Sustainable Book Club: Stuffocation

I recently joined Sustainable Book Club, run by Zoe Morrison of one of my favourite blogs, EcoThriftyLiving. We have just read and discussed Stuffocation by James Wallman.

Stuffocation is about the idea that materialism and our materialist culture is bad for our health and wellbeing, our society and the environment and suggests that the way forward is ‘experientialism’ – a way of living and creating a social order based on what we do, not what we have.

I loved parts of the book, but others I found frustrating in equal measure. The chapter ‘The Original Mad Men and the job of Creating Desire’ was a fascinating interpretation of history looking at the decision of advertisers and manufacturers moving towards trying to guide people into a lifestyle of wanting more, rather than making the decision to manufacture less. I found myself imagining a life where we had moved to a society with less stuff and more leisure time, and felt really rather sad at where we have ended up instead!

Some of the other parts of the book grated on me a little. In the chapter ‘Facebook Changed How We Keep Up with the Joneses’, Wallman says

“Many experiences, of course, require material goods and create a footprint. Consider the carbon footprint of an experiential purchase like a holiday to Borneo, for instance. But since experiences are, by definition, less predicated on material possessions they are likely, overall, to create less environmental harm.”

A quick of back-of-the-envelope-calculation, along with a little help from the internet, shows a long haul flight return flight from the UK to Borneo (according to this online carbon calculator) would appear to be over 5 tonnes of CO2, so I can’t help find this claim a little far-fetched. To put this in content, CarbonCalculator.co.uk says that an average yearly footprint for a person is 10 tonnes. I therefore find it hard to believe that this sort of experience can be seen as a more environmental choice than stuff. That’s not to say that there aren’t many wonderful, life-affirming benefits to travel, but I can’t get on board with the idea that long distance air travel is a way to be more eco-friendly.

Of course there can be loads of environmental benefits to having less stuff, and choosing experiences over possessions. However, the experiences given in the book often seemed to veer towards the glitzy, high-expense, non-environmentally conscious type.

The thing I found saddest about the book was that it wasn’t necessarily trying to get us to choose more low-carbon, low-impact, gentler choices as a choice in itself. It seemed to me more to be saying “Hey, you can still show off, and have more than others, and make sure people know about it, but you can do this by doing stuff rather than having stuff!” But perhaps that wasn’t the point of the book – it’s very easy to argue that trying to guilt people into making ‘better’ choices is not the best way forward. Perhaps trying to sell it as a better, shinier, more exciting lifestyle (which just happens to place less stress on the earth’s resources) is the way to try and capture the zeitgeist.

Essentially, maybe the problem is that I’m a rather grumpy environmentalist, and that’s not who the book is targeted at!

All that said, it was a very readable book, and certainly got me decluttering further. It also introduced me to the concept of the ‘medium chill’, which is right up my street, and has defined what it is I’m looking for as a lifestyle.

We had a wonderful discussion about the book last night via the Sustainable Book Club on Facebook (see EcoThriftyLiving for details!), and it was great to see what everyone else thought about it – chatting to the lovely people there was definitely inspiring. So, for the interesting history, backstories and the thought-provoking discussion it created, I guess I would recommend it. Just think twice before booking a long-haul flight straight away and see what wonderful places you can experience closer to home 🙂

If you’d like to join our decluttering Pinterest board, inspired by the book group, please click on the link and send me a message through Pinterest to join.

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2 thoughts on “Sustainable Book Club: Stuffocation

    1. Yes, I agreed with him on the silliness of people boasting about exactly how many (or how few, rather!) items they have! A clear surface and a full rubbish bin are not going to solve anything.

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