Consuming experiences, not stuff, is still consumerism

I went to an interesting talk at the RSA today by James Wallman who has just published a book called ‘Stuffocation’. His basic argument was that in the society of scarcity of around a generation ago, what mattered in life was having more stuff – i.e. in a society of scarcity, materialism is not a dirty word.

But as we have moved into a society of plenty, materialism and ‘more stuff’ are no longer the answer to the question of ‘What will make us happy?’. So far, so good.

He goes on to suggest that, in our society of plenty, what we do is now more important than what we havein terms of its contribution to our happiness. He therefore advocates the idea of ‘experientialism’ – of seeking experiences rather than new stuff.

He made some interesting arguments but the trouble is he didn’t go far enough. He was careful to state that he didn’t want his ideas to be seen as anti-consumerist – but why not? The only way they would have any real value is if they wereanti-consumerist. Otherwise, he is simply shifting the problem of consumption from stuff to experiences. We’ll be on a treadmill seeking the next new experience and trying to find the money and lifestyles to enable these experiences to happen, and rather than enjoying our experiences our lives will become a list of experiences to try and tick off. It’ll be no different to our attitudes towards stuff today. And in fact we already have this attitude towards experiences! See the forthcoming Life Squared booklet ‘How to achieve less’ – out at the end of the year – for more details on this issue.

The problem we have in the modern world is about much more than having too much stuff and the fact that this doesn’t make us happy. The broader problem is the fact that our lives are focussed on acquiring this stuff and of chasing a particular vision of ‘the good life’ that seeks us to acquire more. The point is that we’re making too many sacrifices in terms of our personal identities, autonomy, stress levels and fulfilment in order to chase this pointless acquisition.

We live in a bubble in the modern world. We need to help people burst this bubble and live truly autonomous lives. That is the only way we’ll lead the fulfilled lives we really want – and sadly just changing our consumption from stuff to experiences won’t do this.

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