Monday, January 12, 2009

Do we really need Thing 1 and Thing 2?

I was leafing through the Winter 2008 issue of Mizzou magazine and ran across an eye-catching feature written by Dale Smith. "Desire to acquire" profiles University of Missouri professor Marsha Richins and her belief that our need for things stems from our hunter-gatherer ancestry. She sees materialism -- this urge to provide for our "nest" and take care of our own -- as basic to human nature.

So how can we slow our rampant greed? The article discusses four "brakes" that Richins has uncovered during her years of research -- peer pressure (the desire not to be as greedy or materialistic as your neighbor), religion (warnings from above that we should not to be too selfish or greedy), raising awareness that true happiness comes from experiences and not things, and learning to value what we have (forming sentimental attachments to older items).

The article was accompanied by these wonderful photographs from freelance photojournalist Peter Menzel's book, Material World, A Global Family Portrait. Menzel had families from across the globe empty out their homes and pose next to their dwellings with all of their possessions.

The photos are quite striking. For example, an American family has a spacious backyard filled with stuff and a sprawling home looming in the background. A family from Japan has their many personal items placed into tidy vertical stacks because their home is small compared with their possessions. In western Africa, a family sits atop one of their two mud homes with an array of cookware and little else. A family living near the Himalayan Mountains had animals, blankets, and a large stack of firewood in addition to their cookware, but little else.

The contrast of the photographs made me stop and think about all of the junk that I am hoarding at my house. Why do I keep it? Do I really need it?

If you could only take five items from your home with you, what would you take?

Clip art courtesy of

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