Whether it’s the latest pair of Nike sneakers, the newest version of the Apple iPad, a vintage lamp from a thrift shop, or a kitchen gadget that’s guaranteed to make cooking easier, humans like to have stuff—lots of it.
Chip Colwell was no different, until his sister asked him a simple question: “Why do we have so much stuff?” Colwell, PhD, associate research professor of anthropology at CU Denver, found the question intriguing and the amount of research on the topic was sparse. So he spent the next five years traveling across the globe, speaking to dozens of people, and studying ancient artifacts and mementos to better understand how humans went from “needing nothing to wanting everything.”
He details his findings in his latest book, “So Much Stuff: How Humans Discovered Tools, Invented Meaning, and Made More of Everything.” In it, Colwell outlines three major leaps in history, spanning millions of years, that led to today’s over-consumption—which he describes as both wonderous and dangerous.
Whether it is time for spring cleaning, gift-giving season, or back-to-school days, the timing is nearly always right to learn about, and rethink, our relationship to stuff. Colwell’s book helps explain why.
A global story, centuries in the making
Our most ancient ancestors didn’t need stuff to survive. So, what happened? Colwell said the first major milestone, or what he refers to in his book as a “leap,” took place more than 3 million years ago in East Africa, when humans discovered that materials, like rocks, could be used as tools. “That’s really the foundation,” he said.
The next leap happened by about 50,000 years ago, when humans gave meaning to these tools. “The realization that a knife can also be traded, that it has value, that it can be an heirloom, that it can be passed on between generations, that it can be beautiful, that it can be a piece of art, that it’s a part of religion,” Colwell explained.
The third leap occurred in the last 500 years—first through the emergence of global trade and mass-producing products at a cheap cost, and then through the industrial revolution. In this leap, humans discovered that they could make stuff, and they began to perceive that stuff added a value to their lives. “It’s this consumer culture that has really swept the globe, that we need things to make us happy, to live well, and to have a good life,” Colwell said.
The digital age has amplified what Colwell calls an ideology of abundance. Marketers have direct access to consumers, and consumers have direct access to products (think: Amazon’s same-day delivery). On the flip side, Colwell said, the digital age allows us to be smarter consumers and consume in different ways. “You can learn about the zero-waste movement, you can learn about people who are trying to reduce plastics, waste, and their consumption,” he said.
Consumer society, religious commitments, and aesthetic values
Is having too much stuff a good or bad thing? Colwell said it’s neither. “As an anthropologist, I’m more interested in standing back in wonder at our profound relationship to our stuff,” he said.
Oftentimes, stuff carries a sense of significance and meaning for an individual. An heirloom passed down from a grandparent can spark a memory or bring a sense of belonging. Owning and wearing a suit expresses a form of identity, whereas wearing a sports team jersey expresses an entirely different one. Wedding rings and jewelry may symbolize love.
For Colwell, what makes the behavior unique, and somewhat bizarre, is that out of all the species on earth, humans are the ones that have developed such a remarkable obsession with stuff. “There are hundreds of species that use tools—everything from octopi, to fish, to primates, to birds,” Colwell explained. “We believe many of those same animals have a sense of aesthetics.…Birds have been documented to show a preference for different styles of classical music.…Yet there is no other species in the history of our planet whose lives are so entwined with stuff.”
A range of factors helps explain why some people have so much stuff. These include how much disposable income one has, how much they have absorbed and embraced the ideology of abundance, the physical limitations of space in a home, religious commitments, and aesthetic values, Colwell said. For some, less is more beautiful. For others, more stuff means more happiness and a better life.
The fourth leap: rethinking our relationship to stuff
As part of his research, Colwell and his family embarked on an experiment: a slow-buy year. “Some people do a no-buy year where they literally don’t buy anything for a year,” he said. “And that didn’t feel quite realistic for us, so we tried ‘slow-buy’ for a year, where we could each buy only five things,” he said.
The experiment ultimately failed due to COVID-19 and his family moving homes, but it did change his perception and value systems around consumer practices. “When you only have a certain number of things that you can buy, it forces you to ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this?’ And then if the answer is yes, you want to make sure you really get the best thing of the best quality, so it lasts,” Colwell said.
This mindset made headlines in 2019, following organizing expert Marie Kondo’s debut of the Netflix series, “Tidying Up,” which was based on her popular books. The premise: Declutter your home and choose joy. For anyone looking to re-evaluate the amount of stuff they have, or take on a spring-cleaning project, Colwell recommends using Kondo’s methods and being intentional with their consumer habits. “[Kondo] really encourages us to ask of each item, ‘Do I need you? Do I want you? Are you serving my life in positive ways?’ I think it’s the mindless consumption and wasting of stuff that is the most dangerous part of our individual lives,” Colwell said.
More stuff inevitably means more waste (it’s estimated that our global waste is going to nearly double by 2050), which is why Colwell encourages consumers to think about how they can spring clean in their homes, as well as in their communities. Whether it’s supporting a movement around limiting the use of plastic bags, or taking a tour of a local recycling facility, or supporting a brand that follows sustainable practices, small steps can lead to meaningful impact locally and globally.
Colwell calls this change in perception the fourth leap. Humans will continue to live inseparably with their material things, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be done in an unhealthy way that harms the planet. He ends his book by suggesting that the next direction for consumerism be to re-evaluate humans’ relationship to stuff.
“To me, it’s this dual approach, both in our individual lives and in our communities, that will get us into a healthier relationship with stuff,” Colwell said.
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