Sunday August 20, 2017

How did we become so obsessed with stuff?

In his book, "Empire of Things", historian Frank Trentmann looks back over six centuries to explore how consumerism first began, how it has ebbed and flowed with the times, and how our possessions have come to define our "material selves."

In his book, "Empire of Things", historian Frank Trentmann looks back over six centuries to explore how consumerism first began, how it has ebbed and flowed with the times, and how our possessions have come to define our "material selves." (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

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"Reduce, reuse and recycle" is a kind of mantra in our modern, developed world — a world that appears to be drowning in stuff.

But no matter how much de-cluttering we do, how many carbon offset credits we buy to ease the guilt of flying, or how often we spare the world more plastic by carrying our water in a reusable bottle, few of us have really embraced a "less is more" way of life.

In the world's richest nations, the average person consumes more than 200 pounds of stuff every day. 

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Socially conscious products like fair trade coffee might make us feel enlightened, but are still things we consume. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In fact, consumerism is so imprinted on our DNA, that even the products that make us feel enlightened — bamboo clothing, fair trade organic coffee, recycled toilet paper, hybrid cars — are still things we consume.

The acquisition, flow and use of things is the throbbing heart of our economy and a defining feature of our lives — but not always to our benefit, according to historian Frank Trentmann.

In his book, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First, Trentmann looks back over six centuries at how changing times inform our attitude to wanting and needing things.

The origin of consumption

He tells The Sunday Edition's guest host David Gray that the Latin word "consumera" means to use something up. For instance, in wasting diseases like tuberculosis, the body is "consumed" by the illness, and tuberculosis itself became known as "consumption."

In a religious context, "consumare" refers to the death of Christ, whose last words when He was dying on the Cross were, "Consumatum est" — "It is accomplished, it is completed."

However, in the 17th and 18th centuries, consuming came to be viewed in a different light. 

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The acquisition, flow and use of things is the throbbing heart of our economy and a defining feature of our lives — but not always to our benefit. (Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters)

In 1776, the great economist Adam Smith in his treatise, The Wealth of Nations, called consumption the "sole end of production." And the 19th century intellectual William James, brother of novelist Henry James, first described a "material self" as comprising the sum total of all that people can call theirs — their body, family, reputation and their chattels.

Therefore, says Trentmann, the loss of precious objects through fire or burglary makes a person feel like they have lost part of their personality.

"You can see it both amongst more affluent consumers, but you can see it also in the psychological difficulties people [have] ... who enter into prison or who have things taken away in old age," he says.

'With some people consumerism is excessive and is pathological ... but we have to step back a bit and be realistic.' - Frank Trentmann

Trentmann adds that consuming is not just an empty pursuit of more stuff. It can serve a practical purpose. We acquire objects for useful reasons, like buying snowshoes in a northern country.

What are the consequences of consumerism?

But, when asked what the relentless acquisition of things is doing to our society and environment — described by some as "affluenza" — Trentmann bridles: "With some people consumerism is excessive and is pathological ... but we have to step back a bit and be realistic."

He argues that the large bulk of consumption is not for luxury handbags or rare cigars, but rather for ordinary stuff, like home and kitchen appliances, which use up additional resources like water, heat and electricity. 

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Historian Frank Trentmann argues that the large bulk of consumption is not for luxury handbags or rare cigars, but rather for ordinary stuff, like home and kitchen appliances. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

"That's where the bulk of the resources are consumed and that's where the big damage is done to the environment," he explains.

While Trentmann believes that the role of historians is to describe what happened in the past, he says writing this book has given him pause to reflect on his own lifestyle. 

'It's misguided to demonize consumption as just bad or excessive.' - Frank Trentmann

"It also made me reflect about certain basic assumptions you grow up with, and see connections that one hadn't seen before," he explains.

Trentmann says that though it's important to be aware of the consequences of consumption, one must acknowledge the positive aspects too.

"It's misguided to demonize consumption as just bad or excessive," says Trentmann.

"We have to recognize consumption and goods are part of people's material selves."

Click 'Listen' above to listen to the full interview.