In an episode of CSI Nevada, The House of Hoarders, a conversation between Nick Stokes and Dr. Raymond Langston stuck to me. Explaining the nature of compulsive hoarding, Dr. Langston said:
“The philosopher Erich Fromm, he forecast a society that was obsessed with possessions. He believed that human beings had two basic orientations: having and being. A person with a having orientation seeks to acquire and possess things, property, even people. But a person with a being orientation focuses on the experience. They derive meaning from exchanging, engaging and sharing with other people. Unfortunately, Fromm also predicted that a culture driven by commercialism, like the one we live in today, is doomed to the having orientation, which leads to dissatisfaction and emptiness. When you consider that, in 1960, there was no such thing as public storage in America. Today there’s over two billion square feet dedicated to it, makes you think he had a point. Things don’t have to mean everything, nor do they have to be devoid of meaning. They are one of the ways in which we can experience and enjoy life.”
The insight was very special to me as I derive an unprecedented happiness from my collection of books. Now, hoarding is something I am not willing to refer to my case. I started collecting books 5 years ago, partly as a behavioral response to my love of the written word, and partly to prove that I was indeed majoring in English and Literature. Books – lots of it – are a material corollary when you are a Language major. Everyone expects that you basked your way to language school through a print-rich environment. My closets are bursting full with books and my clothes have been relegated to some less privileged container. Less privileged means prone to invasion of roaches and tics or easily reached by floodwater.
I have 500 books. Those are exclusively mine. I’m a fascist in terms of book ownership at home so I subject my scrolls to vigorous accounting. Over the years, my younger brother and older sister have gathered, though not voraciously as I do, their own books, and my father who loves to read too, would bring home his own share of them. But their books have no bulwarks, so they’re cluttered around the house. Probably in some imperceptible corners. All in all, we own more or less 800 books.
The problem is we live in a small house.
Many times, I tried to let go some of my books. I knew I couldn’t muster yet another bout of courage and intellectual firepower to browse through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Umberto Eco’s Kant and the Platypus, and James Joyce’s unreadable novel- Finnegan’s Wake. Nor could I extend a fair amount of fortitude to once more bury my nose into Fault in our Stars, Fifty Shades of Grey, or the Twilight Saga. But somehow, I approach the task of letting them go with reluctance.
The buying decisions I make about books were almost always snap judgments, but for some reason, selling, donating, or disposing of them were a long and arduous process, marked by denial, bargaining, and eventually, acceptance (oops! Aren’t these the stages of death?).
The Outlier Economics of Collecting (Read: Hoarding)
The phenomenon of collecting stuff as a hobby transcends the concept of “utility”. Utility is the perceived ability of something to satisfy needs or wants. In economics, we assign “utils” to a product, service, or any commodity. Utils are usually affixed with an arbitrary number. If you love French fries more than hamburgers, you assign more utils to fries than burgers, say 100 utils for fries and 50 utils for burgers. Translated into reality, these numbers say one, two, or all of the following:
A. You love French fries twice as much as a burger.
B. You’d choose an order of French fries over two burgers
C. The equivalent satisfaction you get from a French fries can be compensated by two burgers.
In effect, whenever you buy a product or avail of a service, the result was based on a mental math computation of the utils you assign to the commodities beforehand. This happens when you choose from the menu at McDonald’s or when you choose the right package for your next holiday trip.
Going back, let’s focus on your favorite French fries. This time we’ll put it into context. Because you really love French fries, you’re likely to want another helping (that, if money were not the case and you could order all you want). And this second serving of fries deserves a numerical value in utils, say 80 utils. Note that it’s 20 utils less than the first serving, simply because it’s intuitive to assign a larger number of utils (or amount of satisfaction) to the first order of fries. If you keep on ordering several more French fries, with utils decreasing per orders, you will reach the point when the 6th serving yields 0 or a negative util. You hit the point of satiation. You no longer want another order of fries.
This is not how the economics of collecting works. When you’re a collector, more is always better. Although my hoarding tendencies are very measured and don’t border on being pathological (and it’s only exercised for books), it’s easy to notice the sly effect of consumerism in my hobby. I’m sure this is not a situation unique to me. Whether you’re a techno geek who buys the latest gizmos in the market or a stay-at-home mom who buys that nice cutlery set to display at her kitchen, we’re all bitten by the “consumerist bug”.
