So, I was sitting on the porch of our cottage on the tidal marshes south of Savannah in the rain on Sunday, painting our raggedy-ass white porch swing a deep, beautiful shade of green and listening to NPR to pass the time. I painted through a program about physics and time travel (surprisingly compelling!), I listened to an interview with the screenwriters of The Ides of March (best movie I’ve seen in months!) … and then came a story about Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing The Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health — and A Vision for Change. She was pretty cool and concise, not at all a flaming guilt-inducer or super buzz-kill artist, and I found myself nodding my head in agreement with a lot of what she said. Until I realized that not only clearly and indisputably is there a problem, but that I am the problem.
Yes, folks — me, the budding philanthropist, maniacal recycler, super-judgmental, bad-tempered, bleeding heart liberal, consciousness-raising, obnoxiously self-righteous, trying-to-be-a-do-gooder — I am the problem.
And it’s not the first time I’ve had this realization. My first epiphany, having moved to Atlanta and into this big house (that we get to/have to live in because it’s the university president’s domicile), was that in the course of filling this house with furniture (why? why??) I had somehow along the way accumulated FIVE full-length sofas.
At that uncomfortable point, my mind flung itself into the future – to the day after my funeral, when all my painstakingly collected stuff — my funky jewelry, crazy-quilt artwork, groovy clothes, Turkish rugs, and vast accumulations of crap — would all be out on the front lawn, being sold by my strangled-with-stuff heirs (Lulu) for a nickel. And rightfully so.
Not to mention the FIVE FUCKING SOFAS.
Seriously, who needs all this stuff? And why did we ever feel compelled to buy it?? It’s a pivotal question we need to ask ourselves, particularly as we start to look down the barrel of our own mortality and think of all the useless stuff we’re going to be embarrassing ourselves by leaving behind. I’m NOT trying to make us all feel guilty (Oh please, let’s not go there — particularly since I just bought the cutest new black handbag that is painfully close in resemblance to the chic black handbag I got last year that is still perfectly useful!)
No… I’m writing this not to wallow in guilt but to get some perspective. As my beautiful Colorado friend Michelle wrote, while directing me to a previously irresistible shopping website: “You no doubt have plenty of stuff and don’t need another thing. Does anyone??”
Now that’s an interesting question. Consider the latest statistics: the income of the middle class has declined 10% in the past 4 years. There are now 42.9 million people in this country living in poverty — and when you think about a family of four living on $22,350 a year, that’s almost inconceivable. How do they afford food? Why do I have five sofas and four people have less than $2,000 a month to live on? And does the ultimate health of our economy really depend on us all staying in an endless paroxysm of mindless acquisition of stuff?? (Now that’s one question that probably won’t come up in tonight’s GOP presidential debate.)
BUT .. I am going to Uganda in ten days, so I better get attenuated to this heart-wrenching disparity between the haves and the have-nots. I can’t do much to alter the perilous inequality of income in this country and the world, besides advocate for serious political change, but I can do a few things to make myself feel like I’m doing something.
Stop buying sofas, for instance. Sell the stupid cottage in Savannah that we bought furnished with a whole boatload of more stuff we don’t need. And as much as I love Steve Jobs, I think I can live without a new computer (even though my 2004 MacBook makes the “geniuses” at the Apple Store look at me as if I’m bringing in smallpox when I lug it into the store for repair). I can keep recycling because Leonard says that 40% of our landfill is still paper — and that is 100% preventable and ridiculous! And when everything — houses, bathtubs, sodas, burritos and our asses– are getting bigger, bigger, bigger, I can be a voice for simplifying my own life and for making my personal mountain of stuff a little smaller.
And of course, I can keep giving to people in need, and encourage others to join me.