November 19, 2019

What We Own and What Owns Us

“In 1859, around 450 passengers on the Royal Charter, returning from the Australian goldmines to Liverpool, drowned when the steam clipper was shipwrecked off the north coast of Wales. What makes this tragic loss of life remarkable among countless other maritime disasters was that many of those on board were weighed down by the gold in their money belts that they just wouldn’t abandon so close to home. Humans have a particularly strong and, at times, irrational obsession with possessions. Every year, car owners are killed or seriously injured in their attempts to stop the theft of their vehicles – a choice that few would make in the cold light of day. It’s as if there is a demon in our minds that compels us to fret over the stuff we own, and make risky lifestyle choices in the pursuit of material wealth. I think we are possessed.

Of course, materialism and the acquisition of wealth is a powerful incentive. Most would agree with the line often attributed to the actress Mae West: ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – believe me, rich is better.’ But there comes a point when we have achieved a comfortable standard of living and yet we continue to strive for more stuff – why?

It is unremarkable that we like to show off our wealth in the form of possessions. In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons were markers of elite social position. He coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to describe the willingness of people to buy more expensive goods over cheaper, yet functionally equivalent, goods in order to signal status. One reason is rooted in evolutionary biology.”

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