We have come to a point of excess in America where serious people make serious money running businesses that help us get rid of our excess. Just Google “clutterbusters” to see what I mean. We pay people to help us throw out the stuff we don’t need and never should have wasted money on in the first place.
But is excess and its inherent waste inevitable and eternal in a modern, wealthy society? James Wallman argues in Stuffocation that it’s just a phase, one we’re about to mature out of.
Stuffocation is at its heart a manifesto, and those can be exciting while still being dull. Stuffocation is a little bit of both. It begins with an interesting idea — that our stuff is suffocating us, making us depressed and anxious instead of happy, however hard we work to make the money to buy it. Then he builds to a slightly radical theory — that as our society matures we will cast aside our materialism in favor of experientialist ways. Wallman believes that experiences are the new markers of the elite and that the preference for experiences over the latest watch/car/couch/kitchen counter will filter down through all of society.
This thesis has interesting and important implications for some of our modern day problems, though Wallman can tend to overreach when he describes them. A shift in focus away from acquisition could have important effects on climate change and the environmental problems caused by our throw-away society. Fewer Barbies might not just be good for the growing minds and body images of 6-year-old girls, it might be good for the planet those 6-year-olds will inherit as adults. That’s an exciting idea — a world with less waste and more fun trips climbing mountains or traveling the world.
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Unfortunately, Wallman doesn’t make our trip with him exciting. Much of the book is plodding and academic in its approach to a conclusion that feels foretold by the time he unveils it. Stuffocation is well-researched, informed by academic research and by in-depth interviews with people who have rejected a culture of conspicuous consumption. There are the people who have downsized to the point that they boast about how few belongings they have. The measure of stature within this group is their number — having 33 things is a great, 100 less great, and a few thousand, as Wallman notes most of us have, is bad. These folks fetishize minimalism, and Wallman recognizes that few of us will want to live like them.
So he moves on to a case study of a family who decides to ditch everything and farm while raising their children “cage free.” They’re an interesting family, and they don’t actually make it as modern-day subsistence farmers and have to return to the world of stuff to make a living.
So how about the husband and wife in Seattle who just don’t want to bother with working more than they have to in order to provide the stuff they need? They seem to be happy, but Wallman acknowledges a culture of not bothering is not exactly a state to which we should aspire.
Suffocation also explores the history of consumption, the innovation of planned obsolescence and the fact that our economy relies on consumption to keep it humming along. Wallman has interesting insights but notes that some of his insights are clichéd, as when he describes the life of an MIT graduate who rejects the riches of Silicon Valley to run an outdoor adventure company.
“Cliff Hodges’s tale is a cliché,” Wallman writes. “But it is also a true story.”
That doesn’t make clichés any more inspiring. Wallman goes on to write that he chose to write about Hodges because “his story represents what many other experientialist innovators have been through: they have realized, for whatever reason, that they no longer believe in the system, that they are not motivated by materialistic values, and that they find the idea of experiences more meaningful and exciting.”
But are the stories of a few economic dropouts truly representatives of anything? Wallman spends a good bit of time explaining how his profession — futurist — is valid. He’s surely been asked before if he wasn’t more akin to a Tarot card reader than a serious businessman. And he has logical arguments for why the future can be predicted, sometimes, in some cases, given enough information.
What Stuffocation doesn’t make clear is if he has enough information to make his predictions. Is he predicting a future that is inevitable, one that involves a fundamental societal shift from a culture that confers status to the person who has the most and best stuff to a culture that values the person who has the coolest experiences? He doesn’t make the case convincingly. He makes it hopefully, and hopefully he’s right.
But for all the science of future predictions that he explains — and he devotes a lot of space to that — Stuffocation is unconvincing in its claim of inevitability. Takeaway: We might just be doomed to having too much stuff. Like Wallman, I hope that isn’t true, but his conclusions seem a bit utopian and a bit unrealistic.
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.