Our Obsession with Stuff

Pile of StuffWhile job-searching, something I get to do a lot now that I'm a senior, I came across the website of The Center for a New American Dream, which is an organization dedicated to fighting consumerism. They recently sponsored an essay contest titled "What I want that money can't buy." Their slogan is "more fun, less stuff." I couldn't agree more. I've had the following conversation with my friends a few times:

Me: That's interesting/cool/pretty
My friend: Why don't you buy it?
Me: I don't need it/I'd never wear it.

Such a conversation is usually followed by an odd look from the friend. I have my 13-digit library card number memorized, but I don't have my 16-digit credit card number memorized.

I saw a cartoon lampooning excessive consumerism, (which actually accompanied an article Id written) captioned "more shiny new stuff!" Indeed, we are a society concerned, if not obsessed, with More Stuff. Unfortunately for the environment, more stuff making its way through the consumer loop means more waste, and heavier exploitation of natural resources. Todays top-of-the-line technology will be outdated within a few years. Every year, it seems, heres a new, more advanced computer chip, a new version of Microsoft Windows, and more advanced cellular phones. If you want to stay on top, you need to keep buying the latest top-of-the-line equipment. To impress people, you need to have the latest cool item. Every year, also, a new fad seems to crop up. The toy, whatever it is, flies off the shelves faster than stores can stock it. Then the fad fades, and that furby, beanie baby, or Tickle-Me-Elmo is left gathering dust on the shelf while kids demand a Sony Playstation or a Sega Dreamcast.

"If you dont buy stuff you dont need, youre saving money and sending less material through the consumer loop."
My high school physics teacher was fond of complaining that automakers have the technology to build longer-lasting cars, but they dont use it. He would rant about how they want the public to go out and buy new cars much more often, just to keep the money flowing into the automobile industry. Its all about money. Its a mindset about money. Believe it or not, fighting consumerism can help save money, in addition to helping the environment.

Energy efficient appliances may cost more up front, but they will pay for themselves with energy saved in the long run. Reducing and reusing, the lesser-known components of the three Rs, are good environmentally friendly cost-cutting guidelines. A reusable canvas grocery bag, for instance. Bring it to the supermarket, and save a plastic or paper bag. Some stores will even give small discounts to customers who bring their own reusable bags. Ziploc bags, bottles, and many types of commercial food containers can be washed out and reused. Reducing is simple: if you dont buy stuff you dont need, youre saving money and sending less material through the consumer loop. Two simple things you can do to save water and cut down on your water bill: use a low-pressure setting, and dont leave the sink on while you brush your teeth. To save on your energy bill, wear more clothing layers instead of blasting the heat.

I saw a commercial once for a certain product. The incentive ran something like "This man and his son dont spend much time together any more," along with a shot of the boy engaging in an activity on his own. The pitch continued, "use our product and your family, like this family, (shot of the boy and his father using the product together) can spend more quality time together." Sounds great, right? Not so. The product advertised was a satellite TV service. Before going in to watch the new TV channels, the boy had been practicing basketball in the driveway. Now which activity seems healthier, getting some exercise or sitting on a couch watching TV? This ad is trying to tell you, the consumer, that you need to spend money on something that it purports to be a healthy activity, but is, in fact, not. In short, they want you to buy their product. They want you to spend more money on more stuff.

Julia Olszewski is a senior at Brandeis University and a 2000 Environmental Journalism Academy graduate. She can be contacted at juliao@brandeis.edu.

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