Lately, I’ve been thinking about all the stuff that we accumulate in our lives.
Personally, I have way too much stuff, and it kind of mystifies me. See, several times in my life, I’ve gone through everything I own and given away, like, half of it – furniture, books, clothes, computers, musical instruments, kitchen toys, whatever. Every time I move, I get rid of a bunch of stuff. Yet my closets and cabinets and bookshelves always seem full.
Maybe stuff is sneaking back in the dark of night.
Maybe it’s breeding.
There’s a whole industry that’s designed around convincing us that we need more stuff. We see commercials on TV, or the ads in magazines, and they suggest that, if we just had Product X, life would be wonderful. People would like us more, attractive members of the opposite sex (or same sex, if that’s what you’re into) would throw themselves at our feet, we would have more excitement in our lives, more fun, more sex, more peace of mind.
More, more, more.
We become convinced that we need Product X. It will fill some gaping hole in our lives, and make us complete. And we go out and buy Product X, often using credit cards to do so.
For a little while, we actually do feel better. We get a little emotional lift out of the act of purchasing Product X. New toy. Shiny. Ooooh.
Then the newness wears off, the credit card bill arrives, and we’re back to feeling bored and disappointed with our lot in life — only now we also have to pay off the cost of Product X, usually at an obscene rate of interest.
And so the vicious cycle begins.
Sometimes, the stuff we buy even demands that we buy additional stuff. There’s no point in owning a DVD player if you’re not going to have a bunch of DVDs to watch with it, right?
The stuff they’re making for children is particularly bad in this regard. My nieces are currently in a Barbie phase. But you can’t just give them a Barbie. Oh, no. Barbie needs clothes, and shoes, and a car, and a house to keep all her stuff in. And she needs friends, and they also need all of same. And pretty soon, you’ve got a whole freaking neighborhood full of Barbie homes and Barbie accessories, and the little girls of our world are well on their way to becoming good little cogs in the consumerist machine.
A few years back, Mattel actually came out with a Barbie that was specifically designed around recreational shopping. She was called Cool Shopping Barbie, and she came with a sales counter full of items that could be “purchased” and (I swear I am not making this part up) a tiny credit card wired to her hand. If you ran the credit card through a slot on the toy cash register, it said, “Credit approved,” in a tinny electronic voice.
Let’s get them hooked on racking up the high-interest consumer debt while they’re still young.
I was appalled when I saw Cool Shopping Barbie. Needless to say, I bought one immediately. I still have it, too, still in it’s plastic box. It’s on a shelf in my closet, but periodically, I pull it down to show friends, saying, “See? This is what is going to cause the downfall of our civilization!” (My friends usually respond by rolling their eyes and questioning my taste. Often this is rapidly followed by disparaging remarks about my coffee table and the fake palm tree with Christmas lights and ornaments in my living room. But that’s another story.)
And yes, I recognize the irony in purchasing an unnecessary plastic toy to highlight the problems with rampant consumerism. I’m all about the irony.
But I digress.
I’ve developed a theory about the accumulation of stuff, though, and here it is:
Stuff is a trap.
It ties you to a place, because moving all your stuff around is a pain in the ass. And if you buy stuff on credit, it can tie you to a job you hate, just so you can keep ahead of the bills. Plus, the more stuff you have, the larger the house or apartment you need in order to store it, which in turn means higher rent or mortgage payments.
Large segments of our culture, our economy, are dependent upon the continuing cycle of stuff acquisition. After all, making all that stuff creates a lot of jobs, right?
Except that most of those jobs seem to be in China or other parts of the world where labor is cheaper and laws designed to protect workers or the environment are less restrictive or completely nonexistent. Which means that a lot of the money that Americans spend buying all that stuff ends up going out of our economy and into other economies.
And don’t even get me started on how oil enters into all this. We need gasoline to fuel all those SUVs, after all. And so we invaded Iraq, and then hired a bunch of corporations like Halliburton and Blackwater to rebuild things and protect the people who we hired to rebuild the stuff we bombed into oblivion when we attacked. And we didn’t even negotiate a good deal with these corporations – they have no-bid cost-plus contracts, which means that they are pretty much black holes into which massive quantities of our tax dollars are disappearing.
Now last week we get the news that Exxon-Mobil, BP, and a bunch of other big oil companies – you know, the ones who have been raping us at the gas pump for the last few years because Congress can’t be bothered to close the Enron loophole – are about to be awarded contracts to, you guessed it, run Iraq’s oil wells. So in essence, the whole war with Iraq was nothing more than a cynical plan to funnel our tax dollars into the pockets of corporate giants, either directly (through the no-bid contracts) or indirectly (through fighting a war at the cost of thousands of our soldiers’ lives and billions more of our tax dollars).
All this, in the name of stuff.
We’ve become a nation that is gorging itself on the world’s resources, exporting money while we import all manner of stuff, much (most?) of which we could safely do without – indeed, would be better off without. No wonder we’ve become a nation full of obese people. It’s all part of the same process.
And does our government take any steps to halt these trends?
No, of course not. See, that would be logical, and logic clearly has no role in modern politics.
Instead, we receive the same message from our government that we receive from the advertisers: buy more stuff.
After 9/11, we were told it was our patriotic duty to get back into the malls before all of the funerals had even been conducted.
Throughout two wars, we have not been asked to make sacrifices, to make do with less to help the war effort the way our country was during World War II. No, instead, it’s just, buy more stuff.
And now, of course, we have the famous “economic stimulus” checks, which, if they are to have their intended effect, should be used to – you guessed it – buy more stuff.
Of course, that’s not what most people are going to do with the money. I suspect most of those checks will be going toward credit card bills and mortgage payments, as people try to pay down their debt as a hedge against the weakening economy, so that if they lose their jobs, they can hold on a while longer before they also lose their homes.
Which means that the whole economic stimulus plan that we’ve been sold on was effectively a way to funnel billions of our tax dollars to the holders of the mortgages and consumer debt. You know, those predatory lenders that got consumers hooked on buying more than they could afford, which got us into this whole economic mess to begin with.
And that’s why stuff is a trap, in our personal lives and on a global level.
Sometime back in the late 1990s, I stumbled across a pseudo-anarchist group that called themselves Decadent Action. Their tongue-in-cheek plan was to bring about a collapse of the capitalist system by encouraging people to run up huge credit card bills buying useless luxury items or food and drink (which can’t even be repossessed), then have massive numbers of people simultaneously default on the lenders.
But our addiction to stuff has caused us to out-do the absurdists.
Lately, I’ve been fantasizing about getting rid of all my stuff. Paring all my worldly possessions down to what can be fit in one suitcase, a bookbag, and my purse. Then I could run away and see the world, going wherever my mood or curiosity takes me.
Unfortunately, my clever plan to pay off my student loans and finance such a trip has not produced much success so far. Stupid PowerBall.
As for the whole economic and cultural nightmare caused by our addiction to stuff, well, I don’t have much in the way of solutions for that problem. See, much like John McCain, I don’t really have a good understanding of economics. At least, I assume that’s what the problem is, because the only ways I can see to address the problems I’ve talked about here are likely to lead to complete worldwide economic collapse and/or open class warfare.
I’m certainly open to suggestions, though. Questions? Comments?