This is a good time of year to think about such things, mostly because many people are feeling hard up and it is much easier to be environmentally-friendly when you're living on Queer Street. Indeed, as far as your British consumer is concerned, by far the most significant behavioural change an individual can make is simply to buy less stuff. Every single little thing we purchase required a certain amount of energy to produce and transport to us. And we have a lot of stuff.
Of course, nobody has a great investment in promoting this message and amidst the constant barrage of messages equating stuff with happiness, it may sound a little depressing.
Here in the West, spending money is a national past-time. It is quite extraordinary compared to other cultures and our own culture just a few generations back. People always wanted stuff, people always aspired to have nice things for all sorts of practical, social and psychological reasons and they always will. But that doesn't mean Epirucus wasn't right.
Is there any relationship between the stuff we have and our quality of life? Financial security is one thing, but that's quite different - and sometimes incompatible - with having a load of stuff. This culture of constant buying is not sustainable. Even if it wasn't for the small matter of climate change, it is not economically sustainable. And indeed, it's not psychologically sustainable; frankly, I think it makes us miserable. None of us have enough money to buy all the stuff we think we want. The last person who actually used the phrase "hard-up" to describe their financial situation is actually one of the wealthiest people I know. But they are hard-up in the Mr Micawber sense; lots of people owe money and feel that they can't afford things which they need.
Epicurus, by the way, is my second-favourite Greek and people imagined that his household, intent as they were on a life of pleasure, was a place of orgies and hedonistic consumption (thus epicurean). In fact, having studied the matter in great depth, Epicurus hit upon what we really need:
"Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one's entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship."So there you go.
Anyway, Sage has given up buying stuff for New Year and many other bloggers - lead by Andrea at A peek inside the fish bowl - are participating in the Shopping Embargo 2008, giving up non-essential buying for the first two months of the year (a project I came across through Nna Mmoy Andrea, who has written a number of super posts about The Green Family).
I think this is ambitious and very much worthwhile, but as Sage pointed out in an excellent post, to be environmentally-conscious can sometimes be a little like belonging to a religious sect which can alienates those who feel they can't commit to the entire doctrine. Therefore, some suggestions about reducing the amount of stuff you buy, without making any solid promises or feeling that you're missing out:
1. Use the stuff you have. Often revisiting old stuff can be as rewarding as brand new stuff; books you haven't read and movies you've not seen in an age. If you enjoy the things you actually possess, you will have less desire for the things you haven't got yet.
2. Use is a much better measure than need when it comes to making purchases. The issue of need is very difficult to wrestle with, and one can end up feeling very guilty about the slightest luxury - at least I can. A far greater sin than having things you don't need is having things that you don't use. Nobody needs two dozen pairs of shoes, but if you have them and each pair gets an outing at least once every few months then that is far better than a person who has just two pairs of shoes and only ever wears one. One is wasteful, the other is not.
3. Share your stuff. I must say it is second-nature for me to consider who I might pass a book onto once I've read it before I actually buy it. Borrow stuff and lend stuff, and where appropriate, give things away. Don't be afraid to offer people the stuff you don't want; so long as you make it clear that you will not be hurt by their refusal. Otherwise sell stuff on eBay and offer things up on Freecycle.
4. Identify truly useless purchase. The magazine or newspaper you barely flick through, the cosmetic magic potion whose promises never deliver and so on. Make sure that the only things you buy out of habit are bread and loo-rolls. Or at least that sort of thing.
5. Beware The Radish Principle. This is when, in the summer, you want to buy some radishes to go in your salad, and at the supermarket you can buy two packets of radishes for the price of one. Only you don't particularly like radishes, it's not like they can be used up in any recipes you know of and so you neither need nor want the extra packet of radishes. Only they're free! Free radishes!
This is the kind of heart-breaking moral quandary I face in my life. I hope you sympathise. Point is that however cheap something is, it is not good value for money unless you actually want it.
Do you get the impression that all I ever spend money on is books and groceries? Hmm, not quite.