Last week, my husband posted to Hacker News a link to my video about a guy who lives in a 96-square-foot home. It seems hackers like small houses. Within hours, a couple thousand of them had visited the video.
Their comments were different from the average green blog crowd. Besides the programmers' attention to detail -- someone pointed out the vodka bottle on top of tiny homeowner Jay Shafer's fridge and there was a long discussion about the books on his bookshelf -- they weren't afraid to question eco-orthodoxy.
"And what, exactly, is wrong with buying more?" wrote a software engineer from Minnesota, "why shouldn't people consume?" Growing up with a mother steeped in a tradition of New England frugality, this was never a question in our household.
It wasn't until my younger brother taught me the term "embodied energy" a few years ago did I make the connection between stuff and climate change. Finally getting that besides the natural resources used to make something, there are resources, energy and CO2 emissions embodied in the manufacture, use and disposal of every product we buy -- aka a products' carbon footprint -- I suddenly saw an environmental pricetag even on things like solar panels and electric cars.
Why shouldn't people consume? I don't think anyone would argue we should stop consuming, but we need to cut back, and quite radically. Our personal consumption in the U.S. is already in overdrive. It's now equal to 70% of our GDP (about double that of China and nearly a third more than that of Canada). If everyone in the world lived like the average North American we'd need 5 planets to support us (see One Planet Living).
Things didn't get this way purely by accident. Freud's nephew is partly to blame. I didn't make this connection until a couple of years ago I met a man named Bakari Kafele, who also happens to live in a tiny home (see video Living small: when home is a 150-square-foot RV).
What a scavenger taught me about our subconscious
Kafele discards of other people's junk for a living (see video Bio-diesel Hauling: scavenging the trash of overconsumption). As I watched him unload a truckful of someone else's garbage- books, shelves, speakers, purses, cardboard, paper, stuffed animals, etc.- and try to sort what could be reused or recycled, he explained that we don't really need all that we think we do.
"I've been doing this long enough that it doesn't surprise me how much the customers throw away. We produce a lot of stuff in this country. And a lot of it doesn't have that large an impact on quality of life. So you kind of have to wonder what's the point."
Kafele calls himself a scavenger and most of his possessions- his tv, dvd player, stereo system, furniture -- are things that his clients have disposed of. He knows other people's garbage: all that we buy hoping it will improve our lives and toss once we realize it's not making us any happier. Perhaps seeing so many discarded dreams has contributed to his philosophizing.
"After your basic needs are met getting more stuff doesn't make you any happier, but you still want more," he explained as he sorted through a bag of kids toys. "And a lot of it is actually by design that's why this country worse than most others. In the 1930s, after the Great Depression manufacturers were afraid that people might actually buy all the stuff they needed and stop buying more stuff and they hired Freud's nephew Edward Bernays and his new public relations company to set up advertising that linked buying stuff and consumerism to being happy and being cool instead of just to this stuff is useful."
Bernays has been called the "father of public relations". He not only brought his uncle Sigmund's books to America, but he brought his principles of psychoanalysis to the masses. "Bernays was among the first to understand that one of the implications of the subconscious mind was that it could be appealed to in order to sell products and ideas," explained The Guardian in a review of the BBC series Century of the Self. "You no longer had to offer people what they needed; by linking your brand with their deeper hopes and fears, you could persuade them to buy what they dreamt of."
When we started to change our stuff for the sake of change
Just when Bernays was teaching us to want what we didn't need, American manufacturers were learning a new design strategy to shorten the buying cycle. In 1954 when American industrial designer Brooks Stephens gave a talk to the local advertising club in Minneapolis, he entitled his speech "planned obsolescence" and quickly popularized the concept of "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary".
The idea that American manufacturers were designing things to fall apart so we'd keep buying was not a secret. There was a direct recognition by business of what they were doing. "We do not believe in planned obsolescence," announced Volkswagen in a 1959 advertising campaign. "We don't change a car for the sake of change."
Just as a massive reeducation of manufacturers helped them shape our shopping habits for the past half century, today, a reeducation of consumers is what might help us save us from ourselves, or from our subconscious.
How kids are studying stuff in school (except in Montana)
This time it's been more of a bottom up response. In 2007, a tiny little Internet film narrated by a former Greenpeace activist gained traction and soon became a "sleeper hit in classrooms across the nation". The Story of Stuff, written and voiced by Annie Leonard, helps explain "the underside of our production and consumption patterns" by looking at stuff "from its extraction through sale, use and disposal". Or as the New York Times reviewed it: "a cheerful but brutal assessment of how much Americans waste".
Seven million people have viewed it on the films' website alone and more than 7,000 schools, churches and others have ordered a dvd. In classrooms across the country, teachers are using it to supplement outdated textbooks for teaching about pollution.
The film has had its share of backlash. After a parent in Montana complained that the message was anticapitalist, a school board in Missoula County ruled that the video treads on academic freedom.
When Fox News' Glenn Beck began his own attack campaign, calling the video "unbelievably anti-capitalist, unbelievably wrong on just about every fact", he only helped generate more viewers of the film. "We appreciate the new viewers, Facebook friends, contributions and other support that Beck has generated for us," responded Annie and the Story of Stuff Project team.
Cutting consumption for a new American Dream
It seems that some are still trying to protect our right to overconsume under some sort of capitalist freedom clause. And then there are others, like that Michigan programmer who is trying to protect his quality of life.
"I enjoy having a large house, more vehicles than I really need and luxuries that would make a 19th century king envious," he explained. Though after a quick read of his blog, I'd say he sounds less interested in living like a 19th century king and more like a modern greenie. He devotes very little time to talk of his sportscar and writes mostly about his backyard chickens: their egg production, the LED lighting he's installing in the coop and the solar heater he has planned for them.
The environmental angle may be wasted on a hacker forum, but there is room here for anti-consumerism. "The problem with consumption is that it compromises your independence-," argued a coder from New York City, "that is, buying and maintaining stuff you don't need requires a steady stream of income, which makes it harder to leave a job you don't like or pursue goals like starting your own company or working on something you enjoy but doesn't pay much."
Maybe these guys have the right idea. I mean, maybe massive change will only come about when people realize their lives are better for making a change. A push for reducing consumption may mean greater freedom for all.
Perhaps Glenn Beck and the Missoula school board would respond better to a hacker argument. While a moral push to cut spending apparently stinks of anti-capitalism, isn't there something very American about liberating ourselves from work we hate, from advertisers, from our subconscious?
Related videos from faircompanies
* A tiny home tour: living in 96 square feet
* Thoreau's cabin redux: tiny homes and happiness
* Living small: when home is a 150-square-foot RV
* Scavenging the trash of overconsumption: Bio-diesel Hauling
* 1 man's musings on 1 planet living: meat for air travel
Follow Kirsten Dirksen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kirstendirksen