In 2006, Canadian musician Jane Siberry emptied her house and then sold it. She decomodified her life. In the process, she made herself a shining example of the “voluntary simplicity” movement. Her decision to shed all her possessions – including all but one of her musical instruments and for a few years even her name – was as gutsy a life decision as anyone can make. From what she’s said in interviews, Siberry’s motivation seems to have been the making of space for her muse. She found that all those worldly possessions – including her back catalogue, which she made available for free download – were such a burden, they were crowding out her creativity.
The inclination to unburden ourselves of stuff isn’t new and the motivations have been many. Think of Ghandi making his own clothes or self-sufficient religious movements like the Amish or writers like Henry David Thoreau musing a century and a half ago about living simply on the shores of Walden Pond. Economist E. F. Schumacher’s book, Small Is Beautiful, became required reading for many undergrads following its publication in 1973, the tail end of the hippie, back-to-the-land movement of the ‘60s. In recent years, those who have stripped their lives to the bones – whether or not they’re part of the voluntary simplicity movement – are motivated by a range of concerns from spiritual to environmental.
What’s new about Siberry’s decision is that it might just be part of a mass movement. In a paper published last year, environmental writer Chris Goodall coined a term and identified a phenomenon called “Peak Stuff.” In his study of British consumption patterns over the past couple of decades, Goodall discovered that the acquisition of stuff peaked a decade ago, long before the 2008 stock market crash. Everything from food to clothing, cement to fertilizer, cars to energy and even travel have peaked and for the most part are now on the decline, and all at a time of prosperity.
Goodall doesn’t speculate in his report why Britain may have reached peak resource use, but in interviews since its publication, he has. In fact, he’s hopeful that what he’s discovered is evidence of no less than the triumph of environmentalism. Is it possible that the popularization of environmental concerns about over consumption are finally taking hold on a large scale? We’ve been warned now for decades that economic growth can’t go on forever, that sooner or later we’ll use up the earth’s resources or effectively kill the planet trying. What Goodall hopes he’s seeing is a nation-wide trend that could be happening in many other similar post-industrial countries in which consumers are changing their lifestyles to reduce their impact on the planet. At the same time, in the spirit of the voluntary simplicity movement, they are improving the quality of their lives.
Of course, that’s not the only explanation for what Goodall has discovered. Participants in the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil coined the term “eco-efficiency” to describe their hopeful theory that it’s possible for an economy to create more wealth with fewer resources and see a corresponding reduction in waste and pollution. Goodall’s study could be the first evidence we’ve seen that economic growth could actually be good for the environment. Resource use could be reduced as an economy evolves from an industrial base to one more dependent upon information and services. As for the material goods we do consume, we’re using them more efficiently. Think for example of all those eco-efficient appliances and of cars built with far less metal than before.
Here’s yet another explanation. The average Brit just has less money. In other words, the Occupy Movement is right, at least about the widening prosperity gap between the wealthy one percent and the rest of us. Think of it this way. Much of the increase in wealth that Goodall sites went to a very few people. Those few people aren’t going to make a statistical difference in economic activity because the wealthy aren’t out consuming great quantities of stuff. They might buy a more expensive home, car or yacht, but that’s not going to show up in the numbers like several million people buying more bread or shirts or electric heat with a marginal increase in wealth.
Goodall’s got us thinking for sure, but the answers to the questions he raising are not clear. Are we actually decoupling from stuff on a global scale out of concern for our planet? Are we seeing the evolution of western society from an industrial model to an information and services model? Or are we seeing the natural result of a widening gap between the richest and the rest? Whatever the answer, the issue of resource gluttony and resulting environmental, social and spiritual damage remains. After all, even Goodall’s numbers don’t show an enormous swing away from material consumption. The point remains, more stuff ain’t good for us. Ask Jane Siberry.
Chris Goodall, author of the study “Peak Stuff”