The New Materialism: or, how falling in love with the world could help us all live more, with less.
The world’s oldest continuously working mechanical timepiece, the clock at Wells Cathedral was wound by hand every week for 600 years until the last in a long line of ‘Keepers of the Great Clock’ retired in August 2010. Maintaining the clock required skill, dedication and a great deal of care. As the centuries passed, it needed each of the keepers to develop a loving relationship with the mechanism: to tend, nurture and cajole it into life. It is this quality of relationship that we lose when we lose our connection with the objects we own, and this sense of enchantment with the material world we are part of that lies at the heart of an emerging ‘New Materialism’ that promises a world of better, not more.
In protest against a deluge of high velocity ‘stuff’, for over 20 years people around the world have celebrated ‘Buy Nothing Day’ on the last Saturday in November. A break from the pressure to constantly consume is a relief for many, but are we missing a bigger opportunity to develop a healthy and fulfilling relationship with ‘stuff’? To date, the green movement has responded to the need to live within our collective ecological means by either (like ‘Buy Nothing Day’) theatrically rejecting the material world, or by promoting a new, green consumerism (more of the same, but slightly less damaging). Initiatives like ‘Buy Nothing Day’ help us break the cycle of consumption, but our collective response to the pressing need to learn to live within our environmental limits could be much more. It could be an invitation to fall in love with the material world: in healthier, more deeply satisfying ways.
On a practical level the new materialism has been quietly developing for decades. Instead of a ‘throwaway’ society (in every sense of the word), we know we should move to one in which value is created with more of a ‘closed-loop’ of material use in which we repair, reduce, reuse, recycle and all the other appropriate actions prefixed with ‘re’. Engaging with the world by making and doing isn’t just good for the environment. It allows expression and encourages growth through learning. Stonemason Lida Kindersley describes how much can be learned from something as simple as using a pencil: “If you want to define a letter the moment that you push on the pencil, or use it aggressively, it breaks. You learn to keep the point by not using force. The secret to the stonemasons’ craft lies in understanding and working with the material, not dominating it”.
A world in which we all hold a wider range of practical skills leaves us less at the mercy of disposable goods and built-in obsolescence, and more in a position to shape and fashion the world around us in satisfying ways. It gives us real freedom to replace the illusory version promised by the market. The free-market version of freedom restricts us to a series of anxiety-inducing choices between almost identical products we played no part in creating that are likely to be superceded by a new ‘must-have’ model in a matter of weeks. The attractiveness of a ‘great reskilling’ is that it gives us real freedom to shape the world for ourselves. It has been widely promoted by the Transition Town movement where skills on offer range from how to make your own radio programme to how to build your own house.
Instead of passively consuming – by making, mending and caring for ‘stuff’, we enter into a deeper, more fulfilling relationship with the world, one that is rewarding, inherently low impact and socially just – since it also involves better sharing what we already have. It is what the ecological economist Herman Daly is referring to when he says the economy of the future needs to be a “subtle and complex economics of maintenance, qualitative improvements, sharing, frugality, and adaptation to natural limits. It is an economics of better, not bigger.” More than that, in the words of the Ceramicist Marianne de Trey, a ‘New Materialist’ approach is “a journey into the very heart of things.”
It describes a shift from a passive consumer society to more of an active ‘producer society’. It suggests a world in which we roll back our gradual deskilling and the impoverishment of work, and where we all confidently know how to boil an egg, stitch a garment or build a wall. This is a world where we don’t just consume collaboratively (the re-emergence of the age-old practices of sharing, lending, bartering swapping and gifting from global networks like ‘Freecycle’ to the UK’s ‘Streetbank’) but that we create and produce collaboratively too. From Community Supported Agriculture to new urban farms, social centres, furniture recycling and bicycle repair shops, communities of people are already coming together to make and re-fashion the things that we need. In the words of William Morris, it is a world abundant in “useful work, not useless toil”.
This is where the New Materialism can advance the transition to an economy that supports, rather than undermines, meaningful and healthy lives for all. An economy that needs to boost demand without raising consumption is one that calls for practical people and artists in equal measure – menders, makers and entertainers. It requires a huge growth in practical services that will boost the numbers of plumbers, electricians, builders, carpenters, farmers and engineers, as much as upholsterers, seamstresses, painters, potters, sports coaches and storytellers. Maintenance, craft, quality and entertainment could be the guiding principles by which we nurture the economy through a great transition to an economy that is able to deliver good lives for all, with less.
There is much more that could be done to accelerate the emergence of the New Materialism, from ending the scourge of built-in obsolescence to re-imaging charity shops as high street hubs where we come together to make, mend and share. To begin with, though, we have proposed an initial manifesto for the New Materialism. And, in the spirit of a world we shape and care for together, we invite anyone to add to, or adapt, this manifesto at thenewmaterialism.org. We could also reform the month that has come to be synonymous with the old-materialism. The four weeks before Christmas could become a ‘Make, Mend and Share Month.’ If this happens, we might even arrive at Christmas Day feeling happier, more sociable, and considerably less in debt.
Ruth Potts and Andrew Simms
The New Materialism is published by Schumacher College, bread, print & roses and The Real Press and can also be downloaded from the Schumacher College website here. There will be a number of events on the new materialism in the coming months, please keep an eye on the Schumacher website for more detail.