Reader’s Essay | A New Approach to Stuff

By Martin Oliver

Bagpuss and Emily

In every episode of the 1970s British children’s TV series Bagpuss, a young girl finds a lost and broken object in the village street and leaves it in her shop window for the passing owner to collect. An oddball cast of animal characters inside the shop then repairs the item and imbues it with meaning and value by giving it a history.

It’s quaint, cute, and a novel approach to jetsam that in the modern world would be likely to find its way into the nearest garbage bin. Our society’s attitude to stuff is too often characterised by glut and waste, driven by indifference. This attitude, in turn, can be traced back to the spirit-matter divide instituted by the 17th century philosopher Descartes. In Cartesian philosophy, matter is treated as dead and devoid of spirit, as opposed to the inner world of the mind that is considered alive.

To see stuff differently and to value it as stewards is an act of rebellion against unhealthy outdated values and a re-joining together of the split mind-matter duality. It mirrors the stream of Jewish Hasidic belief that God is found in inanimate objects, among other places.

New stuff frequently comes with a hefty ecological footprint attached to the price tag. Anonymous and identical-looking products that are fresh from the production line have the advantage of being spotlessly clean, but just remember to leave them outside for a week so that any toxics left from manufacture can be safely outgassed.

Steampunk Clock

In contrast, items that have been pre-loved come with a history of human use and have developed a unique character of their own. Patagonia’s Worn Wear clothing repair website features people sharing online the real-life stories behind their outdoor apparel.

To go against the grain by moving beyond consumerism is the goal of a movement that has been gaining significant traction in recent years. Growing numbers of us are choosing not to own very much and to care for what we do have. For a growing chunk of society, experiences are more important than acquiring products and quality trumps quantity.

We are devotees who are repairing things to extend their lifespans, developing our DIY fix-it skills, and setting up Repair Cafés along the lines of Martine Postma’s initiative from Amsterdam. Otherwise, we are taking items to be repaired, even when the economics don’t stack up very well, and creating local employment into the bargain. When making new purchases, we are avoiding items that are irresponsibly designed to fall apart or fail and are supporting anti-planned obsolescence stores such as Buy Me Once that has just opened its doors in the UK and the US.

The sharing economy removes useful stuff from the realm of atomised households and makes it a nexus of human connection while giving it greater circulation and use. In a growing number of locations, including Sacramento (California) and West Norwood and Frome (UK), Libraries of Things are small community borrowing temples where a range of useful items can be accessed for a modest cost. When it comes time to part, we like to give our stuff a loving farewell by finding it a good home on Freecycle.

Recycling and reusing are two other forms of satsang for those of us who want to see matter saved from the trash dump. Where functional stuff is about to suffer the ignominy of landfill, as disciples we can rescue it. Dumpster divers are heroes batting on stuff’s side, as are those who pick up useful items inexplicably abandoned by the roadside. The working cellphone near my computer was dug out from a bin, in a box together with its mains cord and instruction manual, saving it from becoming unrecycled e-waste.

Ultimately, to mend the world’s troubled relationship with stuff will probably involve moving away from the utilitarian and returning to aesthetic and artisanal values to ensure that stuff isn’t degraded by being misused in ugly forms of design. It means acknowledging that beauty is a basic human need and that while the colour grey is currently experiencing a renaissance, it has its limitations.

While Descartes chose to perceive external reality as an dream-like illusion created by an evil genie, and a large segment of society is zoned out in the Matrix, inhabiting the virtual worlds of their screens, we are choosing to spend most of our free time inhabiting the real world that hosts stuff, our bodies, and the natural environment.

Unknown to social conservatives, stuff is a moral issue. Like true supplicants, we are following in the footsteps of figures such as Arash Derambarsh, the councillor who recently attracted global media coverage for being instrumental in stopping French supermarket food waste. Above all, beyond the sense of an ethical imperative, we are driven by inspiration, and by love and care. Join us.