17 April, 2015

Help me, I'm stuffocating!

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday April 15, 2015

James Wallman is travelling the world promoting his stirring new book, Stuffocation. Wherever he goes - New York, London - people ask him what the title means. He looks at them, "What do you think it is?"

"That we're suffocating with too much stuff?" "You've got it."

We've all been there: the wardrobe that's stuffed with clothes but nothing to wear. When you dig through stuff that's "too valuable" to throw away.

It reminded me of one period when I rented a self storage locker for five years, then decided to take out what was valuable and throw the rest away. I got one office chair and a filing cabinet, the rest I dumped - it had cost me $6,000 in storage. I'd been stuffocated.

In his book Wallman points out that "more" was not the norm in the past. Up until the end of WWII, we had, hopefully, sufficient - if the depression hadn't wiped out the family's meagre possessions. Things were so much dearer too. If you calculated labour and material costs by today's standards, in the early 1700s a shirt would have cost $3,500.

Now we can all afford a new shirt - $10 at the market if necessary. Or we can flaunt our wealth and spend a thousand dollars at a prestige name boutique at Crown.

Furniture was handed down through generations. Now a few flat packs from IKEA and your new home is furnished.

So are people becoming more mindful about their purchasing habits? Yes, says Wallman. "I think people will buy less, buy fewer but better. This is not the end of consumerism. This is not the end of spending money. We're humans and we all still want to buy shoes and cars and clothes and cellphones; it's not the end of stuff at all."

Speaking to Jessica Vaughn at JWT, he spelled out his vision of the clash between materialism and stuffocation: "This is going to be the defining problem of the 21st century."

Throughout our economies we see retreat from more. You don't need an encyclopaedia, Google's at your fingertips. A car? Call Uber. Need a girlfriend? Call eHarmony or a dozen other sites. You don't have to reject possessions - just be more thoughtful in choosing them.

James' preference he calls "experientialism". Getting the enjoyment and fun out of the experience rather than another car you can't find space to park.

The upcoming Generation Y is inclined that way. They aren't scared of a great depression or a world war. They are angry that their parents swept up most of the finance and houses. But they make up for that by staying home, living free and having fun. The experiential life style.

University of California Los Angeles carried out an anthropological survey - of 32 middle-class LA families with children. They photographed every space in the houses, catalogued every item, and were staggered. They took 20,000 photographs, every one packed from floor to ceiling with stuff.

Hey and these were people like you and me: teachers, firefighters, nurses, small-business owners, lawyers, tradesmen and contractors, among others.

The research found that we live in the most materially rich society in global history. That we have “light-years more possessions” than any preceding society. We’re coping with extraordinary clutter, we’re in a clutter crisis.

"My manifesto," says Wallman, " is that if you care about happiness, status, identity and meaning for yourself, you should be experiential, not materialistic. It will make you happier."

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