Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of…Stuff?

By Cheryl Mahoney

Stuff.  We all have it.  If, like me, you live in the United States, you probably have a lot of it–certainly compared to the rest of the world.  But how often do we think about where it comes from, or where it goes when we’re done with it?  If our stuff is all so integral to our lives, where it comes from and where it goes should be too.  If you’re willing to spend just twenty minutes thinking about this important question (and to learn a lot and be entertained at the same time), check out a cool video called The Story of Stuff.


Annie Leonard wondered where stuff came from, and then spent ten years finding out all about it.  One result is this video–with Annie narrating, it combines fun little cartoons, occasional bits of humor, and a lot of chilling facts.  What effect is our stuff having on our planet?  On the people in the developing world?  On ourselves, from the toxins and pollutants that result?  Did you know that 99% of that stuff we’re so ardently consuming ends up trashed within six months?  So what good is it doing anyone?  And even more, what harm is it doing?

I think part of the problem is cultural.  Thomas Jefferson enshrined certain inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  He was inspired in part by John Locke, who wrote about the rights of life, liberty and property.  That’s an interesting switch: from property to the pursuit of happiness.  In some ways, I think we’ve gotten those two mixed up, and the pursuit of happiness has become a pursuit of property.  Somehow, how much stuff we have is supposed to be a measure of how successful we are, and of how happy we’ll be.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my bookcase full of books (I have a  several hundred volume collection…) and my laptop and my big armchair.  But.  I also believe that we buy so many things that we don’t really need, that we don’t end up using, and that will just end up piling up in the backs of closets and the corners of rooms.  Pretty soon, it doesn’t help us pursue happiness–it’s actually weighing us down.  And how much of our time is spent trying to accumulate stuff?  Time we might have spent on something that would actually bring us happiness.  (This idea comes up around minute sixteen of Annie’s video, and is probably my favorite part.)  Henry David Thoreau wrote about “that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.”  We often don’t know how to use all the stuff we’ve piled up.  We might know how to get rid of it, but we’re getting rid of it in a way that’s detrimental to our planet.  And that’s much of the problem.

So what do we do?  That’s up to you, but here’s a few suggestions.  Find out what Annie has to say about the problem, and about the direction we need to go to find a solution.  Check out the resource page to find out how to help.  Stay tuned for when The Story of Stuff: The Book comes out next May.  And if you want to read Walden too, it comes with my recommendation.  As you might have guessed, it’s one volume included in my book collection.  But if you haven’t read it and aren’t sure you’ll love it and want to reread it and have it on hand to look up quotes, find it at a library first.  Because if you buy it and don’t love it, it will, ironically enough, just end up being more stuff.


4 thoughts on “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of…Stuff?

  1. Wonderful insights! You mention Jefferson and Locke, but your ideas are also very Franciscan, as in St. Francis of Assisi and his philosophy of life. The most important point you make is that stuff does not buy happiness and less may very well be more in our lives. Well done.

  2. Absolutely. Another part of the problem is that by now we are in a direly cyclical process, having built our economy around a consumer nation of purchasing and ownership. Americans buy bobbleheads, and little alarm clocks that dance and blow bubbles when they go off, or a combination pencil holder/ash tray/business card sorting Pezz dispenser.

    In order to break that cycle not only do we have to ween the public off of such trivial nonsense, but our economy can not depend on the buying, selling and marketing of non-essential filler. Reversing social norms is a tough task, but that should not keep us from taking the first step.

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