BY TOM ODHIAMBO
We live in a world of plenty. But we also live with millions of neighbours, friends, family, colleagues or members of the larger community who literally have nothing. In a world that is suffocating with goods – cars, clothes, computers, phones, fridges, furniture, housing, food etc – there are so many who hardly own anything.
This is one of the great mysteries of the 21st century world, a time when technology has made it possible to tame nature and satisfy all kinds of needs by human beings, but also a place where poverty, disease, wars, insecurity, death etc stalk more than half the world population every day.
We are suffocating with stuff, or as James Wallman would say, we are living in a world of stuffocation. In his book, Stuffocation: Living More With Less (Penguin Books, 2013; 2015) Wallman describes stuffocation in these words: “Stuffocation is the story of today’s most acute, till now unnamed, afflictions. It is about how you, me, and the society in general, instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, are feeling stifled by them. Instead of thinking of more in positive terms, as we once did, we now think more means more hassle, more manage, and more to think about. In our busy, cluttered lives more is no longer better. It is worse. Overwhelmed, and suffocating from stuff, we are suffering from an anxiety that I call Stuffocation.”
What Wallman calls an affliction is actually an epidemic. It is a curse for the rich and the poor, almost equally. The stuffocation disease appears almost manageable at the beginning but in reality it isn’t easy to treat. Let’s say you have more clothes than you do wear in a week, month or even year. Isn’t it simply a matter of donating some to the poor neighbour, or throwing the lot into that Red Cross collection box, or taking the excess to the orphaned children’s home? Well, you could also offer them up for sale on OLX, couldn’t you? It is simple, simple and simple, isn’t it? No, it is not.
First, many people think that they would be giving away their property for nothing. Some would rather keep, without use, that suit they bought at Sh50, 000 than sell it at half the price, even when it doesn’t fit them anymore. For others, their graduation or wedding gown is something to keep forever, really just for the sake of keeping. Ooh, that watch mummy gave you on your 20th birthday is for keeps, even if you have ten other such watches. It is sacred, isn’t it?
Haven’t you met fellows who claim to be collectors, of all manner of things – cars, motorcycles, watches, phones, etc, all in good condition, at great expense, when such items would be quite useful to someone else, somewhere.
Maybe the collectors have space to keep their prized items. However, many ordinary people are also struggling with many problems related to stuffocation, according to Wallman. He describes this problem in its many variants, such as from obesity to addiction to credit card use. For instance, too many poor people are too fat these days, running great risk of diseases related to obesity, simply because they can’t keep off many of the fatty and chemical saturated foods available to them. They simply ‘stuff’ themselves with the food because they are too poor to buy healthier food.
Millions of middle-income earners all over the world are victims of credit card addiction, many studies show. They’ll swipe the card whenever they feel the urge to buy something. These credit card addicts argue that there is no problem for as long as they are using the card within its credit limit. But problems happen when they exhaust the limit and discover that they can’t keep up with the repayment plan because there are other needs that they have to spend money on. Yet in many cases, the stuff bought using the credit card is simply lying around the house, some unopened, some used for one day or week, some rejected as gifts etc.
There are those who blame stuffocation on the advertising industry that does all within its powers to seduce the buyer to spend money on goods that she or he doesn’t necessarily need – the buyers thus becoming victims of what has been called buyology. Others think that the hunger for status – which is generally just supposed approval by others – is a significant contributor to stuffocation. Yet there are those who would argue that stuffocation happens because human beings are greedy for material things that serve individuals rather than communities. All these, and many other reasons, convincingly explain why humanity is suffering from stuffocation.
Yet there are many ways to manage stuffocation. One can buy less, as minimalists urge, and still live a more fulfilling life. One can decide, as Wallman and experientalists recommend, to experience life rather than be suffocated by material goods. Or try life in the open, away from the narrow staircase to your box of an apartment; away from the closeness of fellow coffee takers at the restaurant; away from the proximity of your friends who are always making you spend more and more even when you don’t want to. That is to say, take some time to stay away from places, people and occasions that would induce you to buy and consume that which doesn’t really satisfy you better than you are today.
For instance, you can go to the countryside during the holidays or when on leave from work and experience life away from the shopping malls, supermarkets, coffee shops, partying friends etc. You may just rediscover life without the abundance of creature comforts that many urban-dwellers are used to. You may reconnect with nature and appreciate the relationship between humanity and the environment such as picking a fruit off the tree rather than selecting them at the market, using herbs to manage a cold, relishing a dish prepared from fresh farm produce etc. You could just rediscover that like in your childhood, you could survive for two or three days wearing the same pair of shorts and a shirt.
The point that Wallman makes in Stuffocation is one that many environmentalists, economists and others concerned about humanity’s effect on the earth have made for years: that humankind is destroying the world’s resources with its unbridled consumption habits. The irony, such groups point out, is that people are not necessarily any happier than before even with more material wealth at their disposal.
Much of the stuff that men and women spend money on every day just ends up like the millions of toys that children own all over the world: providing immediate happiness but only in the short run.