This site is dedicated to finding paths to happiness without new stuff. Why would you want to find these paths? The section below lists some reasons from my own research and experience.
This list focuses on the effects of new stuff on individuals. New stuff sucks for the planet, too, but I want to look at that separately. Though they’re not really separate. What’s damaging for an individual is usually harmful for the earth as well.
New stuff sucks because:
> It costs money. Think of what you had to do to earn it. Small amounts add up quickly. If you could cut your work hours, would you? Imagine not needing money, or needing very little, and still being happy. Mostof my life I’ve been able to work part time—not so I can sit around and watch TV, but so I can do the work I choose, instead of what the boss wants from me.
> It takes up space. How much shuffling things around will the new purchase mean? Is the storage locker trap about to ensnare you? Are your cord and outlet needs multiplying out of control?
When I first saw the heaps of black spaghetti my electronics were creating, I joked that I had a side job doing “cord management.” Then a friend said, “That’s not even original. If you go into that office supply store on Broadway you’ll see a whole display under a sign that says exactly that: Cord Management.” So the joke was on me. But actually, cord snarls are no joke. One day my toe got caught in a loop of my laptop cord, and I sent it flying across the room. The accident was fatal. To the device, not to me. This time.
> It demands your time. Hours of your life. Maybe you’ll have to spend time learning how to use the thing—maybe a lot of time. Maybe it will come with a thick manual in funny (but almost unreadable) English. With obvious warnings and tiny drawings. At the very least you’ll have to dust the thing.
> It often turns out to be not what you wanted once it’s home. It’s the wrong color or the wrong size or doesn’t do what you thought it would. Will you fight traffic again to return it, or just take the loss?
Food packaging, in particular, is designed to conceal, and also mislead, with idealized pictures and unreadable ingredients in miniscule type and all caps. Unless you have a keen understanding of “net weight,” you might not be able to determine the quantity of chips is in the bag; besides being opaque, the package has been pumped full of air and is too stiff to feel for contents.
Online orders can definitely come with surprises. I recently ordered a roll of common black electrical tape. It came in a round plastic box! No way was that called for. How could I not feel that this excessive plastic—made primarily of fossil-fuel chemicals—was being forced on me?
> It will break or wear out. Almost everything does—clothing, furniture, appliances, technology. Once a friend made a computer for me, gave it to me for nothing. It lasted 15 years. (It still worked for some things, but it just couldn’t handle the new complexities of the Internet.) Less than two years ago, I bought a brand new laptop, and paid close to $500 for it. It’s already dead—an internal failure, not my fault. And I’m supposed to accept this as routine?
Most new stuff, being made as cheaply as possible, will use plastic where plastic should never be—on nuts and bolts that quickly strip, on pieces that move or get left in heated cars, on critical appliance parts, on playground equipment that turns brown and brittle in the sun. We don’t hear about these breakages. According to an online presentation by a plastics company (Microsoft PowerPoint – Why Plastics Fail Norway 20.04.10 final.ppt (sintef.no), “[Plastic] product failure is rarely reported. No one wants their dirty washing aired in public.”
Ironically, you don’t want your new item to be indestructible, either: It will stay in the landfill or ocean forever. You want your things to consist of compostable materials, to return to the earth naturally, after a long, useful life.
> It will soon go out of style or become obsolete. In other words, it’ll be worthless! Some products are intentionally designed that way, so you’ll have to spend more money to replace them (and thereby enrich the company). Isn’t that mean? If a human being treated me like that, I wouldn’t go back for more abuse. But the world economy is set up so we almost have to return for more exploitation, because a relatively small number of corporations produce what we need. It’s hard to reject those companies as we would a person.
But it’s not all or nothing. I just try to do my best to “respond” to their manipulation with the boycotting tools I have (that is, targeted boycotts of particular companies—say, Nestlé or Monsanto).
> It can harm your health. You’ve probably seen the warning that indicates a product is “known by the state of California to cause cancer.” Too bad the other 49 states don’t require labels like that on their toxic products. “BPA-free” and similar cheerful labels are supposed to make us feel good—in this case, like something was done about the problem of poison chemicals in plastic—and we want to believe it. But the fact is, plastics have “sister chemicals” that are just as harmful as BPA—to your babies and to yourself. (And don’t get me started about all the other kinds of “greenwashing”!)
> It’s usually overpackaged. (Like the roll of tape I bought.) The packaging quickly overflows your wastebaskets and increases your trips out to the garbagecan. What’s more, these aggressively packaged items have become almost impossible to open. (There was a time, not long ago, when they weren’t.) This practice is not for the buyer’s benefit—stubborn packaging causes tens of thousands of injuries and even deaths every year. It’s been said that tough packages are necessary to prevent shoplifting, which is the only reason I’ve been able to find for the change, but I’m not sure that’s the whole story. If you have other information, please comment! (For that matter, comment on this list, too, or add to it.)
