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Hackers on happiness & tiny houses, plus The Story of Stuff

Last week, my husband posted to Hacker News a link to my video about a guy who
lives in a 96-square-foot home. It seems hackers like
small houses. Within hours, a couple thousand of them had visited the

Their comments were different from the average green blog
crowd. Besides the programmers’ attention to detail- someone pointed
out the vodka bottle on top of tiny homeowner Jay Shafer’s fridge and there was a long
discussion about the books on his bookshelf-, they weren’t afraid to
question eco-orthodoxy.

what, exactly, is wrong with
buying more?
” wrote a software engineer from Minnesota, “why shouldn’t
people consume?” Growing up with a mother entrenched in a tradition of New
England frugality, this was never a question in our household.

wasn’t until my younger brother taught me the term “embodied energy” a
few years ago did I make the connection between stuff and climate
change. Finally getting that besides the natural resources used to make
something, there are resources,
energy and CO2 emissions embodied in the manufacture, use and disposal
of every product we buy- aka a
products’ carbon footprint- I suddenly saw an environmental pricetag
even on things like solar panels and electric cars.

Why shouldn’t people consume?
I don’t think anyone would argue we should stop consuming, but we need
to cut back, and quite radically. Our personal consumption in the U.S.
is already in
overdrive. It’s now equal to 70% of our GDP
(about double that of China and nearly a third more than
that of Canada). If everyone in the world lived like the average North
American we’d need 5 planets to support us (see One Planet Living).

Things didn’t get this way purely by accident. Freud’s nephew is
partly to blame. I didn’t make this connection until a couple of years
ago I met a man named Bakari Kafele, who also happens to live in a tiny
home (see video for Living small: when home is a 150-square-foot RV).

What a scavenger taught me about our subconscious

Kafele discards of other people’s junk for a living (see video
Bio-diesel Hauling: scavenging the trash of overconsumption). As I
watched him unload a truckful of someone else’s garbage- books,
shelves, speakers, purses, cardboard, paper, stuffed animals, etc.- and
try to sort what could be reused or recycled, he explained that we
don’t really need all that we think we do.

“I’ve been doing this long enough that it doesn’t surprise me how
much the customers throw away. We produce a lot of stuff in this
country. And a lot of it doesn’t have that large an impact on quality
of life. So you kind of have to wonder what’s the point.”

calls himself a scavenger and most of his possessions- his tv, dvd
player, stereo system, furniture- are things that his clients have
disposed of. He knows other people’s garbage: all that we buy hoping it
will improve our
lives and toss once we realize it’s not making us any happier. Perhaps
seeing so many discarded dreams has contributed to his philosophizing.

your basic needs are met getting more stuff doesn’t make you any
happier, but you still want more,” he explained as he sorted through a
bag of kids toys. “And a lot of it is actually by design that’s why
this country worse than most others. In the 1930s, after the Great
Depression manufacturers were afraid that people might actually buy all
the stuff they needed and stop buying more stuff and they hired Freud’s
nephew Edward Bernays and his new public relations company to set up
advertising that linked buying stuff and consumerism to being happy and
being cool instead of just to this stuff is useful.”

Bernays has
been called the “father of public relations“. He not only brought his
uncle Sigmund’s books to America, but he brought his principles of
psychoanalysis to the masses. “Bernays was among the first to
understand that one of the implications of the subconscious mind was
that it could be appealed to in order to sell products and ideas,”
explained the Guardian in a review of the BBC series Century of the
Self (available on Youtube and a great primer on the topic). “You no
longer had to offer people what they needed; by linking your brand with
their deeper hopes and fears
, you could persuade them to buy what they
dreamt of.”

When we started to change our stuff for the sake of change

when Bernays was teaching us to want what we didn’t need, American
manufacturers were learning a new design strategy to shorten the buying
cycle. In 1954 when American industrial designer Brooks Stephens gave a
talk to the local advertising club in Minneapolis, he entitled his
speech “planned obsolescence” and quickly popularized the concept of
“instilling in the buyer the
desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little
sooner than is necessary”.

The idea that American manufacturers
were designing things to fall apart so we’d keep buying was not a
secret. There was a direct recognition by business of what they were
doing. “We do not believe in planned obsolescence,” announced
Volkswagen in a 1959 advertising campaign. “We don’t change a car for
the sake of change

as a massive reeducation of manufacturers helped them shape our
shopping habits for the past half century, today, a reeducation of
consumers is what might help us save us from ourselves, or from our

How kids are studying “stuff” in school (except in Montana)

time it’s been more of a bottom up response. In 2007, an obscure
Internet film
narrated by a former Greenpeace activist gained traction
and soon became a “sleeper hit in classrooms across the nation”. The
Story of Stuff, written and voiced by Annie Leonard, helps explain “the
underside of our
production and consumption patterns” by looking at stuff “from its
extraction through sale, use
and disposal”. Or as the New York Times
reviewed it: “a cheerful but brutal assessment of how much Americans

million people have viewed it on the films’ website alone and more than
7,000 schools, churches and others have ordered a dvd. In classrooms
across the country, teachers are using it to supplement outdated
textbooks for teaching about pollution.

The film has had its
share of backlash. After a parent in Montana complained that the
message was anticapitalist, a school board in Missoula County ruled
that the video treads on academic freedom.

When Fox News’
Glenn Beck began his own attack campaign, calling the video
“unbelievably anti-capitalist, unbelievably wrong on just about every
fact”, he only helped generate more viewers of the film. “We appreciate
the new viewers, Facebook friends, contributions and other support that
Beck has generated for us,” responded Annie and the Story of Stuff
Project team.

Cutting consumption for a new American Dream

seems that some are still trying to protect our right to overconsume
under some sort of capitalist freedom clause. And then there are
others, like that Michigan programmer who is trying to protect his
quality of life.

“I enjoy having a large
house, more vehicles than I really need and luxuries that would make a
19th century king envious,” he explained. Though after a quick read of
his blog, I’d say he sounds less interested in living like a 19th
century king and more like a modern greenie. He devotes very little
time to talk of his sportscar and writes mostly about his backyard
: their egg production, the LED lighting he’s installing in the
coop and the solar heater he has planned for them.

The environmental angle may be wasted on a hacker forum, but there is room here for anti-consumerism. “The
problem with consumption is that it compromises your independence-,”
argued a coder from New York City, “that is, buying and maintaining
stuff you don’t need requires a steady
stream of income, which makes it harder to leave a job you don’t like
or pursue goals like starting your own company or working on something
you enjoy but doesn’t pay much.”

Maybe these guys have the right idea. I mean, maybe massive change will only come about when
people realize their lives are better for making a change. A push for reducing consumption may mean greater freedom for all.

I’ll bet Glenn Beck and the Missoula school board would
respond better to a hacker argument. While a moral push to cut spending apparently stinks of anti-capitalism, isn’t there something very American about
liberating ourselves from work we hate, from
advertisers, from our subconscious…?