me: the delicious falafel wrap on my plate, the art that brightens the café wall, or even my tablet screen that responds so elegantly to the stroke of my finger.
If Western consumer culture sometimes resembles a bulimic binge in which we taste and then spew back things that never quite nourish us, the ascetic, anorexic alternative of rejecting materialism altogether will leave us equally starved. Who, then, can teach me how to celebrate my possessions with the mindful, celebratory spirit of a gourmet?
The Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda was a self-described ‘thing-ist’, who has inspired me ever since I wandered through the eccentric treasure-trove of his home in Santiago. Neruda was a passionate socialist andan erudite collector of curious objects – carved pipes, grotesque African masks, ships in bottles, whales’ teeth. ‘In my house I have put together a collection of small and large toys I can’t live without,’ he wrote in Memoirs (1974). He wisely understood that ‘the man who doesn’t play has lost forever the child who lived in him and he will certainly miss him’. For Neruda, children figured as materialistic in the purest and most playful sense, delighting in textures, noises, colours, the taste of a rattle, the subversive shock of a magic trick.
Neruda saw no clash between this celebratory ‘thing-ism’ and socialism’s impulse towards redistribution. He would give his toys away if guests asked, but expected the same generosity in return. His poems celebrated objects both ordinary and unique – he wrote odes to birds, stones, socks, the Pacific ocean, spoons, salmon-bellied eels, which frequently segued into praising the often hidden beauty of working people. ‘In my poems,’ he wrote, ‘I could not shut the door to the street, just as I could not shut the door to love, life, joy, or sadness’.
By contrast, the foot-soldiers of General Pinochet who trampled through Neruda’s home on the day of his funeral in September 1973, burning his books and smashing some of his artefacts, were archetypal and literal consumers. Could it be that the problem with our whole neo-liberal experiment, championed early on by Augusto Pinochet, is not that it values material things too much – but that it doesn’t truly value them enough?
Read full article in Aeon Magazine