Join me for a brief thought exercise, will you? Or skip a few lines down. I don’t know how much time you have for thought exercises.
Picture it: some global plague wipes out humanity. Boom. Gone. Nobody left. Then, at some future point, the inevitable alien civilization comes down to Earth to investigate us. Disappointed that there are no humans left to enslave, they nonetheless develop an archaeological interest in what human beings were like—what they did, who they were, what they were into.
Without any humans here to translate or interpret our physical world, what would they think we valued? My sense is that what they would conclude about us from their study of our physical environment would be pretty different from what we would want their conclusions to be.
For instance, I think they would have to assume that late humanity hated beautiful architecture, but tolerated relics from the past for learning purposes. Judging solely by volume and pervasiveness in human spaces, they would also likely conclude that we all hated art, but that we loved garbage.
It’s more than the fact that garbage would be discovered to have been an intimate part of our daily lives—that it was impossible to work, eat or even clean ourselves without generating some kind of waste. It would be the way we seemed to treasure garbage, carefully placing it in designated boxes that were always within reach, building special trucks and hiring professionals to handle it and remove it, fencing it off in carefully designed areas only few people seem to have been permitted to go to.
It would be the deliberate effort we seem to have put into making sure that our garbage would persist into the future, growing ever greater as each generation passed. And also, maybe, it would be that we manufactured so much of it. Like, purposely. They would find whole industries devoted just to making packaging. Machines built to produce it. People whose job it was to stand on an assembly line and make sure it all rolled out, enduring from its inception.
To the future aliens whose tyrannical rule we so fortuitously escaped, this would probably seem like a kink of this particular planet. When we sit down and think about it as humans, it all starts to sound insane. Why do we make our garbage out of the most indestructible materials on Earth?
We say that garbage is superfluous to our culture. But we don’t build it like it is. Our most cherished works of art are made out of more perishable materials than a candy wrapper is.
People tend to argue that this is all part and parcel of our materialistic culture—the out of control by-product of our love of material things. But we don’t love material things. Or at least, we don’t act like we do.
Earlier human cultures were materialistic. They valued objects, both for what they did and for themselves. The well-crafted silverware that was a symbol of wealth or status, or the pot that someone could only afford one of, were valued. The new washing machine or car that you saved up for in the early 20th century was valued.
Those specific pots, washing machines, cars, or pieces of cutlery were important. People took care of them, repaired them when broken and expected to have them for the duration of their lives. Maybe even pass them down to their kids.
That’s not how we relate to material objects now. Now we have planned obsolescence. David Pogue explains that Americans “buy new phones, on average, about every 22 months,” and new computers about every 5-7 years. Companies strategize to make their products valueless in the long run, which means that there’s a deferred worthlessness to the commodities we say we prize.
That worthlessness is built into just about every product we buy. Since everything is mass produced and identical, there’s nothing individually important about any single object. Your choice of new cell phone will be based on criteria like functionality, or affect, which have little to nothing to do with the actual materiality of one specific phone. Pick the second or the fifth box from the shelf—it literally doesn’t matter. They’re interchangeable.
There’s no intrinsic value to individual products, and even the materials that our most-purchased commodities are made of likewise have little worth in and of themselves, which basically makes the physical objects around us so much deferred garbage. In fact, 140 million cell phones end up in landfills in the U.S. each year.
(As an aside, recycling is also a problem. According to the EPA, 50-80 percent of recycled electronics are exported to developing countries where heavy metals are extracted (often dangerously) and the rest put into growing landfills in those countries.)
We’ve reached a strange point in our cultural existence, where the only real differences between the commodities we buy and the packaging it comes in is the function and the length of the intervening period of usefulness. It’s not materialism anymore—we’re into a kind of immaterialism that depends on having physical objects to discard in order to disguise the fact that what we get out of all of these products are things that we could easily get without them.
Want fresher food? Make it. Want instant contact with friends and family? Live with them. Technology-driven commodities aren’t solutions to the problem that contemporary Western ways of life alienate us from each other and from the Earth. They’re coping strategies. That some people are making tons of money off of.
In a weird way, the solution to many of our current environmental problems is not to value the things around us less, but to value them more. If we made each item around us worth something, whether it was a nine-year-old computer or a plastic twist tie, we would go through fewer of them. We would consume less and repair and reuse more. We would use our manufacturing resources and energy more selectively. If we’re not prepared to do that, maybe we should just make the items we have specifically designed to go into the trash biodegradable. That doesn’t sound crazy.
Read more on this topic in CULTIVATING VOLUNTARY SIMPLICITY: How to live a simple life>>