Tuesday, 5 March 2019

The life-changing magic of acquiring less

Unless  you've been living under a rock, you have almost certainly encountered Marie Kondo and her 'Life-changing magic of tidying up', either via her books or through the new Netflix series. I'll admit to being fully onboard with her process for decluttering, it certainly works to reduce the amount of stuff in your life, and I am particularly pleased with my streamlined wardrobe; her folding methods are truly a revelation!

Too many clothes!

And breathe: All that remains

However, in this world of excess and consumerism, Kondo is only addressing one end of the problem - how to get rid of the masses of things once it has already accumulated, which doesn't quite deal with the major elephant in the room. Instead of acquiring vast stacks of stuff (George Carlin says it best!), spilling over in piles and drowning us, maybe we should tackle the root-cause and stop acquiring so many things in the first place?

What drives the desire for stuff? The existence of the work of Kondo, the Minimalism movement and myriad other decluttering methods suggests that excess stuff is not a good thing for many people, and can be detrimental to people's mental health, as well as their wallets. So what causes people to acquire too much in the first place? Surely we should spot that stuff is not beneficial, and just not buy it?

A diet of over-accumulation

There are a range of possibilities, from excessive advertising to the demise of self-control. Interestingly, a lot of the explanations offered are remarkably similar to those given for why the populations of many developed countries are becoming more obese (See the excellent 'The Truth About Fat' for a detailed analysis of the problems around that subject). It therefore looks like a modern lifestyle problem, mixed with outdated evolutionary drivers. The abundance of cheap products coupled with more disposable income has made it very possible to accumulate far too much. 

Evolutionarily, accumulating and keeping things would have been beneficial, as hoarding food items and other useful items such as animal furs would have aided survival. Even collecting items such as attractive shells and pebbles may have been naturally-selected, as these desirable items could have been traded for food or other directly useful items. But the abundance of stuff in our capitalist system means we've broken this, and the drive to accumulate pushes us far past the point of need or necessity.

Accumulating too much then periodically throwing away piles of things seems beyond ridiculous when you stop and think about it for half a second. We are filling this planet with disposed-of items, and flooding developing countries with our Western cast-offs. How long until we get to that dystopian view of drowning in rubbish (is Wall-e an accurate depiction of the future?!). According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by 2050 oceans are expected to contain (by weight) more plastics than fish, so it doesn't seem like that vision is such an outlandish possibility.

We all need to accumulate less

How do we fix this? A two-pronged approach is required: We need to break the connection between perceived status and the accumulation and possession of things, so people are less motivated to go and buy the newest shiniest object. We also need to make businesses responsible for the true cost of the things they produce, so that planned obsolescence becomes a thing of the past, and items can more easily be upcycled, reused or recycled.

The growth of the sharing economy could massively help with the first. Younger people in particular are already getting on board with this; technology is enabling ride-share, bike-share and many other sharing services. Why buy a car and pay to maintain and store it, when you can use an app to hail a cheap taxi that will arrive in minutes? Many of these services are imperfect, and are often only accessible to people living in urban areas, but technological improvements, e.g. shared driverless cars, are likely to make these services much more user-friendly in the near-future. 

A circular economy, and strength in the Commons

Kate Raworth writes extensively in 'Doughnut Economics' about moving towards a circular economy. We need to revive the commons and have publicly funded services that serve everyone. I like how George Monbiot describes it: 'Public luxury for all, or private luxury for some'. Libraries are a great example: My local service is very luxurious; more books than I could ever afford or house, that can be reserved online, with a notification service letting me know when books are available/due back, available to everyone for no fee. I am thrilled my taxes go towards such an excellent service - if only comparable services were available for other things.

The flip-side of this is that businesses need to be incentivised to produce long-lasting goods that will give the user value for money and fulfill a purpose, without stripping the planet of resources or polluting the environment. This is of course a massive ask, and is highly unlikely to happen whilst governments are driven by a desire for growth economies. Whilst the only measure of a country's success is whether or not GDP is growing, regardless of any social or environmental consequences, there is no motivation for businesses to provide anything other than growth to their shareholders. Again, Raworth has a wealth of information on this: We need to become agnostic about growth. I also just read 'Out of the Wreckage' by Monbiot, which also touches on this.

Deeds not words

We need to think big. It just doesn't look possible to tackle the climate crisis and ecological collapse by tinkering around the edges and letting business and society continue as usual. But we also need to look at ourselves and question whether we are doing everything we can, whether we are leading from the front. 

So, by all means, 'Kondo' your wardrobe, declutter your space, and minimise your stuff. But ask yourself next time you are wandering round a shopping centre, or idly scrolling online, "what if I had to keep this item for the rest of my life?"

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