On attempting to de-stuff

We recently moved – him from his apartment of five years, me from the latest in my string of less-than-a-year stints in rented apartments or houses with roommates or parents. Packing was a revelation – did I really have all that in that 400-square foot room of mine? It was mostly in boxes for the time I was there anyway, and I tripped over it constantly. The move itself was even more of one – a 14-foot U-Haul truck was filled almost twice over with all the furniture and stuff we’ve crammed into our 2-bedroom basement. In our hasty-packing, we’d taken almost no time to weed stuff out.

We (my knees especially) are certainly paying for it now, and have committed to finding new homes and uses for as many of our possessions as possible. It was very timely that I was skimming my WorldChanging feed last week and came across an article by novelist/futurist Bruce Sterling talking about this very topic, titled “The Last Viridian Note.”

I’ve watched a video of Bruce Sterling talking about his ideas, so I feel OK recommending skipping the first few paragraphs of that article, because it’s not really a big deal if you don’t locate what he says within his broader project. His logic is impeccable, cutting through the mess of all our individual efforts and locating the longer, more worthwhile and noble trajectory of our best projects. It’s also not wholly original, but he’s managed to package it in a way that Just Works. For example, take what he says of what sustainability really is:

What is “sustainability?” Sustainable practices navigate successfully through time and space, while others crack up and vanish. So basically, the sustainable is about time – time and space. You need to re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space.

He moves through the levels, from the historical to the futuristic to the now, without over-prescribing.

The items that you use incessantly, the items you employ every day, the normal, boring goods that don’t seem luxurious or romantic: these are the critical ones. They are truly central. The everyday object is the monarch of all objects. It’s in your time most, it’s in your space most. It is “where it is at,” and it is “what is going on.”

He then proposes a strategy, starting with a taxonomy, then with suggestions on what to do with everything else. The sentimentalist in me needs this:

You are not “losing things” by these acts of material hygiene. You are gaining time, health, light and space. Also, the basic quality of your daily life will certainly soar. Because the benefits of good design will accrue to you where they matter – in the everyday.

Since reading it, we’ve started throwing the ideas out, working its arguments and perspective into our analyses, making it part of the purchasing deliberation. Sometimes it seems unnecessary, cynical, uncool to the nth degree. I’m already a super-utilitarian shopper, a trait all the fancy coffee in the world can’t shake from me – I’ve learned to be content as the daughter of a man who would hold on to, then re-use, my bicycle training wheels from when I was five years old, ten years after the fact. But even I look at his garage (now storage locker) filled with things that are, in Sterling’s words, “made to 20th century standards, which are very bad,” and wonder at it.

The largest truth for me comes half-way:

Stuff breaks, ages, rusts, wears out, decays. Entropy is an inherent property of time and space. Understand this fact. Expect this. The laws of physics are all right, they should not provoke anguished spasms of denial.

As always. Let go.

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