Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Story of Stuff

My son Eric loves to rant about my being a "a damn hippie" when I post links to anything that even remotely suggests that our consumptive habits are having dire effects on the planet. Well, Eric, this disclaimer is for you.

Don't watch this 20 minute video. It'll just piss you off:

Like pretty much every American, I've got way more stuff than I need. My wife will enthusiastically attest to that fact. And I have way more bike stuff than I need, even though I try to pare it down and I really don't buy into the "ten-speed is great, nine speed sucks" or "I can't believe you're still riding steel" mindset.

My scrounging tendency often works against me. While I may make fenders out of old campaign signs or rework old bikes to suit my purposes, I'm a sucker for tools ("I can use that to fix old stuff!"), parts ("I can use that to keep old stuff running!") and nifty gadgets ("that jacket with zip-off sleeves can replace my jacket and my vest!") and the next thing I know I have lots of tools and parts and not only a jacket and a vest but a jacket/vest and wait a minute, don't I have something like four other jackets here? And don't get me started on t-shirts. How the hell did I wind up with so many t-shirts?

Living in a small place and being car-free helps keep me conscious of my stuff. Almost all the stuff filling our place was lugged here by my wife or my kids or me under our own power. Of course, it's really to easy to click on something at Amazon and have that guy with the brown truck show up a few days later with the latest bit of niftiness. And of course, I'm part of the problem. I've got Amazon links on my site, I tell people about nifty things I've found and heck some of those damn t-shirts spilling out of my dresser drawers are things I myself designed and sell.

But you've gotta have some stuff, right? Well, yeah, you do. But it's a balancing act and some days I feel more out of balance than others.

It's a lesson I keep re-learning, one that often seems the clearest when I'm out on my bicycle, going up a hill. Everything I have with me gets weighed, maybe not on a scale, but with each pedal stroke as the grade goes up. The stove and fuel that I brought for comfort in camp do not give me comfort on the climb. So do I take them with me or not? It's a calculation that can be made both ways.

The video I linked to at the top of this post talks about the environmental costs of all this stuff but it's not just the big environment that's polluted, it's the local environment that's polluted. My apartment, my desk at work, my mental spaces are all filled with too much junk.

I don't need a shed for all this stuff, I need to get rid of many sheds worth of stuff. What I need, what I really need, I'll keep. Right now, I need to go on a stuff diet. For every item that comes in, at least that much has to go out.

Quality wins out over quantity. The TV just lost out to 1080 pages of Thomas Pynchon's latest novel. Stuff I've kept "just in case" for too long are going away. Books I won't re-read will go to the used book store, good clothes can find some other man to wear them. The almost-right jackets can keep someone else dry. At least one more bike needs to go.

I may still get that shed. I will probably by the next great bike light that comes out.

I'm not off the treadmill, but I'm trying to think about my steps.


Anonymous said...

Hi Kent,

Good post. My progress in the same direction isn't going too swift, but slow and steady wins the race I guess.

I've got it down to two personal bikes, (as opposed to the two "family" Bike Fridays, and the other two tandems). I've started taking my
"work bike," the Xtracycle equipped '84 Trek 830, out on the local trails. I'm not much of a mountain biker. I'll be heading uphill on the gravel, sand, and huge rock strewn trails through the pinon/juniper outside of Santa Fe, and the rear tire will slip. I catch myself, and then I can't get started again -- the tire keeps slipping in the gravel -- so I have to walk to the top of the hill. It's enjoyable, and I'm having a good time, but all day, I'm thinking, "hey, these Big Apples are just too slick for trails. Hey, I can see why people like suspension and disk brakes going down what amounts to a boulder field like this. If I had a dedicated mountain bike instead of an Xtracycle, I wouldn't have to stop and swing my bike around the switchback to line it back up. hey, I could use a GPS unit out here." And so on.

I'm having fun. The Xtracycle works well enough. I don't mind walking, though I'm sure if I ran across hardcore mountain bikers, they would wonder what I'm up to.

God knows why we think more stuff will make our lives any happier.

gazer said...

" we plop down on our new couch and watch TV, and the commercials tell us 'You Suck!', so we gotta go to the mall to buy something to feel better..."

That about sums it up (and I left out about 80% of that sentence).

Anonymous said...

Great post...I too need a stuff diet. Comes from being trapped at home for a couple of days. All I could think about was the "stuff" I did not need. Very fulfilling to get a garbage bag and give it the heave ho.

