Stuffocation – A Tale of Our Times

At the beginning of the ‘80s, a narrow, bumpy motorway was crossing a small village in my homeland Transylvania. From time to time, trucks full of hidden goods would rush through the village, leaving behind a wave of dust and a bunch of kids running in their aftermath. Every now and then, drivers would open their window and throw away empty cans of juice. The kid who would be the first to find them would be a hero: he might even catch a faint smell of the elixir that must have certainly once filled the fabulously colored containers. Children living close to the highway were slowly building entire collections of empty cans. The rest of us, we could only admire their treasure in silence and dream that, one day, we would have a few cans of our own.

Fast forward thirty years. I live in the capital of the Czech Republic surrounded by one of the fastest-growing business and commercial areas in Prague 4 Michle. Eight years ago I decided to buy a flat in the neighborhood. I was more or less joking with my friends that it would be easier to buy a flat than to relocate: only the books I had bought after my moving to Prague could fill a few cars. No surprise that, when I fell over the title of a new book called Stuffocation, it caught my eye.

Is less really more?
The book was released in January this year by Penguin Random Publishing House UK. The author of Stuffocation, James Wallman is a futurologist, trend forecaster and journalist with the New York Times and Financial Times. The page-turner starts by telling the story of Ryan Nicodemus, a US citizen who, in September 2010, decided to go for an experiment. He would put all the things he owned in bags and, for 28 days, he would only pull out what he truly used. By the end of that period, he would find out what he really needed for living and also whether living with less stuff would make him happier. Surprise? It did.

The premise of Stuffocation is that it is clear by now that living in a society driven by the values of materialism and consumerism does not make us happier. More, we are irreparably damaging the environment around us. But if materialism and consumerism is not the solution, what’s the alternative?

Skillfully, Wallman takes the reader back to the roots of the current mainstream way of thinking in the Western world: back to the US of the 20s, when labor mechanization led to overproduction. Yet people weren’t consuming enough. What to do? Companies could of course cut down on production and adjust to the real demand, but such as option was out of question for what Wallman calls “the captains of consciousness” – major industrialists who had the most to benefit from the technological progress. Thus, a decision was made: let’s teach people how to consume more even when they don’t need it. Welcome to our world.

Stuffocation is the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic
“The idea that we are making decisions in an age of abundance using mental tools honed in an age of scarcity might seem obvious. But it is worth repeating at a time when many millions of us not only have enough, but way too much stuff,” Wallman says, pointing that today “Stuffocation is the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic.” “Having too much, doing too little and living a life focused on the accumulation of material things is making people anxious and causing them stress. Stress causes clutter and clutter causes stress,” he notes.

Wallman leaves no room for doubt that the time of naked consumerism is over. But what’s coming next? Through artful storytelling the author takes the reader through possible options: from minimalism (quite the extreme opposite of consumerism) to voluntary simplicity (retiring in the nature to live as simply as our ancestors did) and to the so-called “medium chill” (an easy-going approach to work). None of these options quite fully work. “Today we have more because we spend more. This is the American paradox,” he says, drawing the conclusion that a possible solution lies somewhere else: in experientialism.

“There are five reasons why experiences are better than material goods at making us happier. For one thing, experiences are more prone to positive re-interpretation (even when experiences go wrong, our rose-tinted glasses tend to give them a positive spin). Material possessions don’t hold up as well as experiences because they are subject to hedonic adaptation – you adapt to having a good and, as you do, you get less and less pleasure from it. Third, experiences are better because it is harder and more subjective to compare them than material goods. Therefore, you are less likely to worry whether you are making the best choice or not and less likely to regret your choice afterwards. Fourth, we are more likely to see experiences as contributing to our identities. Last, experiences bring us closer to other people. Since we are social animals, this makes us happy,” he writes.

More experiences for a more meaningful life
“In today’s culture, material goods have become a substitute for deeper and genuinely meaningful human desires and questions. Consumer culture has become a sort of pseudo-religion… In the new era, we will buy fewer and different material goods. What marketers call our buying motivators or consumption triggers will change, and they will change their business models. We will be more likely to choose our jobs based on what we want to do, rather than what we have to do to pay for possessions we don’t really need.”

The vision of an Epicure, you might say? Maybe. A futurologist, Wallman reminds that 70 years ago we didn’t have the gross domestic product (GDP) indicator to measure the performance of an economy. Today, GDP is a vital indicator, mainly driven by the place taken by consumer spending into the equation. Why can’t we envisage similarly and imagine that, one day, we will measure the wealth of a nation not by the number of goods we possess, but by how good we feel about our lives?

The author is also observant of the fact that experientialism might soon become a necessity. With the rise of the middle class in emerging markets across the globe, the curse of consumerism and its impact on people’s lives and the environment is taking monstrous dimensions. However, he also notes that the time span for moving from poverty to consumerism and to experientialism is growing shorter – China, for example, is one of the largest consumers of luxury goods worldwide.

We can only hope Wallman is right. While the exponential hunger for goods of emerging middle class in Asia is becoming endemic, we need to turn our attention back to ourselves. The move to experientialism – feeling more as opposed to having more - might signal the real maturation of the Western society. After all, we can afford it: today, the trucks crossing near my village on a proper highway carry loads of cans full of juice that can be bought from any store for a bargain. Freedom comes with a price: we need to learn to make healthy, responsible, sustainable choices for ourselves. A pity no one told us this in 1989, when a world collapsed and another one, more colorful but also fuller of its own dilemmas took its place.