Spencer Reed '14
Most of what surrounds us is unnecessary. We could meet our needs with nothing but a small shelter, a single set of clothing, and some food. Not many people would choose to live with so little; certainly, some would (and do), but they are the exception rather than the rule. To some degree, it is clear that our possessions can increase our happiness beyond the point at which they meet our basic needs. For instance, for the families living in Manyatta described by Simon Okelo in his article, “Growing Up in a Kenyan Slum Taught Me the Real Value of Stuff,” more possessions could improve their quality of life. Some luxuries would have a noticeable effect on their lives, because they appreciate what they have to a greater degree than do people living in societies of excess. As demonstrated both anecdotally by his experiences and in most happiness surveys of rich and poor countries, the relationship between wealth and happiness is not an indefinite prescription for all worldly woes.
I think there is a point of equilibrium between the opposite extremes of all-out consumerism and the simplicity forced by widespread poverty. However, I don’t believe that this balance is the same for all people. Instead, I think it should be the goal of each person to find their own compromise. This goal is more applicable for those lucky enough to have the ability to choose; while I may always simplify if I so choose, it is not generally possible for someone born into the opposite end of the global spectrum of wealth to simply choose a more materialistic life. I would not only like to find for myself a balance between simplicity and complexity, nature and produce, but to help make the freedom to have more but choose less more widely accessible.
Given that the possessions of my family that contribute directly to the satisfaction of our basic needs are, for lack of a better word, necessary, I would classify almost all of the remainder of what we have as either for entertainment or comfort. The former could easily be condensed, and the latter is often redundant. We could easily halve our stuff without even noticing a change in our quality of life. Simply put, we have more than we need, and so does our society. We are beyond the costs of our way of life being passed on as externalities; at this point, we have so much stuff that it is detrimental to our own happiness. I don’t just mean in costs to the environment or the workers who suffer for us, but that we have pushed our materialism well past any equilibrium until it consumes us and prevents us from being happy.
Change starts slowly. Simon Okelo learned to appreciate the real value of things, and so should we. Ideally, we might be able to reverse his process, spending extensive time in societies without our pervasive consumerism. Practically, sharing his revelation and the stories of others who have experienced similar shifts in perspective might be effective. Even if it’s not, change can begin with individuals. If you and I start to really appreciate our luxuries and choices, then will change the way we act; instead of being guided by the question of “Do I want this?” we should be guided by the question of “Do I need this?,” or, failing that, “Why do I want this?,” understanding that we can be just as happy or happier with less.
I doubt that we’ll ever be reductionist enough to choose to live with nothing but our most basic necessities. However, by being more conscious of our decisions and questioning both our decisions and our possessions, we can get closer to equilibrium. We may choose to keep some of the things we don’t need, but we should remember that we can live without it. Buying for the sole purpose of having is a vice of our society. We would all be better off if we rejected the idea that more is always better just because it’s more; as Edward Abbey said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”