A Ghost of an Idea


Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

– William Morris

There is so much STUFF in the world.  Once upon a time newspapers were printed once a week.  Magazines (or periodicals) were mostly available through the post by subscription, or a small amount of copies were sold at city newsstands. Clothes and shoes were made on demand, only when they were needed.  Milk was delivered only to customers that ordered it.  Gift-giving occasions (Christmas, birthdays, Mothers Day, Easter etc.) were more tradition and family-based than present-based, and one or two thoughtful, quality items were considered more worthy of a ‘gift’ than multiple, cheap and useless items.

These days everything has to be available to everyone, everywhere, all the time.  Current editions of popular magazines have to be trucked out to remote roadhouses in the middle of the country, just in case someone passing through happens to want to buy a copy.  Hundreds of litres of milk have to be bottled up and sent out to every supermarket, grocery store, corner store, petrol station, or café, so that anyone, anywhere can get hold of a bottle of milk with minimum effort.   Thousands of sets of sizes of one dress or shirt need to be sent to every store across the country, just in case someone in every town wants one.

And of course, there’s the Christmas-time deluge of excess.  Shops are inundated with STUFF of all kinds.  Not much beautiful, useful stuff, mind you.  According to the retail industry, all women want toiletries ‘gift packs’ (a good way to sell off all the STUFF you didn’t sell through the year) and cheap jewellery, and all men want biographies of sporting identities and anything to do with golf or fishing.  And whole tables of ‘stocking fillers’ are piled with all the shop’s useless, normally unwanted items that will most probably break or be forgotten by January the 4th.

The concept of availability, maximum exposure and convenience is great.  In an ideal world, we’d have everything at our fingertips all the time.  The main problems with this concept arise at both ends of the production chain.

More demand means more production is necessary—bigger manufacturing plants, more land to graze more cows, more staff, more shipping infrastructure etc.  More production means more waste—more bottles of milk that don’t get sold by the use by date, more copies of one dress to end up on the sale rack, more magazines and newspapers to end up as landfill if they’re not sold by the end of the week.

All of this means more environmental problems—more resource use, more production by-products, shrinking landfill sites, more disposal infrastructure, more agricultural pollution, more greenhouse gas production, more waste to end up in creeks and rivers and eventually the ocean.

More environmental problems means more financial cost to governments and taxpayers and ultimately, a cost to everyone’s quality of life.

Before you jump on my back, I’m not trying to be a pre-redemption Ebenezer Scrooge.  I love Christmas.  I love the forced holiday.  I love roast lamb, mince pies, fruitcake and mulled wine.  I love the excuse to buy the people you love a present that will bring them joy.  Without being sanctimonious, getting STUFF is by far the least important thing to me.  Not because I have a saintly goal, but just because I can’t stand the stress of having to pretend I really liked that solar-powered fountain of the Venus de Milo with the fibre-optic butterflies around her body.  Or the stress of having to drag it out of the shed and set it up every time the giver comes to visit.

Having STUFF is stressful.  Bring back the days when you could pack up everything you owned in a couple of duffel bags and hit the road without a freight truck behind you.  Bring back bespoke shoes and tailor-made clothes.  Bring back beauty and usefulness and the fresh air of an uncluttered world.  And bring back the advertisement of Christmas as a time of “comfort and joy”, not clutter and toys.

Merry Christmas! May it haunt your house pleasantly.

© Manu Saunders 2010