STUFF BREEDS STUFF
A BRIEF CHAT WITH GREG FOYSTER
In 2012, Greg Foyster and his partner Sophie Chishkovsky gave up their day jobs to cycle up the east coast of Australia, from Melbourne to Cairns via Tasmania. Greg’s book, Changing Gears, documents that ride and the many people they met on their journey to find out what it takes to live happily with less. This is what Greg, who’d previously worked in advertising, had to say in Changing Gears on the subject of ‘stuff’.
The more things you own, the more other things you require to service them. Over and above that, each additional item usually takes you further away from the human need you want to fulfil.
For example, as Peter Cowman* explained to me, one human need is to have a clean body. And one product to meet that need is the shower.
Ah, but then another product, the shower curtain, is invented to service that first product. Then comes the bath mat. The soap holder. The shower cap. The shower brush. The exfoliating shower-scrubber. The shower gel because soap is no longer good enough. The shelf to hold the shower gel. The shower timer. The shower organiser, because there’s no more room on the shower shelf. And if you want to clean your shower, you’ll need the specially designed shower-cleaning spray bottle, the shower grout-cleaning brush set, the shower squeegee and the shower drain and hair-removal cleaner hook.
(All these, by the way, are real products.) The process is endless because marketers will keep inventing niche products to solve some previously unheard-of problem. I know because I used to write ads for them.
Notice how very few of these secondary products actually help you fulfil the original need, staying clean. Many of them exist to service another product. So the golden rule is this: The further away from the basic human need, the less necessary the product.
Another way stuff breeds stuff is through the ‘Diderot effect’. In The Overspent American, Juliet Schor tells the story of the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot, who wrote an essay about receiving a gift of a beautiful scarlet dressing gown. In the company of his elegant new garment, the furniture in his room looked shabby and dated, so he replaced his straw chair, wooden table and plank holding books for more luxurious items. The desire for unity in his possessions force him to upgrade everything in his study. Here’s how this effect works in more modern times: ‘The purchase of a new home is the impetus for replacing old furniture; a new jacket makes little sense without the right skirt to match; an upgrade in china can’t really be enjoyed without a corresponding upgrade in glassware.’
If you find yourself thinking your old bathroom tiles really don’t match your new shower squeegee, get rid of the squeegee.
LJ: It has been four years since your epic cycle with Sophie up the east coast of Australia. Since then you have achieved your dream to join the Murundunka Cohousing Community. It seems that you are still very much committed your journey to embrace simple living. Have your goals and ideals changed significantly since your bike ride?
Living in a cohousing community has been a whole new adventure. I’ve probably learned more in the last three years at Murundaka than on the entire bicycle trip. One important thing I’ve learned is the value of compromise and collaboration – we are a democracy in microcosm, and we make decisions by consensus with voting as a back up if we can’t agree. In this setting, it’s essential to be able to let go of your own individual preferences if the majority of the residents take a different position on an issue to your own.
So for example there was a big debate years ago about what sort of food would be cooked in the communal kitchen. Some residents were vegan, some vegetarian, some paleo, some enthusiastically carnivorous. All had to compromise – the agreement was a version of ‘anything goes’, because that’s more inclusive.
Environmentalists can be rigid in their ideology. They can think in very black and white terms. I’ve learned that nothing is that simple – especially simple living.
Compromise is an important but greatly underrated virtue in our society. We tend to celebrate trailblazing idealists who took a stance and refused to budge, shaping society around their will. But the real heroes, I’m starting to think, are the people who had the courage to change their minds.