05/19/2009 01:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Story of Stuff

I spent a day last week at a massive event: the Brimfield Antique Show in Brimfield Massachusetts. Five days in May, then again in July, the show is a wonderland, a living history of household goods brought in by some 6,000 dealers and spread over 75 acres of open fields in row after row of event tents broken only by the occasional restaurant trailer selling grilled sausages or lemonade or coffee. Every kind of item you can imagine was there, from railroad handcarts to 1960s eyeglass frames.

I loved it all. The industrial design, the craftsmanship, what each item said about its time and its intended consumers. I lingered over an electric juicemaker from the 1940s that looked like one my parents had owned. I spent $10 on coffee cups that had originally been used on railroad dining cars. But mostly I wandered and looked and listened to collectors, people who had become fascinated by one kind of product or another and turned themselves into experts in the most arcane tangents of industrial history.

By mid afternoon, though, the larger fact of everything I was looking at began to sink in: These items weren't going anywhere. Manufactured 20, 50, 100 years ago, they were still here, mostly functional, intact, and most of all, material. Each item had already made its contribution to global climate change and was here to tell the tale. Collectively, they represented millions of watts of embodied energy, untold pounds of greenhouse gas expenditure, and raw materials of every kind, pulled one way or another from the earth and fashioned into furniture, glassware, jewelry, items necessary and frivolous, owned and used and cherished or simply stored in a drawer or closet from the day it was acquired.

It's astonishing to think about the scale of human industry, how much stuff we make every minute of every day, how excited we are about acquiring more, newer bigger, better. If there is a universal human quality, it may be the appeal of acquisition. We live for it, our economy depends on it, human society is largely built on it.

I tend to be an optimist about global climate change. I like to think that we've woken up to it, and that the next generation will look back from a cleaner, healthier planet and wonder how their forebears could have been so wasteful and destructive. But Brimfield made me stop and think. Here in my 8 x 12 foot office there are literally thousands of manufactured items. And it's all here to stay.