The Need For Stuff
Updated: Feb 14, 2019
Today I brought a lottery ticket for the $60 million Lotto Max draw. Now, I’ll let you in to a little secret. We had a psychic aunt in the family, now long dead and she told us two unusual things would happen in our lives. One was that we would have a very musically talented child and the second was that we would win the lottery. The first she was right about, we do and I must admit I’m partial to the second, although a large win might come with more than it’s fair share of headaches and it certainly hasn’t happened yet.
Still it got me to thinking. What would I do with it if I got a large influx of cash? I would certainly enjoy not having to worry about my finances as no doubt we all would. On the other hand, I know that how I feel about money now would certainly be the same if I won the lottery and that's because money only changes you externally. The question I do have though is, would I actually buy much? What do I actually need? Would I just end up accumulating more stuff?
You hear about lottery winners all the time who suddenly blow all their money by buying more stuff. Fancy houses, cars, you name it only to lose most of it rather quickly. But it is the incessant race for that stuff amongst the public at large and the seeming increasing importance of it that fascinates me.
George Carlin, a brilliant social comic for those that don’t know who is now unfortunately dead noticed with his usual acerbic brilliance that we are all drowning in stuff. Our stuff fills our houses so much so that we must now buy storage lockers in order to store more of our stuff. Every time we go on holiday we have to make a subset of our stuff to take with us. What we have now defines us more than who or what we are or even more importantly what we do.
Both consciously and subconsciously we are bombarded with images of what wealthy people have and being famous has become synonymous with being rich and having the kind of stuff of our dreams. We are offered snapshots in to the lives of the wealthy and shown the consumption levels they perceive as normal and we want it too and increasingly we feel that absent a lottery win or family money, the only way to achieve that is by ‘hitting the big time’ and being noticed.
It’s why children now worship the idea of fame because fame brings with it, money and money means more stuff and they are lulled in to thinking that money will make their lives better and more fun. Fancy fun stuff. Stuff that other people don’t have that they can show off. Take any group of kids and ask them what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll notice that firefighters and teachers are out of fashion. More and more of them say they want to be famous.
Lauren Greenfield, who documented the lives of the fabulously wealthy through photography in a book titled ’Generation Wealth,’ highlights how society’s obsession with extreme wealth has affected us all. Chasing wealth has become and end in itself, a righteous thing to do and it’s effects are increasingly turning our natural spaces in to garbage dumps filled with more and more discarded stuff.
And this need casts our population in to an endless race for stuff, most of who will never acquire the objects of their desires. According to the 2018 World Inequality Report, the lion's share of increased global prosperity has benefitted the 0.001%. Just 76,000 people have captured 4% of the world's capital gains since 1980 and the bottom 50%, didn’t garner any increased prosperity at all.
As the inequality grows and the social mobility designed to counter it declines, so do the feelings of anxiety and hopelessness of a large percentage of the population who continue to experience the stress of chasing a goal that seems less likely than ever.
It’s the decline of social mobility and the rapid death of the elusive ‘American/Western dream that has birthed the ‘two minutes of fame’ phenomena. People who will do anything to ‘achieve’ their few minutes in the sun largely in hope of exploiting that notoriety for financial gain. Take ’Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,’ a TV mom who exploited her children on her reality show and made them in to objects of ridicule.
Then there was Monalisa Perez, who accidentally shot her husband when they were performing a you tube stunt they hoped would go viral. He thought getting her to shoot him while he held a book over his chest would stop the bullet. It didn’t.
So what do these sad stories represent? The two minute of fame phenomena, like the hopes of winning the lottery represent a perceived short cut to wealth. But it’s the wealth itself that represents more stuff, bigger and better houses, transportation, clothes, holidays etc.
The hopes of the masses feed the desperate need of some to get in to the limelight. They represent the need to feel and be considered ‘successful’ and to many the outward representation of wealth is the only way to achieve that.
To live life without having ‘achieved’ becomes indicative of profound personal inadequacy but really the two stories featured are an inditement of how we cast our fellow citizens in to an endless race. A race where only a very few can succeed and usually only those that have a significant head start.
None of these are successful ways of dealing with the resource constraints that we will be seeing as time goes on in a future that will have less stuff. As climate changes bite, we are all going to have to welcome a future of less.
Only by changing things with the next generation do we have a chance. But for us to pull away from the need to get more stuff, we first have to recognize that it isn’t stuff that makes us happy in the first place, it’s connection. We have to realize that staring at our new screens is making us less happy, not more. We have to actively teach kids that too much stuff is as big a problem as too little and that money isn't what makes us happy, believe it or not.