This week I’m reading a new book by James Wallman, called Stuffocation, in which he argues that there is a cultural shift away from materialism underway. The idea that a good life is measured in possessions is slowly passing into history. I suspect he is right, and as Chris Goodall has highlighted, there is evidence to suggest we have hit ‘peak stuff‘.
There are probably more, but here are ten reasons why I think that the future may be less materialistic.
1) Our needs are met. You don’t have to go back very far in Britain to remember that we didn’t always have everything we needed or wanted. There are plenty of people alive today who remember rationing. If you grew up with scarcity, it’s understandable to measure progress in material terms. If you were born into plenty, you might measure success in different ways.
2) A rising middle class – As Ipsos Mori research shows, materialist values are actually more pronounced in developing countries, for the reasons outlined in point one. But if having our basic needs met allows us to be less focused on material goods, the chances are that the next generation of the Chinese, Brazilian and Indian middle classes will be less materialistic.
3) An aging population – as we get older, we tend to acquire most of what we need, and settle on things that we like and value. We don’t need as much new stuff, and perhaps we don’t want as many new things either. As the population ages in many richer countries, we might expect people to buy less.
4) Urbanisation – a few years ago the number of people in the world living in cities overtook the number of people living in the country for the first time. Living in the city means you can access more shared services, and you won’t have as much space for stuff anyway.
5) Environmental awareness – there’s a growing awareness of the environmental impact of our consumption, both in the production stages and in the disposal of things at the end of their lives. A growing number of people are choosing to consume more carefully.
6) The digital transition – in some areas, it’s just not necessary to own physical copies of things any more. One might choose streaming movie services over shelf-loads of DVDs, digital music instead of CDs, or ebooks over paperbacks. These are sometimes better for the environment, sometimes not, but they certainly lower our materials use.
7) We have too much already – an international survey of consumer opinions a couple of years ago found that almost half of those surveyed felt they had too much clutter. Two thirds of respondents thought they’d be better off if they lived more simply.
8) Sharing is easier – as the Collaborative Consumption movement shows, it’s easier to share things these days than it used to be. The internet can bring people together to share tools and resources in common, or to find homes for secondhand goods. The easier it is to share, the less important it is to own things.
9) Too much debt – the big consumer boom of the last twenty years or so was often funded by debt, with people living beyond their means through credit cards and cheap loans. That never was sustainable, as the financial crisis proved. We don’t appear to have learned that lesson quite yet, but excess debt could still call an end to the age of overconsumption.
10) Resource depletion – As natural resource stocks deplete, new raw materials will become more expensive and we will have to steward them better. That could mean more things made to last, a new focus on quality and craftsmanship rather than the number of things we own – although some would say that’s more materialistic, in the true sense of the word.