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It's that time again to buy more stuff. Everybody has a list of "things I really need, or sort of need." That's the definition of "stuff". When I head for the mall, I have a long list. In our family everybody is encouraged to make one. It makes buying presents just a little easier. And why is that? Because we already have so much stuff, of course. So we want good stuff -- stuff that we can use, stuff that isn't a duplicate of some other stuff we've already discarded. If it is a duplicate, it better be an upgrade -- a better, fancier, quicker version of the soon-to-be-junked old stuff. We're not an unusual family.
If you want to feel a little guiltier about this phenomenon, take a look at the book Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things. The book (from 1997, and still on the market!) traces the development of such mundane things as coffee, the newspaper, t-shirts, shoes, our computers, and even hamburgers, from their origins as natural resources through the entire manufacturing and marketing process, until they land on the store shelves. The authors, John Ryan and Alan Durning, even put a warning in the prologue: don't try to read all eighty-eight pages in one sitting. It's too depressing. The book is intended to make us feel guilty and at the same time try to instill a sense of environmental concern into our buying habits.
As I roam the mall looking for perfect new things to please my loved ones I am remembering those pages. I'm also thinking about a few other critiques of consumerism like conspicuous consumption, the notion that I might be buying status symbols; or built-in obsolescence, the theory that things have a sort of built-in time bomb that destroys them at a prescribed time; and consumer-driven society, the idea that Americans must keep buying stuff to keep our economy strong and healthy. All of these conflicting thoughts about my possible rationale are cold comfort for a person who likes to shop as much as I do. I like the notion of throwing out the old and worn out and replacing it with something newer, more colorful, cleaner, better, more in tune with my present interests. I don't like to think about what outside forces may have shaped my wanting to do such things. And I also hate to think about the impact my behavior has on the natural environment.
There's another idea taking hold these days, it's called the environmental footprint. The question is: how big is yours? How much space do you take up on the planet? How big is your gas guzzler? How large is your house, how many bathrooms, how many resources does it take to get your from point A to point B? How much do you travel? The more of everything that you use and use up, the bigger your footprint. Of course, Americans have the biggest footprints. Is this a good thing? Is it fair to the rest of the world to be buying and selling so much stuff?
When you look through the "stuff" for sale, don't you wonder sometimes why there is so much of everything? Why does there have to be so much? Those party stores bother me more than ever. They are crammed full of absolute junk! Why do kids have to wear those awful ready-made costumes and carry those plastic buckets around on Halloween? Can you imagine some trucker risking his life on the freeway, burning up barrels of fuel, moving that absolute junk to the stores to be pushed off on little kids. What on earth are we teaching our little kids these days? -- to covet junk like that?
Lately I've been trying to simplify my life by weeding out things I no longer need and donating them to those various non-profit agencies who come to the door to pick up stuff. I usually have a bag or two, sometimes more. I'm not the only one. Lots of us are providing inventory for the Good Will and Salvation Army, whose business is better than ever these days. It seems as though all this stuff has a whole second life as the adopted stuff for other families. That eases my conscience just a little.
After thinking about all that stuff, I'm not feeling much better about my holiday gift giving practices. We are living is such perilous times and so many people are suffering, it is difficult to justify just going about my business as usual. We need a new plan.
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