Perhaps symbolic of our age is how willing we are to simply discard things. Last year I bought an Onyx stereo receiver for $199. I could finally hook up my turntable, CD player, and two sets of speakers (one for the basement, one for upstairs) and fill the house with music. Alas, I didn’t buy the warranty (usually those things aren’t worth it) and after about a year it stopped working. I realized the “safety” had come on, which seems like must have been a minor repair. Circuit City, however, said that since it wasn’t under warranty they couldn’t even touch it. Repair estimates seemed to be around $100 at a minimum, with no guarantee that the problem wasn’t systemic. Ultimately, I found a similar Sony at Best Buy on sale for $130, so I bought it. What to do with the Onyx — throw it out? (I ended up donating it to the university, where the technical folk fixed it and I believe are using it in the fitness center).
I recently read of someone who said he wanted to buy battery replacements for a cordless drill, only to find a new drill with new bits were half the price of the replacement battery. In today’s world of cheap textiles, how many people still mend clothing, darn socks (does the younger generation even know what it means to ‘darn a sock’), or replace the soles on their shoes? With electronics so cheap, and repair so expensive, how many DVD players or small electronics will ever be repaired once something goes wrong? (And I wonder if anyone will be able to get my old Betamax working so I can watch my old betamax format VCRs?)
When I was visiting Russia I was impressed by the knowledge people had of how to improvise. No stereo in the car? No problem, wire up a portable radio to the car’s battery. Something goes wrong, figure out a way to fix it, usually with speed and innovation. They had to do that, they didn’t have the same access to cheap replacements and convenience. They learned to problem solve and improvise. Increasingly we don’t have that skill. Something goes wrong, all we need to do is drive to the local big box store and buy a new one. Rip my pants at a conference and instead of getting out a sewing kit to mend them, I zip over to the clothing store and replace them. If and when times get tough, we’ll have to relearn a lot of skills we’ve lost, thanks to the convenience of cheap products.
Add to that the waste. Immense amounts of stuff are either incinerated and put into landfills daily, even while much of the world lacks basic necessities. When our fast food gets a bit old before being sold it’s discarded. Others don’t have food. As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that this is a sign that we have reached a kind of material saturation. There are, at least for most of the industrialized West, no more material wants to satisfy. We can create more perceived wants through marketing and new technologies, disposing an old cell phone to one that takes pictures, or trading in a perfectly good car for one with a navigation system and more luxury. But after awhile there is no net material gain, once the newness wears off someone is no happier with a state of the art high definition plasma TV now than they would have been after purchasing a brand new color TV in 1968.
This isn’t just the wealthy, but most in the West are materially saturated, even if they are yearning for the kind of stuff the wealthy have. That yearning is artificial, created by marketers and the human desire to get what someone else has. But most in the West have reached a point where more ‘stuff’ cannot translate into more happiness. That’s material saturation. So we end up with anxieties, eating disorders, depression, neuroses, and other psychological difficulties, seeking some kind of fulfillment from something that no longer can add to our true well being. More stuff doesn’t mean much of anything.
To be sure, this isn’t necessarily a bad problem to have. If we can get a handle on the need for a multidimensional life and not to focus on the material (money, work, career, stuff) and instead aspire to higher ends (friendship, community, family, art, music, learning) that material saturation can be part of an immensely satisfying and fulfilling life. Increasingly people are discovering that, there is a reason why people love music, travel, read, and learn. In those areas we’re not even close to “saturation,” there is much happiness to be gained by sharing an evening with a drink and friend, visiting a museum, or learning about something new. Travel is especially rewarding, as one can learn new cultures and ways of seeing the world. Community gives a strong sense of satisfaction, something that those without all the material stuff recognize. Still, as a society we’re often addicted to the material, and find it hard to break out, that’s where the pressures are — bills, career demands, television commercials, and a quick rush after shopping for something new. And if people can’t break that addiction and truly embrace what can add happiness to their lives, all the material wealth we have can be more of a curse than a blessing.