I once went to a garden party that struck me as unusually elegant and lovely. Why was this, I wondered? The house and property were modest; the host a working woman. Then I realized she had put out ceramic plates, glass glasses, metal utensils, and fabric napkins. Being accustomed to parties where trash piled up in stacks and cans, I felt like royalty that night. I felt cleaner and lighter. Does living with waste affect us subconsciously? I believe it does. I’ve also been to parties at the homes of wealthy people who put out cheap, disposable serving goods. These gatherings just felt a lot less classy than the big, beautiful houses implied they might be. Sure, cleanup for “classy” takes longer. However, you can always trade tasks with a friend, or listen to the radio or a podcast while you work, or just spend the time thinking about the friends who came and the party’s successes. (Or laugh at the failures.) Not enough “real” dishes for your crowd? Visit thrift stores. You could have fun creating, say, three stacks of plates that you mix-and-match beautifully to each other and to the cloth napkins. If a plate breaks—well, you’ll only be out a dollar or less.
> New stuff is already designed by someone else. There’s nothing about a ready-made product that says “you,” or expresses your unique identity, or engages your creativity. Target is fast and easy, at times maybe even appropriate, but a room full of Target is a recognizably Target room. The brick-and-board bookcases of my college-era apartment may have been ugly, but they at least hinted at the people who lived in the place—beginning adults without resources, who lived near an empty lot with overgrown junk. Who had recently gotten fired up about trying out something called “resin” from the hardware store on the planks that one of us filched from her dad’s workshop. Those bookshelves were honest. “Honest Tea” is just not as important as honest me. (Brew it. Avoid the bottle.) If we can’t honestly put ourselves “out there,” how can we like ourselves?
I regret the negativity of this list—talking about the ways that the new things you buy can be creatively stifling, income-draining, disappointing, unhealthy, time-stealing, and even dangerous. But I think this is necessary to come to the radically freeing flipside of buying new stuff and trying to squeeze happiness from it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when certain of my habits change—the ones I’ve identified as unhealthy—something much better moves into my life. It just does. I don’t know how to explain it, except to say…
As I write, I’m sitting here at a new computer, and it’s driving me crazy. The keyboard is different from my old one, and just hovering over it with my fingers makes the cursor move to random, faraway places. Sometimes my file shrinks down to two inches for some reason.
Right now my heart is feeling the excitement of writing, but it’s not being strengthened as it would be if I were out walking. It feels like my arse is spreading in this chair, where I’m barely moving. I missed the sunset and it’s dark out now, but electric light is coming from a lamp and emanating from the screen, going directly into my eyes. What I hear, though, is thunder, light raindrops and a toad. In this Sonoran desert town we’ve all been thirsty for falling water, because we didn’t have a rainy season last year—only one rain when there should have been at least twenty. People called it the Non-soon. It was similar to having Death Valley temperatures in Seattle, or no snow all winter in Minnesota.
I can’t sit here any longer. I have to see what’s happening out there. Excuse me, but I’m going out.
Okay, I’m back at the computer. I had a mild adventure. Leaving my dry room, I felt a heavy mist brushing my body, or maybe it was heavy enough to be called rainfall, I didn’t know. I would get wet. I listened for the direction of the toad’s call to locate him. (I knew it was a he because the females are silent) It didn’t surprise me that I found him in my little puddle of a pond where toads had shown up every year. Tonight, five toads sat in the pond, but only one little chap was croaking, sounding like a lamb baa-ing . He was also puffing out his throat into a white-marble sac and then withdrawing it, in an off-on rhythm of a few seconds. The whole while he stared at me with his gold-foil eyes and lens-shaped pupils. I stared back. Which of the other toads were just males not in the mood, and which were females? Would there be more mating tonight? Eggs in the morning? The last rain’s tadpoles had all been eaten by dragonfly larvae—every last one of, certainly, thousands. I’d tried different ways to save these tadpoles in the past—scooping them up with a net and putting them in a large container of clean water. But somehow the dragonfly nymphs always appeared like magic, small, but growing quickly on their abundant prey. Nature was magic. Nature was cruel. For sure, Nature was always presenting new mysteries. I smiled to myself in the dark, in the mist.
And then I had to laugh out loud, because these toads were cavorting in the silliest way, with their hind legs thrust out to the sides, and meeting each other with brief front-wiggles like ants communicating along a trail. Was it combat? Foreplay? I only knew I could stand and watch their joyous kickoffs and childlike glee till morning. But then I couldn’t, because suddenly, the winds rose and brought a downpour onto the landscape. I got soaked! I felt deliciously cold! The monsoons were not gone, after all. The rain felt like God saying, I’m still here. This was a bit problematic, since I don’t exactly believe in God, but isn’t the sky where “he” is supposed to be? Up there “bowling,” making thunder? Well, I didn’t have answers about anything, except that I knew that this clear visitation of water, or life as we’re starting to call it, was benevolent, and the world wasn’t at an end just yet. I was happier when I experienced God–Nature, the Creator, the Universe–as benevolent, so it made sense to think and live according to that idea as much as possible.
And now I need to finish this post. I was planning to explain how this story illustrates why life can get better and deeper when it goes beyond shopping for new stuff. But I think I’ll let you, the reader, find that sense in it. If you’ve read this far you must have found some inspiration in this blog—please keep reading! The next post is about what I did on my COVID vacation. (I built a chicken coop without buying anything.)