consumerism design growth

Discovering a new materialism


Materialism’ is generally considered to be a negative – a preoccupation with stuff. It’s synonymous with consumerism, the endless quest for more and better things. It’s the driving force behind our throwaway culture, and psychologists tell us that it’s bad for us. People who are obsessed with possessions are less happy that those that choose to occupy themselves with people and relationships.

Despite the problems of materialism, we remain three-dimensional living creatures who engage in a material world in a thousand ways every day. We eat, we walk around, we sit on things and move things about. We can’t disengage ourselves from the world of matter. (Unless we live in some form of Matrix-style virtual reality, as Stefan posted in the comments on yesterday’s post.) So what we need is not less materialism, but a healthier relationship with the material world.

That’s the theory behind The New Materialism, a project from Schumacher College. In a pamphlet written by Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts, they argue that we should take a more active attitude to our things. They’re not just there to consume. Rather, we should love them, share them, maintain and fix them. We should get the most out of them, and dispose of them as best we can when they have finally bitten the dust.  This, we would find, is “a more deeply pleasurable, and also respectful relationship with the world of ‘things’.”

This ‘new materialism’ is already evident as a cultural phenomenon, they argue. You may not have noticed, but the shoe repair chain Timpson has seen business go up since the financial crisis, and there’s been a big rise in sewing machine sales since 2008. Collaborative consumption, where people share or rent out their possessions, has boomed. Wearing secondhand, sorry, vintage clothing is not just socially acceptable, but fashionable. Craft and maker fairs are popular.

I’d hestitate to herald this as the end of consumerism, but these are important trends that should be nurtured into permanence. There are several reasons why. Sharing and repairing means less consumption of materials, and a lower ecological impact. It also builds community. Owning quality things that we care about is much more rewarding than the transient and disposable objects we’re more used to.

There’s also a postgrowth angle here. As I’ve written before, the most important aspect of a postgrowth future is the reduction of material growth, rather than economic growth per se. A culture of using things well, maintaining them and sharing them is a vital part of building a sustainable economy. And, as Simms and Potts suggest, it may help the economy along the way. “There is a big economic problem raised by the shift from a consumer economy” they write. “In an economy dancing on the edge of recession and the spectre of rising unemployment, how do you boost demand – the one thing that most economists agree is needed – without increasing wasteful and unsatisfying consumption?”

One way to stimulate the economy in the short term without destroying the biosphere is to invest in this transition. Rather than endlessly prop up the banks, we could train people in repair and craft skills, creating employment and boosting demand. Rather than build more roads, we could do what London is doing and invest in cycle lanes and public transport. “Maintenance, quality and entertainment may be the watchwords by which we boost the economy through a great transition to an economy that supports more with less.”

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  1. Last year I had an interesting discussion with a retired Philosopher from East Germany who spent his entire professional academic life in the “socialist system” of that country. At one point I used the term materialism and we got into an argument, only to discover after a while that we talked about entirely different things. I used “Materialismus” in the casual contemporary western way that describes an attitude, i.e. the desire for (ever more) possessions (consumerism, as you say) and a society that equals status and possessions. To my amazement this meaning was not a category for him. He only saw materialism in the philosophical sense – the attitude that the world, that reality at large is entirely governed by “matter”, by laws that define the interaction of matter, energy and information…

    I probably have expressed this view hundreds of times, but until proven wrong I will stick with it for the time being: the more-with-less will only work if we get a different financial system – basically one that can grow quantitatively but does not have to. The economics Professor’s Binswanger and Kremer (among others) worked the issue out quantitatively, with different approaches, and I am still waiting for a biggie like perhaps Paul Krugman jumping onto that Bandwagon. Material economic growth will end as a logistic S curve, while virtual (immaterial and purely financial) economic growth is limitless (and pointless). It will mostly consist of virtual debt balanced by virtual capital. Perhaps we will start buying and selling properties on Mars and Ganymede? Or even on extrasolar planets that we will never be able to visit? That’s about as plausible as much of the trading in financial derivatives and debt swaps. At its core the growth requirement is driven by debt which is driven by interest…

    Another question is: where does this desire to possess things come from? Even young children can be very jealous about their things. Or is it a matter of growing up? I certainly know that I, the older I got, more and more lost my “want” for stuff and more and more discovered the joy of doing things myself. Yet still the stuff around me seems to be growing… In the end, especially now again in Christmas season, we all, that is mankind, should pause and wonder why it is that all religions and wisdom traditions stress ideals involving humility, simplicity, modesty, meekness – even austerity, while our economic reality starkly points to the opposite direction.

  2. I like the idea, and I am thinking seriously how to spread it in my country, Nigeria. This is a country where private ownership of, mostly, used cars are cherished more than public transportation system in glorification of crass materialism.

    1. I grew up in Madagascar, where this approach to material things was all around us. Cars from the 1950s were still going, lovingly rebuilt and held together with wire in some cases. When you have these sorts of cars and possessions, it’s a real luxury to just buy and throw away without thinking about it. I guess the key is to take pride in repairing and maintaining, rather than assuming that buying new is better. But that’s hard. It’s always more glamorous to have the new thing.

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