UltraRob said...

Great find! I'm not your son but it made me mad. I'm not without guilt although I try thinking about whether or not I really need something.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kent, it's Craig.

I have been suggesting that everyone, rather than freecycling stuff (which is both a good and fun way to lighten the load)instead set up some kind of shelf near their front door. You can put that old headlight, and a couple of t-shirts and your old coffee grinder there, all nicely displayed, and get your friends to take something when they leave. I figure if we all do this, we can put Wal-Mart out of business. We all have more than enough 'stuff'.

Mainly I seem to collect jackets and fleece beanie hats, I'm not really sure why. So if you need one, let me know.

Cascade Cyclist said...


Something that may interest you if you are not already familiar is "Cohousing", which among other things, tries promote a downscaling of consumption at the neighborhood scale.

I was one of the original folks involved at Bellingham Cohousing (, and still own a home there.

Don't tell your son, but the youth who have grown up there love the experience, "hippies" and all.

David Longdon

Schorsch said...

Hi Kent,

Good, thoughtful post. It's good to take stock of your life, and to choose quality over quantity. It's also good to buy things, especially from good people who make good things. Taking yourself out of the system might help a bit, and it certainly feels good, but it's just giving up.

The way I look at it, the more money I make making things I believe in, the more good, quality stuff I can buy from somebody else who makes things he believes in. I vote with my wallet, and if Walmart knows how much money I spend in better stores than theirs, I'm sure they'd be salivating.

I don't have the cash flow yet, but when I do I'll buy a bike from a framemaker, instead of a disposable plastic wonderbike. He'll put lots of good work into it, and I'll reward him for making something beautiful, and we'll both be happy.

We all gotta eat,

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to *story of* It makes sense, is well presented, and inspirational. Good timing too -- during this *holy-day season*, that has become the *season of giving*.

c said...

Brad here,

All I can say is that I love it when you go through this phase but I curse that we don't ride the same size bike. I would make out like a bandit every year or so if only I rode a 54 or 17 inch bike. Drag.

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess I'm a young hippie at heart, but not at wallet. I have terrible technolust and a very wide variety of intrests. This leads to a lot of shelves of stuff I don't use as often as I should to justify keeping them at home.

Also, I'm an expat who's planning to move home in about 15 months and I'm trying to decide what is necessary to use oil to send back to another continent and what I should just let go of, and what I can pick up second hand on the other end. it's very frustrating, and challenging. Some days I just want to ship it all home, some days none at all.

I don't know whether it's better to keep and use the huge amount of stuff I have as long as I can or what to do about it.

I hope this turns into an interesting dialogue.


Anonymous said...

Kent -- great post. I agree with you that keeping your personal space small helps to reduce the amount of stuff you can own. It's even harder to work with this when you work in retail. UGH! That I make my living from selling stuff is an irony that is not ever lost on me. On the best days, I can laugh about it.

Tai-po said...


Binging and purging is a way of life man! It's the retail equivalent of an eating disorder.

I must admit it is funny to watch you go through the phases of getting rid of bikes, only to be caught up with another cool/free bike. It's like witnessing an epic story: You are Gilgamesh, battling the heavenly bull of bike stuff.

I've been on the roller coaster this last year too. I got rid of a bunch of stuff, but replaced them with new and improved stuff. To make matters worse, stuff is just being given to me. I got rid of my fixed gear, and now I find out that I'm being given one in exchange for services.

You're probably ahead of the game. You're obviously hyper aware of your stuff level, and have not engaged in the usual stuff-hoarding like cars and such. You should pat yourself on the back for that.

To a certain extent, I've come to a certain inner peace about my propensity to get stuff. It's kind of like a chi...stuff comes when it should, and goes when it is no longer needed. I have become one with my stuffiness in some respects.

I think I would need some kind of relativity-shifting experience in order to change my stuff habits at this point. I would need to wander the earth like Kane in Kung Fu and see how much stuff others don't have and NEED. If I could really feel the pain of someone not having clean drinking water, perhaps it would dull my own sense of need for wanting stuff.

Stuff needs it's own patron saint. St. Uff, Patron Saint of a cure for the pain which we cannot identify in time to avoid making a bad decision.


Todd Temres said...

