Essay - Tom Prugh

Seven Tons

I never thought I was very attached to the stuff I own. But it sure is attached to me.

This little epiphany struck while I was standing in the middle of my basement a few weeks ago, paralyzed by exhaustion after the fourth consecutive 15-hour day of lifting, shoving around, carting about, packing, discarding, and looking in despair at the seemingly endless pile of things my family and I had acquired.

Those things, entering our house one or two at a time, had quietly become a multitude. Now we were preparing to move and had to confront them en masse-and what a mass. There were, it seemed, thousands of them. Standing in the basement, an image popped into my mind: Gulliver tethered to the ground by zillions of Lilliputian strings. These objects, most of which I couldn't remember buying and had no present use for, must have served some purpose or scratched some itch at the time. They hadn't felt cumbersome then, but now they were exacting their revenge as I tried to shed them-like a bit of tape stuck to your fingers, which won't come off no matter how hard you shake your hand. Every last one of those thousands of objects demanded a choice: keep it? sell it? donate it? or just throw it away? As our deadline neared and the desperation mounted, I have to admit that a lot of otherwise useful things just got pitched.

Much has been written about humans and their stuff. One illuminating book on the subject is Material World: A Global Family Portrait. It's mostly photographs of families from all over the world, sitting in front of their homes with their possessions spread around them as if they were on a picnic. The contrasts are striking. Some families in Material World throw away more in a year than most people will own in a lifetime, while others lunch every day on potatoes and eat no dinner at all. Globally, for every one of the first category, there are dozens of the second, barely getting by on a few cents a day. Most families seem to acquire stuff as they are able, but that ability has less to do with merit-more than one breadwinner in a less-developed nation works two or three jobs-than with accidents of birth. (Pick your parents carefully, and you too can learn to take affluence for granted.) However, there seems to be no clear correlation between absolute wealth and family happiness, a conclusion reinforced by economic studies.

Equally revealing is Limited Wants, Unlimited Means, a collection of eye-opening essays about life among hunter-gatherer bands, based on archaeological data and studies of the few remaining hunter-gatherers left today. Hunting and gathering is arguably humanity's natural state; humans lived this way for hundreds of thousands of years before a few groups gradually figured out how to make agriculture work. (Whether because it was obviously better, or because hunting and gathering worked so well that popuĀ­lation pressures finally forced people to stay put and farm, is not clear; experts disagree. Agriculture-based social systems-with their despots, caste systems, slaves, imbalances of wealth, misogyny, and other ills-have a lot to answer for).

The very antiquity of hunting and gathering disposes us to see it as vastly worse than modern ways of life. Of course, there has been a lot of progress since humanity began to farm and then specialize. I for one am thankful for bicycles and antibiotics, if not for nuclear weapons and talk radio, among other fairly recent inventions. But the shock in reading Limited Wants is to learn that in most ways people living in hunter-gatherer bands were at least as well off as their farming neighbors. Hunter-gatherers enjoyed more varied diets, more egalitarianism, and less exploitation and violence. Their life expectancies were equal or longer. In general, hunter-gatherers appear to have ceded few advantages to the farmers we extol for revolutionizing human society.

And they had very few possessions. Stuff per se is of little use if you're a hunter-gatherer; it just has to be dragged along when you move on to the next place. Stuff is a burden, and its lack, far from broadcasting one's poverty, implies freedom and self-sufficiency.

Together, these books hammer home the lesson that our ways, including our consumption patterns, are mainly cultural ways. People never tempted by the sirens of consumption seem not to miss having lots of stuff at all. On the other hand, many of us coming of age in times and places where not only affluence, but the expectation of ever-growing affluence, is the norm, seem a little lost among our playthings. Even cornucopian stuff won't necessarily make you happy.

So I am a product-a slave?-of my culture, and have learned to require a lot of stuff. My reluctance to shed things often expresses itself as a mental cry of "I might need that!" I've tried instead to put myself in the place of a nomadic hunter-gatherer, whose way of life relied on mobility among local sources to replenish essential belongings. Food and basic artifacts could be acquired or crafted almost anywhere. So I imagine the hunter-gatherer experienced no "Might need that," only "I can get that when I need it." Which is an attitude that could easily lead to a sense of the everlasting nurturance of the planet-Mother Earth-provided one knew the landscape well.

People in industrial nations live far more materially complex lives, and most don't know any landscape very well. For us, such living off the land would be anarchy. Our sense of the Earth is expressed in modern conventional economics, which is devoted to the "problem" of "scarcity." There's no doubt whatever that scarcity is reality for billions of people-partly because there are billions, and more billions on the way, but also partly because some of us have hitched ourselves, more or less unselfconsciously, to a dream of sybaritic opulence. Wanting so much condemns us to disappointment. Meanwhile, the biosphere pays and pays.

My family's physical move is over. We've settled the bill for the 14,000+ pounds of things we had trucked from suburban Washington, D.C., to Colorado. But the revenge of the possessions continues. We're now in a smaller house with little storage space, and despite having worked hard to get rid of things via garage sales, eBay, donations, and landfilling, we still have way too much stuff. We've carved functional spaces-places to sleep and eat, work space in the office-out of the jumble, but movement from room to room is still along narrow paths that wind their way through stacks of boxes, pieces of furniture, and rolled-up rugs that don't fit comfortably anywhere. Those things are trying to teach me a lesson. Will it ever sink in?

Tom Prugh is Editor of World Watch.