Our Problem With Stuff

Stuff is at the center of our lives. The idea of stuff gives a way to consider whether our industrial culture is sustainable.  Using stuff to think about our lifestyles is not new.

George Carlin’s comedy routine on stuff is one of my favorites and, as usual for Carlin, it is filled with insight.  Somewhat more serious is Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff, which makes a forceful case for the problem of stuff in our lives.  The Boston Globe, amidst advertisements for lots of expensive stuff , outlined the problem of stuff.  Stuff is the subject for serious academic inquiry.  Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor explores the issue of stuff in our industrial society; her work among that of others spawned the Center for a New American Dream.  Recently, an IKEA executive, suggested that the Western world has reached peak stuff.  Even a global retailer of stuff understands that most households don’t need any more candle holders or bookshelves.

We need to explore the role of stuff in our personal lives and in our economic system.  Stuff is central to the theory of economic wellbeing that dominated the 20th Century and changing how we think about stuff will be the foundation for building a more sustainable global economy in the 21st Century.

In the dominant economic paradigm of the 20th Century, stuff played a key role in the idea of personal welfare.  Consuming more stuff and services that go along with it, the theory says, will contribute to an individual’s economic welfare.  One of the assumptions spelled out in the first chapter of virtually every introductory text book is, more is preferred to less.  Economic systems that generated more personal income created the capacity for greater individual consumption and therefore more wellbeing.  More stuff equals more happiness.

This led to an emphasis on economic growth as the primary goal of economic policy.  Growth became a central tenet of U.S. economic policy in the post-World War II era, embodied in the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978.  In all of human history no society has ever matched the ability of the U.S. to grow and deliver more stuff to more people.  Even though there has been much hoopla around the idea of a transition in the U.S. from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, the reality is that most of this service economy is involved in the design, engineering, marketing, finance, distribution, and sales of stuff made outside of the U.S.  We are still all about stuff in the foundation of our economy, and the more stuff the merrier.

There are two problems with this emphasis on stuff in our lives.  First, there is growing evidence in the emerging field of behavioral economics that more stuff does not generate more individual wellbeing.  The growing area of happiness studies questions the premise that more is always preferred to less.  This research shows that beyond a minimal level of consumption of stuff, increases in consumption do not yield increases in happiness; but such increases in consumption do create problems.

The most significant problems are environmental.  The production and distribution of stuff requires matter and energy from nature.  And once we are done with that matter and energy, it has to go back to nature (the law of conservation of matter and energy).  More stuff for us results in more matter and energy flowing from nature, through human society, and back to nature again.  The effect is to create the multitude of environmental issues facing humanity from climate change to biodiversity loss to ocean acidification and more.

Talk about irony.  More stuff fails to make us any happier and that very stuff is central to the unprecedented changes we are creating in our planet.  These changes are so great that some geologists now believe we have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocence.  The idea is that humans are so changing natural systems on Earth that we are now the greatest force for change on the planet.  And we can trace those changes right back to all our stuff.

Even more challenging for us is the fact that we do not have a theory for devising an economy based on something other than producing and consuming ever more stuff.  A few economists have explored the idea of a steady-state economy or even sustainable de-growth.  The reality is, our whole social and economic system requires more production and therefore more consumption of stuff.  Shopping is even a patriotic thing to do, particularly in the holiday season, as we were reminded in December 2006 by President Bush.

When it comes to stuff, we have issues in the United States.  We are addicted to stuff.  And like most addictions, stuff demands ever increasing quantities to keep us from feeling bad. The first step to dealing with this addiction is to admit it.

My name is Mark, and I have too much stuff…


Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.