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Book Review: Stuffocation – Living More with Less by James Wallman

If you received any gifts at Christmas that made you sigh and think, “Why would I want this?”, or look in the shed or cupboards and get an urge to grab a garbage bag and start purging, author James Wallman says you are suffering from Stuffocation.

Wallman explores what our materialistic culture is doing to both people and the planet. He traces the transition from a western narrative that was about frugality and saving to one about spending and consuming to excess. He points the finger at the USA’s overproduction in the 1950s and the corresponding rise of the advertising industry, who he claims were tasked by the US government with ramping up consumption to maintain the health of the manufacturing sector.

He explains the methodology of cultural forecasting, and how innovations diffuse in an S-shaped curve – led by innovators, picked up by early adopters, before capturing the majority and, finally, the laggards. This is a useful lens for looking at many of the sustainability measures that are now becoming more normalised.

In looking at some of the alternatives to buying stuff, such as the Tiny House movement, the “medium chill” approach of simply living with a basic sense of “enough is enough” or the telecommuter dropping out to a cabin in the New Mexico wilderness, Wallman asserts that none of these alternatives are workable in broadscale economic terms. This is an author who does not want to scare the first world’s elite corporate horses.

Instead, he posits the rise of an “experientialist” society, where people spend the same amount of money, but on experiences instead of stuff, which surveys on happiness and psychological wellbeing have shown are more likely to give a person a sense of life being well-lived.

The exploration of how to be an experientialist and what an experientialist economy might look like has its somewhat eyebrow raising moments, such as when Wallman explains in all seriousness that a well-known IT company making opening the packaging of its products “an experience in itself” makes it somehow less about the stuff and more about the moment.

Still, he gathers many interesting perspectives, and maps out some interesting lower-stuff sustainability pathways that are developing such as the sharing economy and the trend towards smaller, denser dwellings with experience-based amenities. There are also examples of entrepreneurs and firms that have embraced the “only buy this is you really have to… and then dispose of it responsibly” ethos, and are finding giving customers this message actually strengthens the bottom line.

Wallman also outlines a range of ways readers can choose to “de-stuffocate” from the totally radical “put everything you own in boxes and bags and take them out only if you really need them, then after a month or so rid yourself of what’s still packed up” to gamified strategies such as “see if you miss it”, where people in a household hide possessions from each other and if they are not missed by their owner, those things are then ripe for redeployment.

Overall, it’s a fine and timely read that affirms any new year’s resolutions one might have made around spending more time with family and friends, going to places on the bucket list, and avoiding the January sales in the interests of credit card health.

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