How Much Stuff Do We Need? It’s Christmas Time

Instead of buying dead butterflies, why not go for a walk to admire fluttering butterflies in nature?

In North America only 1% of the purchases lasts longer than six months, says the narrator on the excellent movie about the Story of Stuff. That’s a depressing thought, and one day I am confronted with this madness of buying, largely on impulse, when we need to replace an oscillating fan in the Land Cruiser.

A Loja Importada

Regular shops downtown have no stock of 12-volt ventilators. Too bad. Our last chance is a loja importada – a shop selilng imported goods. The name isn’t promising.

The parking lot features a huge Statue of Liberty. I take a deep breath and we enter the store. It is November and the shop is already decorated for Christmas. We stroll through aisles among hundreds of people: big-bellies due to eating too much, big bellies due to pregnancy, skinny-boned youngsters, teenagers talking on cell phones, adults talking on cell phones, a woman who who holds on tight to her purse to guard it against pick-pockets.

These kind of shops always make me wonder: how many plastic bowls, bags and household appliances do we need?

The place is claustrophobic. Coen scans the hundreds of shelves with zillions of household appliances, toys, clothes, and I don’t know what. There are ventilators, 12 volt. He asks an employee if he can test it in our Land Cruiser. Wonder oh wonder, this is possible without having to go through all kinds of hierarchies to get permission. The employee accompanies Coen outside.

I take refuge in a lanchonette. I have to admit: major shops in Brazil generally have coffee corners. But, unfortunately, they are out of coffee. I settle for water that I pour from a water filter in a cup so thin the water almost bursts through the plastic. Few places wear me out quicker than stores. They drain my energy. Coen, on the other hand, doesn’t have that problem at all. I gladly leave the purchase to him.

I stare at the scene: all these people walking around like ants, careful not to touch each other. Rows of people at the cashier. Discussions about prices, credit cards that don’t work, items that haven’t been priced. I don’t have the illusion that these purchases will last longer than in North America. The same addiction to consumerism has penetrated Brazil.

Some people can’t buy a package of cigarets; they buy one at the time.

Not on all levels though; too many people are still too poor. Those people don’t come here. They can’t afford it. What I see here, is the quickly rising middle class that profits from Brazil’s rapidly growing economy.

I’m happy for these people that the economy goes well and that they can improve their standard of living. But is this what you do with that wealth? Spend it on – mostly – junk? I look at it with a feeling of despair. Why do people want to do with so much stuff? It’s a need I have never understood.

Why not start more of these “repair cafés“, like they have in Amsterdam and other towns in the Netherlands? It’s not only a great initiative to hopefully do something about a throwaway culture, but the project has evolved into something more: a place for people to meet and socialize.

I realize I’m missing the point here: What I am watching is some sort of addiction to wanting to buy, the need of having to buy. Many items are bought on impulse, much is more of what people already have at home. We have slept for months with a deafening fan because I didn’t want to buy a new one and I believe in miracles – maybe the noise would suddenly stop. I had to give up on this one, though.

From Despair to a Smile

In front of me stand the ugliest Christmas tree and a nativity scene. Best description: throw in all colors and materials, sprinkle it with fake snow or gold and put the lot on two square meters. There you go. Nobody stops to admire the scene; people are too busy running between their car, junk on the shelves and the cashier to stop and take a look.

Until a little girl dressed in a white-blue checkered dress and sandals enters the store. The Christmas tree enthralls her. She is walking on her toes. Her mother wants to pick her up. The girl doesn’t agree and starts crying. Mother gives in. The girl is fixed on the tree and the plastic dolls. Mother watches how she pulls at the plastic flowers (yep, in a nativity scene).

That’s okay, they will fall apart in no time anyway, I’m sure, is my thought. Mother doesn’t say anything. Girl sees a large shiny Christmas ball in the tree. Wants to caress it. No problem for Mother, who follows at close distance but doesn’t stop her. Suddenly the girl starts running. Round and round she goes, around the trees and the plastic dolls and animals. Laughter penetrates the hall. Mother follows and smiles. She enjoys watching her girl having fun.

And I am having fun. I’m suddenly aware my depression has made place for a smile. Material things don’t make me smile; a happy kid does.

What makes you happy?

By the way, all movies of the Story of Stuff Project are worth checking out. They give you a wholly different (more complete) perspective on consumerism, the myth of recycling and the power of large corporate enterprises.

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here and here.

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