The Black Friday Hysteria: The Consumerist Venom Spreads
Tomorrow is Black Friday. And what better day to conscientiously splurge on things you don’t need than this day when urban America becomes that scene in World War Z where the zombies, drawn to the blaring music inside the city, piled themselves against the high-walled Jerusalem, creating a mound of bloodthirsty, flesh-devouring creatures that allowed them to jump to from outside in.
A snippet of its history though, “Black Friday” used to be reminiscent of a disastrous event on September 24, 1869, when gold speculators attempted to corner the gold market. Unfortunately, the crackdown attempt flopped, thereby causing the US stock market to plummet.Originally, ‘black’ is used to refer to any day that drastically affects the behavior of the financial market: The Great Depression- for example- started on a Black Tuesday in October 1929. Meanwhile, the most noteworthy one-day drop in US stock market history happened on a Black Monday in October 1987, when the stocks of Dow Jones Industrial Average fell precipitously by more than 20%.
With the turn of the post-modern era, Black Friday has carried an entirely different label. To the brick-and-mortar retail owners, it’s the day that gets them enough sales that will put them “in the black”- an accounting cliché that pertains to the act of auditing losses in red and profits in black. On the other hand, for the millions of American consumers, Black Friday is when the best shopping deals and heavy discounts are availed of at bottom rock prices, usually occurring a day after Thanksgiving.
For consumers like us, this is one of the days that we look forward to every year. That latest iPhone you’ve been eyeing; the one that sells at a stratospherically high cost? You can buy it at half its current price. Or how about that sleek high-definition TV you so wanted to watch last night’s NFL games on? You can get a generous discount for it at Staples and Costco, among many others. It’s easy to spend money on such tempting days like Black Friday, Cyber Monday or on any holiday.
A pop culture event like this promotes the twin ideology of commercialism and consumerism.
Less is More – The Green Living Mantra
Consumerism is almost conflated with the idea of over-consumption. But this is more like cause and effect. Over-consumption is a state where resources are depleted, thus impeding the ecosystem’s capacity to sustain the resource bases.
Because the modern world promises to provide better quality of life – smartphones, Wi-Fi, sleek sports cars, cheap and tasty fast food, and wider-estate condo units – it sends the wrong message to people that having these is what is normal. What’s worse is it may convey the message that if you want to secure a comfortable life, you need to have many or consume a lot of the above.
Of course, these things weren’t normal in the past. In our evolutionary history, we were hunt-gatherers who subsisted pretty well in caves and in eating kills for that day. And because hunting put lives at risk and required able-bodied men to kill say a deer or a wild boar, meat was almost a luxury to them. Humans are wired to pack on as much meat, fat, and sugar as they can.
Fast forward today, this primitive need (craving for rare food) is actualized through supernormal stimuli like burgers for lean meat, sweet beverages like coke or smoothies satisfy our desire for sugar, that thousands of years ago, we used to satisfy by eating fruits. In the same way, a bigger house is our milder and modern adaptation for the need to acquire and mark territories. People today carry over these primeval needs and hijack them into novel forms.
They see that the fruits of overconsumption can serve as convenient status symbols. Now that the population has greatly increased, more needs demand to be met. The planet’s ability to provide food, energy, raw materials, clean water and air is outpaced. We become short in supply and prices of basic commodities will shoot up.
It starts with reshaping the industries and sending the clear message that we are smart consumers who make smart buying decisions. If we want to take the first steps to green living, we should be able to identify the few things that make our life decently comfortable.
Some people embrace green living by anchoring sustainability principles in the field of their interest; fashion experts who forward the eco-fashion movement, architects who accept projects that aim to renovate and preserve historic sites, beauty experts who only recommend safe and organic cosmetics, wedding planners who create eco-friendly weddings, teachers who impart environmental lessons to the students, sculptors who use recycled materials for junk art, entrepreneurs who sell personalized creative arts and crafts, mothers who grow their own organic food in the backyard, fathers who advocate the minimalist lifestyle, green energy experts who influence transportation industries to switch to solar and electric. These are the people who choose to change the world in things they’re best at. At eCycle Best, we honor these people in a specific section in our blog called “Green Guardians”.
But these wonderful people should not hedge the important point that even if we are just ordinary people, even with no special interests to pursue, we definitely are all consumers. And we can make the decision to ourselves to be wise in our consumption of our resources -for us, for the planet, and for the generations to come.