We buy stuff, we use stuff, we get tired of our stuff, we throw our stuff away and we buy more stuff in an endless cycle of consumption that never seems to satisfy. We engage in this repetitive behaviour that ultimately doesn’t give us what we are truly looking for, behaviour that has serious social and environmental consequences for the Earth, of which many of us are unaware. Can we live in a way where our true needs are fulfilled and our sense of purpose realized, with minimal impact?
We are all consumers. Our current way of life is set up so that we need to consume in order to survive. We have basic, primary needs that must be met, but how much stuff beyond this, do we really need? Our modern society seems to place more value on material wealth, possessions and excess consumption than on living simply, with care and respect for the Earth and for others. We are living in a way that is unsustainable. Our unquenchable thirst for more stuff is facilitated by damage to the environment and exploitation of indigenous communities.
The video The Story of Stuff explores the five main stages of a product’s life-cycle: Extraction – Production – Distribution – Consumption – Disposal, a system that works well in theory, but not so well in the real world, as well as the wider implications of our current patterns of consumption. An excellent book that discusses the origins, mechanisms and consequences of our consumer culture is Radical Homemakers. I also recommend The Light Bulb Conspiracy, a documentary on planned obsolescence.
It is difficult to acknowledge and accept that we all participate in this system, but we need to know exactly what we are dealing with before we can change our response to the way the world is currently constructed. Ultimately it is about changing ourselves, and in changing ourselves, we can change the world. We need to go back to basics. What do we really need to be happy?
Abraham Maslow identified the five levels of needs for human beings. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be illustrated conceptually as a pyramid, with our most primary needs at the base and our secondary needs at the apex. Essentially, our basic needs must be met before we have the desire or motivation to focus on our higher needs. Although the model suggests these needs must be met sequentially, these levels may, and can, be met simultaneously, or not necessarily in that order. I would like to use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a blueprint for a new way of living in the world where our most basic needs are met, we remove ourselves from the cycle of excess consumption, and we enjoy quality of life while taking care of others and the Earth.
The first two levels concern the physical self. Our most basic needs for survival are air, water, food, clothing and shelter. How do we fulfil these needs in a simple, ethical way with minimal impact on the Earth? By breathing clean air; drinking clean water; eating organic, unprocessed, locally produced food; wearing ethically produced clothing; and building small homes that run on renewable energies. Compare this with breathing dirty air and drinking unsafe water polluted by industrial waste; eating pesticide-laden, genetically modified, processed food; wearing clothing made in sweatshops in developing countries; and building large homes that use incredible amounts of energy and create large spaces we fill up with stuff we don’t really need.
The next level concerns our safety, including health and wellbeing, a need that takes care of itself if we take care of our bodies, as we may be less likely to develop disease, and require expensive medical care. We need fulfilling work opportunities and good financial health. Saving and staying out of debt is vital. We buy stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have and we make the banks wealthy by channelling our earnings into paying back credit card debt and interest repayments, depleting our current and future financial health.
The next two levels concern the emotional self. Our need for security is gained by our ability to form and maintain significant, healthy, intimate relationships and friendships, and the love, acceptance and belonging we feel as part of a family, social group and community. The next level is about our self-esteem, how we respect ourselves and others, and our desire to be valued by the significant people in our lives. The final level concerns the spiritual self, our ability to acknowledge and reach our full potential, to be the best we can, our sense of purpose and creative self-expression.
Is it okay to have ‘things’? Of course it is. We can have items in our lives purely for aesthetic pleasure or sentimental reasons, but why not have a few high quality items that are really special to us, instead of lots of cheap, mass-produced items that have no emotional value? I have a small collection of authentic hand-carved wooden Buddha statues from my travels in Asia, traditionally made by local artists. I will never replace them, because I will never tire of them. They will always bring me immense joy and remind me of significant moments in my life.
At the basic levels, we need food, clothing and shelter to survive. At higher levels, we need love, acceptance and a creative outlet for our emotional and spiritual health. We do not need ‘things’ to be happy! Imagine if we took care of our basic needs, and made some small changes in our lives, just by doing things differently, we could significantly ‘clean up’ much of the environmental damage, exploitation and depletion of resources that are by-products of our current way of life.
Instead of spending all our free time consuming, we could put our energy into developing and strengthening relationships, friendships and families; building strong communities; developing creative skills; mastering a craft; learning to play the piano; discovering sculpture or photography; or cooking healthy, hearty meals made with real food.