Material Wealth

September 8, 2012

**This article was originally published on on August 8, 2012, here. It discusses a research-based film I made, a visual ethnography of our relationship to the material world.**

When I started work on my non-fiction film Wealth (65 min, 2008) I had the uncomfortable feeling that making the film was going to make me want to give away everything I owned — or, some other drastic response appropriate to spending months looking closely at the clutter packed into many American homes. Yet, the actual impact of talking with people about their relationship to objects and the economy, peering into dumpsters, and exploring garages filled with lawn-mowers, sports equipment, bricks and old toys was somewhat different.

Wealth started from a very simple experience.  Co-director Phoebe Sullivan and I had spent a day visiting our parents’ homes in 2007 and were amazed not only by how much stuff there was packed into those two houses, but how much of that was ours — books and toys from childhood, old school papers, art projects and so on. We began to wonder: Where does all of this stuff come from? Could one track where each item in an entire house was made — its history, its environmental impact? Or, more fundamentally, how – as a society – have we allowed ourselves to accumulate all these things? Why do we hang onto them? How does this material ‘wealth’ make us feel?

Excerpt from Wealth #1– (watch the full film, here)

After discussing these questions quite a bit, we decided to make the film that became Wealth, which was filmed in a small town. The town, once a prosperous small manufacturing center in the northeastern US, had fallen on hard times since the last of the factories moved to the southern US or overseas in the 1980s. In other words, not a “wealthy” place, but one with a “normal” abundance of cheap products made in China, a local WalMart, and houses full of objects.

Excerpt from Wealth #2 — (watch the full film, here)

When we set off to begin filming in the summer of 2008, prior to the financial crisis that fall, worries about the economy were palpable. Rather than conveying stereotypical attitudes towards objects (“I love to shop!”), the people we spoke with while making the film – by most measures average Americans – had the sense that “things can’t go on like this” and felt conflicted about their own relationship to objects. For example, one man, who had an emerging business helping people market and sell the stuff in their attics and garages on eBay, commented:

A lot of people make money in this country both in online and traditional marketing by just figuring out how to get people to buy stuff. Part of it is the American culture that we’re attuned to that, but I think that is our American culture because it was pushed on us. It’s a way to make money, but it’s a way to make money that to me seems like it is leading us down a path that is not sustainable.

…If you go into any Salvation Army [a well-known thrift store chain in the US] you will be convinced you could stop making t-shirts for 2 years and the world would be pretty set. I don’t know what that would do to the economy. Everybody says we can’t stop making stuff – our whole economy is based on the fact that we have to keep consuming at an ever-faster rate.

An overall a portrait began to emerge of a society burdened by the incredible abundance of material objects we have within easy grasp. People’s attachments to objects, and reasons for accumulating and holding on to so many, were often related to relationships — “I’d like to keep this because it reminds me of my grandmother” or “I can’t throw that out because it was a wedding gift” — or not wanting to be wasteful: “maybe this will be useful someday” or “it was so cheap I bought it, and now I should try to use it.” While these relationships to objects certainly have a rationale, one can see how the effect of these attachments is quite different today in the US than at times or in places where there is or has been a scarcity of objects. (If you only have a few objects hanging on to all of them makes sense, but if you have thousands…?).

Through making Wealth, I have come to feel that it is normal to appreciate objects that we find beautiful or useful or symbolic in some important way. What is abnormal, or at least unusual in the bigger picture of human history, is that we have the possibility to access and own an overwhelming amount of them. And, generally, we don’t see or know where they come from, or what happens to them when they leave our hands. That is, like many people’s experience of food today, our experience of objects (clothes, electronics, puzzles, paper) is often disconnected from their origins in the natural world and the people whose hands make them.

So, in this situation, how can one have a radical, transformative relationship to the material world? How can we change our relationships with objects so we don’t accumulate so many, or so we can make better use of the ones we have already created? The following ideas are things suggested or described by people we talked to while filming Wealth:

Buy only (or mostly) used objects – As the eBay marker above suggested, so many objects already exist in the world that we could perhaps stop making new things for quite a while and still have quite an abundance. While the world’s factories aren’t likely to shut their doors anytime soon, try acting as though they had. Buying a used copy of a book or borrowing one from a library or a friend, for example, means that one less book needs to be printed.

Circulate! — Find ways to get “new” objects without creating more. For instance, if you are tired of the clothes in your closet organize a clothing swap. Invite 5-15 friends (or strangers!) to bring clothes and shoes that they’d like to give away. Choose a few people to act as MCs — holding up each article of clothing individually and showing off its qualities — it can be quite fun to see the variety. If only one person wants it, it’s theirs. If more than one person does, put it in a “pile of contention”. Once all the clothes have been shown, people can try on the contested objects and decided between themselves who gets what. Clothes that no one desires to take home can be donated to a thrift store.

Make things together, for other people — Making Wealth we spoke with an inspiring group of women who met regularly to knit socks by hand to give away to cancer patients and other people undergoing difficult experiences in the local area. Many appreciated these “power socks” made by another person who was thinking of them. One woman explained: “When you make something by hand the thoughts and experiences you have while making that object go into it. So, the first pair of socks I knit probably had a lot of frustration in them, because it was hard to do. But, maybe that perseverance I had in making them was an important quality for the person who got them.” Through the simple activity of meeting to make the socks together these women — some once strangers — had become close friends.

Give gifts differently — Give people gifts that won’t end up sitting in a closet: a loaf of bread, a hike together, good beer, a beautiful shell, something that you have owned that is special to you that you would like to pass onto them (and that they should feel free to pass on further), something you have made from natural materials that could eventually decompose in the backyard.

Make something by hand — Truly making something by hand by gathering the materials for it from the natural environment around your home, including the tools you need to make it, can be a humbling experience. This is the amount of time and energy it takes to make something.

Keep the things you have a heart connection to — While filming, we visited and interviewed an older woman who had one of the most lovely homes I have seen. It was a simple, small house on a street not particularly different from any other. Inside, it was quite sparse. The things that were there though were beautiful — a hand carved Asian-style wooden box which was the first thing she had ever bought for herself with all the money she had saved as a young nanny in New York City; a hanging sculpture made from delicate tree branches and paper cranes a friend had folded; two old kitchen knives; feathers from the forest. She explained that over the past years she had been going through a process of letting go and passing on everything but the objects she had a “heart connection” to (as well as a few practical items, such as slippers and plates).

Ultimately, perhaps giving more, rather than less, importance to objects — respecting the immense amount of resources and time it may have taken to create something — is part of what we need to do to consciously navigate this age of (unsustainable) material abundance.

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