For my first article of the new year I set myself a question: “how can I cram together the ancient Chinese principle of Wu Wei, modern consumerism, and the Hobbits of JRR Tolkien?”. The answer follows…
I have a problem with a lot of New Age thinking. New Age philosophy is generally just a rehash of older beliefs, a bargain basement version of more subtle philosophies, and as far as I’m concerned you can stick it up your Deepak Chopra and have done with it. That might be insensitive, but it’s my opinion. There is one aspect that drives me distracted and that’s the idea that consumerism (viz, the buying of stuff) is a fundamentally artificial aspect of modern human living. Back in the day, New Agers argue, human beings didn’t need possessions. They lived a pastoral existence in the Garden of Eden, untroubled by the manifest difficulties of consumer finance and deferred payments, credit card bills and hire purchases.
Tish and fipsy I say to that. Since the very beginnings of the world human beings have accumulated stuff at frankly terrifying rates. It’s very much in our nature to have stuff. The Glockenbecherkultur peoples (circa 2800BC) are so named for the mountains of evidence they left of their existence; namely beakers, mugs, and cups, many of them ornate. These were people who really valued their hot beverages. Further back, the Archeulean peoples (1.7 – 0.1Ma) left evidence in the form of hundreds of thousands of stone axes, some of them obviously impractical, in the Olorgesailie valley in Kenya. The only proof we have of them is the fact that they loved accumulating axes. If my point is lost among these facts, let me make it clear: humans have, since they could make things, accumulated more than they needed. It’s almost a recurring theme of our species.
So that’s that. We are a consuming people. But that’s not really the thrust of my argument. Consumerism is something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of days, as I’ve just had cause to buy a new laptop. Normally I try to avoid buying much. I own one pair of comfortable shoes, socks with so many holes they could be used to sieve soup, and boxer briefs that were bought when it looked like Al Gore might be president. My smartphone is older than some buildings. I don’t like buying stuff, but I recognize that human existence, such as it is, means having stuff. Mean creatures that we are, living in this cold and lonely world is only bearable because of warm clothes and pleasant distractions. Life without stuff is, in the words of Hobbes, nasty, brutish, and short.
What I practice – and what I’d be recommending, if my beliefs allowed me to evangelize- is intelligent consumerism. I’ll come back to that in a moment. At this moment I want to talk about Hobbits.
The legendarium of JRR Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings is mighty and worth exploring for many reasons. There is one aspect that’s stuck with me for some time; namely, how similar humans and Hobbits are. Now is not the time to go into the whys-and-wherefores of this similarity and just touch on one in particular: mathoms. According to lotr.wikia.com (no, really, stop giggling), a mathom is “the hobbit term for anything which they had no use for but were unwilling to throw away. Their holes and houses usually were quite crowded with mathoms. Hobbits were very fond of giving mathoms to one another; on birthdays, it was tradition that the hobbit who had the birthday would give a gift to anyone who attended his party. This way mathoms travelled from hand to hand often around the whole Shire and sometimes finding their way back to the original owner. Weapons and other gear of war was usually looked upon as mathoms in the Shire and usually they became trophies hanging over fireplaces or on walls.“
Hobbits, to paraphrase, loved pointless shit. Human beings are very similar. Look away from your screen. Count the mathoms. Now look back at me. See? Dust collectors abound. They’re all over the place. Fully one half of the Christmas presents you received over the festive season were mathoms. You’re virtually drowning in them. And I don’t mean to be alarmist but mathoms might just be killing our civilization.
For while people gotta have stuff, there’s a body of thought that suggests that our present rate of growth and consumption is unsustainable. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Apparently seven billion people collecting mathoms might just eat up all the resources and leave us fighting over dust collectors in the cracked urban hellscape of the future. It seems like a solid theory; after all, there’s a finite amount of stuff and an infinite demand for stuff, and a finite number divided by infinity gives you… hold on I’ll get a calculator.
So it would appear that our present rate of consumption is unsustainable but, as I’ve already remarked, people have to have stuff. It’s also a minor point that our economy depends on people buying stuff (economies reorganize themselves and need less tending than people think). Our society hinges on people buying things, our nature compels us to have things, and New Age give-up-your-worldly-possessions-my-brother is so much unrealistic wank. There seems to be no real solution to the conundrum.
Unfortunately there is: we’ve already touched on it in the sickening guise of soup-strainer socks. These pitiful socks lead me on to the Taoist principle of Wu Wei, and bear with me, because this is where it gets tricky.
Wu Wei is, like most Taoist bon mots, inherently tricky. It translates directly as “without effort”, meaning something that is following its Tao. Human beings, when they engage in the practices most natural to them, are Wu Wei. When they get all stressed, pissed off, and feel unnatural, that’s just Wei. So far so good. Wu Wei, when applied to objects, is a little different. An object that does what it’s supposed to has Wu Wei because it is fulfilling the function for which it was designed. Objects in our lives – including the ones we buy on a whim in the January sales – have Wu Wei if they perform the function for which we bought them. Shoddily-built smartphones, pointless mathoms and other ephemera do not have Wu Wei: lacking a purpose for their existence, they don’t have any Tao. They’re just pointless objects. There are exceptions to this general theory: some mathoms, because they delight us or make us feel good, are worthwhile. Art is a good example. Family photographs is another.
Objects that have Wu Wei also benefit their owner; by allowing that owner to fulfill his own purpose and follow his own Tao, they actually aid his progress through life. Something, in short, that works well and makes you fulfilled and contented is a good thing to own. When these well-loved, well-used objects have fulfilled their purpose and broken they, in the words of Lao Tzu, “depart without further effort”. Hence socks that are on their way out but still keep your feet warm. Hence older-model smartphones that still work well. Hence a lot of things.
Hence my laptop-buying dilemma. I wanted something that would serve me well, if you know what I mean. My last laptop fulfilled its purpose, more or less: I wrote a dissertation, three books, a TV series and a movie on its creaky keyboard. What I wanted as a replacement was one that would do much the same, and I had to think about it for ages before I made a purchase. Having this attitude to stuff is, I believe, intelligent consumerism. People need things, but that doesn’t mean we should browse and consume unthinkingly. Moreover, a society of people who consume cheap crap that doesn’t have an function or breaks after a couple of uses isn’t really staying true to its inner nature. I’ll give you an example that I’ve just thought of. I once knew a guy in school whose father was so well-off that he bought a new car every year. It didn’t matter if the old car was great: he wanted a new one so he traded it in. This struck me as the epitome of pointless consumerism. He might have had one beloved car that served him well, but he didn’t. He wanted new stuff. By contrast, I know two people who owned the same television for twenty-five years because it worked fine right up until the day it died. Compare and contrast. One path, in my humble opinion, has Wu Wei, and one doesn’t. I’ll leave you to make up your own mind.
A Parthian shot: Anna Lappé, the respected author, is quoted as saying, “when you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want”. I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to live in a world full of well-used, well-loved objects that fulfill their function, rather than a world of dust-collecting mathoms and shoddily-built disposable devices. But that’s just me.