On a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon reveals to Amy his guilty secret – a large storage unit that contains everything he has ever owned in his life, including all his toothbrushes, racks of clothes and shelves of books, and his entire collection of sporting equipment (comprising the golf ball his brother once threw at him).
We’re on Season 9 (I think) so the Sheldon character is 35 years old. Somehow, there didn’t seem to be all that much stuff in the storage unit. Some children have probably got through enough toys by the time they’re 10 to fill such a unit. (British research found that the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys but plays with just 12 daily.)
This got me wondering about just how much stuff a person gets through over the course of their life. Gratis of Google, I managed to find some weird and wonderful facts. In one lifetime, the average person will:
Eat approximately 35 tons of food (and grow around 590 miles of hair… and 2 metres of nose hair).
Use 2.72kg of lipstick if she’s a woman (and some men).
Walk the equivalent of 3 times around the world.
Drink 70,000 cups of coffee.
Spend £1.9 million (if British). (Surprisingly, this article claims a typical American university graduate spends less than a Brit – $1.8 million – with men earning on average $1 million more than women over a lifetime.)
The average American woman has 103 items of clothing in her closet, comprising 30 outfits—one for every day of the month. In 1930, that figure was 9 outfits. She considers 21 per cent of her clothes to be ‘unwearable’, 33 per cent too tight and 24 per cent too loose (according to a survey of 1,000 US women by ClosetMaid).
The average British woman, over the course of a lifetime, will own 600 dresses, 400 pairs of shoes, 1,116 tops, 558 pairs of trousers and 372 cardigans.
The average American throws away 65 pounds of clothing per year (or 4,875 pounds over a 75-year lifetime).
Americans spend more on shoes, jewellery, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education.
Over the course of our lifetime, we will spend a total of 3,680 hours or 153 days searching for misplaced items. Phones, keys, sunglasses, and paperwork top the list.
The average American will own 12 cars in their lifetime. That number is 9 for the average Brit. (Sheldon doesn’t drive, hence the lack of cars in his storage unit.)
Technology is definitely important for Sheldon, being a theoretical physicist and all. In fact, it’s the untimely demise of his trusty laptop that leads us to the whole storage unit storyline. There’s not much that’s average about Sheldon, but if he were a typical American, in a lifetime this website suggests that he would own:
Laptops: between 15.8 and 26.3
Mobile phones: 43.9
(and of course a lot of those purchases are not because the technology has failed, but because a better model has come out – at least Sheldon seems to be immune to this need to keep up with the latest model.)
Then there were some other stats that I couldn’t find online, so had to calculate for myself.
An average baby will go through 5,700–6,600 disposable nappies (aka diapers if you’re American) before it’s fully potty-trained. (Rather relieved Sheldon didn’t keep his.)
Assuming Sheldon is 35 and has been brushing his teeth since he was 1, that’s 34 years of toothbrushes, at 4 brushes per year, which equals 136 toothbrushes.
(I then got totally carried away calculating a lifetime’s consumption of hamburgers, with associated water usage and production of greenhouse gasses. But I realised I’d disappeared too far down the rabbit hole and hauled myself back. Maybe I’ll save those calculations for another blog. Oooh, I can tell you’re excited already.)
So what’s my point here?
The point is that over a lifetime we buy, use, and dispose of a LOT. This song by (appropriately) Garbage really brings vividly to life the image of a lifetime of stuff sitting and waiting for us in some imaginary attic, like a consumerist portrait of Dorian Gray, silent and incriminating.
All the garbage that you have thrown away
Is waiting somewhere a million miles away
Your condoms and your VCR
Your Ziploc bags and father’s car
Dark and silent, it waits for you ahead
So much garbage will never ever decay
And all your garbage will outlive you one day
(Etc. Hear it here.)
Do we really need all this stuff? Does it make us happy?
Some of it does, sure, and some we regard as necessary for a comfortable and convenient life. But everything comes with a cost, and I don’t mean just the financial one. Raw materials extracted, toxins and greenhouse gasses produced, and a long afterlife in landfill – these are the by-products we often don’t think about. As Daniel Kahneman says, we think What We See Is All There Is (WYSIATI), so once a possession passes out of our hands, to our minds it has disappeared. But it hasn’t.
I’ve got two ideas for apps, neither of which have any chance of catching on, but it’s an interesting thought experiment:
- True Cost: you go into a store, and you’re interested in buying a cotton t-shirt. You point your smartphone at the barcode, and the phone brings up a rapid timelapse video of cotton growing, irrigation, pesticides, cotton-pickers, trucks, factories, sweatshop workers, night deliveries, and all the other things that had to happen to bring the t-shirt to this shop. Maybe it even shows you what the app deems to be a fair cost, if environmental degradation and fair wages were factored in, so you can compare this with the actual cost on the price tag and see if you still feel good about buying this item.
- If We All: I’m still a bit vague on this one, but it’s something relating to the tragedy of the commons crossed with being the change you want to see in the world. You would tell the app something that you’re planning to do, like taking a cheap flight to the Costa Brava, and you then choose one of these options:
- “if everybody did this”
- “if x% of everybody did this”
- “if I did this every day/month/year for the rest of my life”
…”what would be the impact?”
It could relate to something that you expect to have a negative impact, like that cheap flight or the sweatshop t-shirt or the hamburger, or it could be a positive action, like picking up three pieces of litter a day. You’d get some kind of an image that would show how your action would impact the world if multiplied up.
Any takers? I guess not. Never mind – I hope you get the point of what I’m saying, that if we could really see the full lifetimes of our stuff, before it comes into our hands and after it passes out of them, and also visualise the collective impact over time and space, we might make very different consumer decisions.
To tie this back to my recent theme of capitalism, we have been coerced into buying more than we need in order to fuel the capitalist machine. I highly recommend The Century of Self, about the rise and rise of advertising to hijack our human frailties and put them in service of consumerism. (Available for free on YouTube in 4 parts – Part 1 here.)
Some snippets from a recent article on Climate and Capitalism:
“Without steady growth, the [capitalist] economic system will proceed to wither away like a plant deprived of water and sunlight.”
“One of the problems facing capitalism throughout the nineteenth century was chronic overproduction. Businesses were producing goods for the market, but people tended to be frugal, self-sufficient, and were reluctant to spend their earnings on more and more consumer goods. More often than not, people tended to follow the ethic expressed in Christian Proverbs, “He that tilleth his land shall have plenty of bread: but he that followeth after vain persons shall have poverty enough … Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me.” For many Americans at that time, conspicuous consumption — overtly consuming and buying to display social status — was unseemly.”
“Capitalism has a systemic need to sell things. If people show no inclination to buy these things, then the capitalist machine will break down. To survive, capitalism must find ways — manipulation and seduction if necessary — to get people to buy more and more things that potentially have little or no relevance to their physical or spiritual well-being, or to that of their offspring. “
I wonder if it’s possible for us to return to nineteenth century simplicity? Stuff takes up a lot of headspace – earning the money to buy it, choosing it, buying it, transporting it, storing it, losing it, finding it, disposing of it. Many things no doubt add to our sum total of happiness, but many don’t. There is definitely a diminishing marginal return on acquiring more stuff once we have what we need, but the environmental impact doesn’t diminish along with the utility.
Enough is enough.
Enough is abundance to the wise. — Euripedes
P.S. Further to the debate whether a non-fan of capitalism is thereby a socialist/Marxist, in his own polemic way Umair Haque has a perspective that resonated with me.