The story of the last two months has been one of finding places for things. It started when I began packing to leave Oxford, attempting to cajole my worldly possessions into fitting in two duffel bags. Looking into the closets and storage spaces of my college-owned graduate house, I realized that many international students had faced a similar challenge—and simply left their things behind. I could have left the closets for future archaeologists to excavate, but when Jackie started cleaning them, I set about finding homes other than the waste bin for ancient printers, leftover crutches, and fifty-odd medals that were supposed to be distributed at the 2004 British University Athletics Championship.
Home presented its own set of challenges for my commitment to non-wasting. When we moved to Oregon my junior year, my parents—perhaps hoping to lessen the trauma of leaving my childhood home—let me let me pack up my entire room, right down to the most useless of knick-knacks. This summer, however, the day of reckoning had come, and I opened up those boxes—some of which were, literally, labeled “Random Crap I Don’t Have the Heart to Throw Out.” What place other than the landfill, I wondered, is a good home for 4th Place Little League Trophies? And what should happen to stuffed animals for which I can’t even remember the names anymore?
After the unfortunate revelation that I had not just two duffel bags of stuff, but actually boxes and boxes of it, I committed myself to starting my life in Berkeley on an anti-consumerist note. To be fair, Berkeley makes it easy. Even in the ritziest neighborhoods through which I’ve walked, every block or two there is a couch, box of books, or appliance set out on the curb for the taking. I found my desk at Urban Ore, a waystation for furniture in transit from derelict low-income housing to the landfill. My bed—which has actual springs from the 19th century—I acquired from a friend clearing out his cabin. I rounded it out with a bike unearthed from a pile of rusting frames at a shop that refurbishes abandoned cycles. All told, I set myself up for $75 and, more importantly, never stepped foot inside IKEA.
It feels good to look around my eclectically decorated but ethically consistent bedroom and realize that I have, in a small but significant way, re-engaged with the anti-wasting and anti-consuming ethics I picked up through my time with the freegans in New York. But—since to study sociology is to live in a constant state of self-examination—I can’t help but apply a bit of theory to reality. Particular, I am reminded of sociologist Georg Simmel, who theorized the personality types revealed by certain orientations towards money. Superficially, he noted, “misers” and “spendthrifts” have the exact opposite attitude towards money: one throws it away flippantly, and the other hoards it. But in the end, both wind up with a similar obsession—each makes money central to his or her life and identity, whether or not the aim is to keep it or to spend it.
There is a certain fetishism in the anti-consumerist ethos, albeit the exact opposite of the kind identified by Marx: rather than ignore where our commodities come from, we obsess about their origins. Anti-consumerism is supposed to be about realizing that we don’t need the things that advertisers tell us we do. Yet, not-buying is less about not-having than is simply not-spending. By searching through flea markets and pouring over Freecycle ads, we become,in a sense, bargain shoppers with a price point of $0.
I worry because, ultimately, the time I spend worrying about what I am consuming and how to consume it is a distraction from doing something proactive, productive, and pro-social. And so, in the future, I think the solution may occasionally have to be just to plunk down some money, push all those useable but discarded items out of my mind, and actually go and try to change something.