Overconsumption (Overism) and pursuit of a simpler, happier life
There was a PBS series back in the 1990s called Affluenza. The program called attention to an epidemic plaguing Americans: overconsumption, excessive buying, and the resulting stress and anxiety of environmental decay (let’s call this overism for short). If you need a refresher (and a good chuckle), watch this one-minute video Escape from Affluenza.
Escape from Affluenza recommended 100 ways to simplify your life by reducing waste and clutter, saving money, conserving home energy, and many others you may have tried in the last 10 years. There was even a crash course called: 10 steps to a simpler life. I ignored the one about choosing not to have children (too late and I wouldn’t trade them in for anything) and focused on these:
- Live by the wartime slogan: “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.”
- Try consuming less of everything by half (shampoo, detergent, toothpaste, etc.).
- Reuse or never buy things like paper towels, freezer bags, etc.
- Sell your TV and use your free time for “frugal endeavors” (like making a Facebook page for your cat).
- Share your resources and results with others you care about.
During the 1990s, and the decade leading up to the PBS Affluenza series, there was a growing movement called “voluntary simplicity.” Americans were questioning patterns leading to overconsumption (such as keeping up with the Joneses) while choosing to buy less and finding ways to share resources. There’s a blog called The Simplicity Collective informing us that voluntary simplicity is not about being in poverty. It’s about shifting our relationship with money and material possessions, and learning that abundance is a state of mind.
Overconsumption Equals Too Much Stuff
Fast-forward to when a short animated video called The Story of Stuff circulated (about 2007) and became a hit with some 10 million views. The 20-minute video was about Americans obsession with stuff leading to overconsumption, and how planned obsolescence is killing the planet.
With only 5 percent of the world’s population, Americans are consuming about 30 percent of the world’s resources, and creating 30 percent of the world’s waste. If everyone around the world consumed at the U.S. rate of consumption we’d need 3 to 5 planets to keep up.
The Story of Stuff promotes the idea of buying less and having more appreciation for what we buy. Buying less would not only reduce environmental impacts, but would give us more time to spend with family and friends.
Over the past few years the Story of Stuff Project has produced several new short videos looking at ways to improve our unsustainable ways of living, and suggesting ideas for avoiding overconsumption. For example, Story of Solutions suggests changing the goals of the old game. Instead of focusing on more, focus on better. This can be achieved through local solutions, citizen campaigns, cooperatives, and other sustainable approaches such as “collaborative consumption.”
Digging a little deeper into the nature of overconsumption, I found this UCTV Prime series featuring a show called A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance. A group of UCLA anthropologists documented (on camera and later into a book) the cluttered lives of 32 middle-class, double-earning families. The series highlighted living areas, bedrooms, closets, kitchens, and garages overflowing with stuff, and the resulting stress of dealing with it all.
Beyond Overconsumption to a Happier Life
Is anyone taking these ideas – from Affluenza, Story of Stuff, overconsumption and voluntary simplicity – to heart?
I discovered becomingminimilist.com. It’s a blog in response to one family’s experience with simplifying their lives by reducing clutter and unnecessary possessions. In weekly postings (and a couple books) dating back to May 2008, Joshua Becker describes how to live a simpler, happier life with less stuff and less stress.
Most of the blogs are short practical steps based on common sense. I found an eye-opening post – 21 Surprising Statistics That Reveal How Much Stuff We Actually Own – with some disturbing statistics. The average American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years, and contains more than 300,000 items. Our homes contain more TVs than people, and we consume twice as many material goods as we did 50 years ago.
In another blog, 10 reasons to Escape Excessive Consumerism, Becker reminds us about stressors we could do without such as debt and wasted time spent taking care of possessions. Without all that stress we could have more contentment in our lives. We would then begin to experience generosity and learn that this world is not just about consuming material goods.
In this blog I was delighted to see mention of a book written in 1899 called The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen. I have a well-used copy with tattered pages on my bookshelf used once upon a time to write a report. Veblen coined phrases such as “conspicuous consumption” and “pecuniary emulation,” highlighting ludicrous behavior of the leisure class who were displaying their great wealth through lavish spending. It’s fascinating to think that we are plagued with some of the same issues today.
If you’re looking for ways to free yourself from overconsumption in your life and home (and getting beyond overism), I recommend reading through some of these blogs, revisiting The Story of Stuff and Escape from Affluenza. I was inspired with ideas to find alternatives to buying unnecessary stuff and reduce my own pile of stuff by researching and writing this essay. If you’ve already figured out how to simplify your life, please share your tips in the comments with the rest of us!
Author: Kathryn Thomsen
Founder of Hundredgivers, a nonprofit supporting and accelerating sustainability initiatives benefiting local and global communities. Kathryn is a social entrepreneur, consultant, researcher, writer and urban farmer. She collaborates with individuals, organizations, and businesses to develop climate change solutions, clean energy, and sustainability strategies and programs.