WOW good one Kent

Seems people have to much money, quit you job. Get a job making pizzas on Fridays, being happy with what you got. Spend your time on one five night bike tour after another. Vote by voting. REDUCE REUSE RECYCLE

buy nothing year?

yeah I live in the bushes and ride my bike all day every day a homeless bum and try not to let it go to my head. peace for all

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Kent. I already do some of the recommended actions but I will definitely continue and do more of action #3. Thank you for doing more of action #3 on your blog.

Gene in Tacoma

Anonymous said...

Have flood! Guaranteed to help relieve you of stuff. Actually, best to put as much stuff as possible down at ground level. If you realy want to make short work of stupp, pu tit outside thehouse, eaned up against the 'potentiually ddown stream' wall. Just make sure that you are upstream, not downstream.

Ours is the last house on the street, at the end of the Cul de Sac, with woods behind. Unfortunately, this orientation allowed me to collect LOTS of other people's stuff.

Seriously, thanks so much for the offer of help. Trying to imagine a way to incorporate Power Straps in the demolition process.

Anonymous said...

I liked the content of this video, but found some of the presentation grating. The annoted script was more enjoyable for me, especially as someone who likes to see the citations behind the facts.

I've been thinking about how to reduce my own stuff for a long time. I'm going through a basement/workshop remodel at the moment and hopefully that'll help me slim down because I'll have to look at almost everything that I own as I move it. I've been getting better at asking myself "do I need this?" whenever I purchase anything, but I don't say no enough. I do buy a lot of my goods used which helps with packaging and production waste.

On cohousing -- I love the idea of cohousing, but not the idea of building new neighborhoods or developments to make it possible. I love my sort of dense, walkable, in city neighborhood and most of the cohousing that I've seen is farther out. I would like to see a good model for a community workshop. I hope that programs like techshop are successful.

z-man said...

Well, here goes an admission.

I too have lots of stuff. About 18 bikes, 4 motorcycles, a bunch of guitars. The thing is I use all of them, all the time. Not at the same time, mind you, but in constant rotation. It's easy to put a bike together w/ a different mission than the last one, and use it when the notion comes. The problem comes though, as you describe w/ stuff like clothes, reading materials of all sorts, shoes and the like. I've vowed to cut this down after the first of the year because I'm starting to feel buried by it. the stuff I use, I'll keep. I feel no guilt about that. I earned the money that I spent on the stuff and I enjoyed spending the money I earned. But some parts I've horded for "some day" like tires, wheels, etc, and extra work jackets to keep me comfy through every conceivable circumstance, some of which never did, nor ever will arrive-well, that stuff is headed to e-bay.
The Stuff Diet begins 01-01-08.

Tammy said...

damn hippie!

I'm in the same boat. New bike in, as much out as possible to pay for said new bike. Ebay, here I come!

Ellie Hamilton said...

Very cool! No wonder you liked my jury-rigged visibility vest :-) I, too live in a tiny space (300 sq.ft. RV) and have to watch my "stuff" and periodically weed it out. Things that can do double (or triple)duty are great -- e.g., same bike for road rides, triathlons, and commuting; running and cycling duds doing both. This perspective is also going to come in handy when I throw some stuff into a pack and hit the Appalachian Trail.

I like your blog!

nollij said...

Kent, it took your entry (which I saw, but didn't check out the link) and an email from a friend before I checked out the story of stuff, but it was so inpiring, I put up my own blog entry about it here. I need to get rid of a LOT of stuff. Give it away to people who don't have any (or very little) stuff. The main thing I need to implement myself (and in my family) is the "Do I need this" question when I go to buy anything. I need to remember that "new" isn't very often better b/c of the "planned obsolescence" intrinsic in almost all "new" things. Case in point: the first VCR my family had weighed about 35 pounds, was made mostly of metal and lasted about 17 years of moderate to heavy usage. Most most recent model (a Panasonic DMR-ES46V bought from CostCo, the ultimate in big box stores) has lasted less than a year and the DVD player no longer works at all. My last DVD player lasted about 3 years before the display started malfunctioning. I think I'm going down to GoodWill or Salvation Army and seeing if I can find one of those first generation DVD players: they probably still work.

Anonymous said...

I invite you to download the complete movie clip from the following URL.

Anonymous said...

Saw the video, loved it. The concepts the video went through are some of the reasons that I am a minimalist. I constantly try to own as little as possible, it's the opposite of consumerism. Breaking the mental bonds that material possesion attachment has over us is a liberating experience. It helps you live in the moment, live for experiences and relationships rather than in constant pursuit of material wealth and sets you free