I like collecting things. Whenever I have to pay with cash, I have to spend a bit of time sorting through my quarters so I don’t give away a special one. I have a lot of plushies and regularly visit craft fairs to check out the weird and wonderful things there. And even in the digital world, I can get lost for hours trying to find that rare item for a complete collection. I enjoy having something semi-permanent; a relic of that moment in time, a symbol of an event, a person, a creature, or anything, really.
So how do I reconcile that with my socialist views? I’m an anti-consumerist for many reasons. One is that an obsession with material goods is a distraction from human and spiritual connections. You don’t have to be religious to know that we’re all going to die someday, and that big expensive house or state-of-the-art gadget will mean nothing when we do. The only traces we leave behind are memories. No one’s going to remember the stuff we accumulated, but everyone is going to remember what we did to them, whether good or ill.
There’s also the matter of how that stuff gets made. Yes, I’m aware that factories for cheap goods in developing countries exist because often, that’s the best option available, but there’s no excuse for the Rana Plaza disaster and similarly dreadful working conditions. I mean, so many of us whine about having to pay a dollar more, but if that dollar is compensated in human lives? It’s unfortunate that we as consumers are so disconnected from producers that many of us never see what’s truly going on, the hidden costs of our products that we ignore due to greed and the fast pace of modern living.
And the ecosystem is another casualty that doesn’t show up in the accounting ledger. It takes a lot of power to get people to buy the same thing 10 times or more, and with fossil fuels still being our dominant form of energy, that energy goes up into the atmosphere. We can talk renewables, but really, the dirty energy exists because we use so much of it. And then we declare our stuff junk, especially the loads of plastic used to package it, and it ends up going to the great trash heap in the Pacific Ocean. That’s not even going into the sheer amount of pollutants involved with the various stages of the production chain (transportation is a big one, from emissions to oil spill risks).
So yes, mindlessly buying stuff without consideration for where it comes from or where it is headed is bad, and it’s one of the biggest factors ruining our planet. So what about me? Am I a hypocrite for not embracing an ascetic lifestyle? Maybe, but I’d like to try to argue in my defense, regardless.
I don’t like seeing things go to waste. When I buy toys, or even a USB stick, I get attached to them. Like I said, part of the appeal of collecting is the idea that it will last indefinitely; over time, you have a personal history with the object. As animistic as it sounds, you end up giving the item a soul of its own (that’s why Toy Story and Wreck-It Ralph are things, after all).
And that’s the more important part, to me, items with character. A work of art says something about the person who made it. They put a piece of their soul into that painting or artifact, capturing inspiration from nature, their interpersonal relations, or other aspects of their lives. I’m not satisfied with just passively consuming; I want to know what goes on behind the curtain, and I too am compelled to participate in the creative process whenever possible. For example, a felt snowman kit allows me to feel part of the satisfaction the original creator had in making the toy. So I do feel a personal connection when buying from a person or family running a small businesses or vendor rather than a faceless corporation. I don’t care about the monetary value of such things; that becomes irrelevant months or years down the line. The memories are where the true value lies. And by learning how things are made, we too can create memories; even cheap-looking creations can be masterpieces to those close to you because it’s your soul put into them, not someone else’s, and certainly not a faceless brand name.
So I’d like to think that sparing purchases of items meant to last a lifetime is distinct from buying things just to have it replaced the next year. But that’s not for me to decide. Regardless, the fewer things you have, the more valuable each of them becomes, so that’s one more of many reasons to maaaaybe scale it down. I mean, if your current phone works, why toss it?