Paul Andersen: Positive materialism and plasticizing people

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

After years of excoriating “materialism” as the cause of the consumer religion that underscores mainstream American values, I was wrong. Materialism is good.

I learned this from Alan Watts, a Zen master, Beat philosopher and acerbic social critic. Watts defended the virtues of materialism in his book, “What Does It Matter?”

“The commonly accepted notion that Americans are materialists is pure bunk,” Watts wrote in 1968. “A materialist is one who loves material, a person devoted to the enjoyment of the physical and immediate present. By this definition, most Americans are abstractionists. They hate material and convert it as swiftly as possible into mountains of junk and clouds of poisonous gas.”

Watts was a leading intellectual voice in England who wrote thoughtful, amusing critiques of the changing times during the rise of the counter-culture in the 1960s. That’s when I came of age, which explains a lot about the views I foment here.

It was Watt’s view of materialism that set me straight — that and being upbraided by a friend who said I was a Scrooge for writing a column lampooning the gross excess of the holiday spending orgy known as Christmas.

Watts was right about mountains of trash that today threaten to overwhelm landfills and are proliferating microplastics through our air, water and food. As landfills in the U.S. reach over capacity with our junk, we humans are ingesting microplastics in unprecedented volumes.

It is only a matter of time until humans ingest so much plastic that those lucky enough to survive will adapt and evolve to incorporate plastics into their organism, converting humanity from organic to inorganic as fully plasiticized hybrid life forms.

Plasticization may not extend our lifespans, but it will certainly preserve our corpses, which will be as indestructible as a Styrofoam cup. What a stunning achievement! Crematoriums will either require scrubbers so that immolating plasticized human remains will not further toxify the planet or be forced to recycle corpses.

I was not alone in considering the addiction to materialism rampant at the holidays. The New York Times reported on Christmas Eve that “the mass devaluation of things has not caused us to buy less.” Rather, said the Times, it causes us to buy more.

If we constantly devalue the stuff in our lives because it has gotten old, we will want new stuff to feel truly good. And if there’s one unifying truth today, it is that new stuff is better than old stuff.

As the new stuff comes in, the old stuff goes out to the landfills where it converts into microplastics, which then reside in perpetuity deep within our guts.

“So,” suggested the Times, “it seems that we are buying more, but the things we buy hold less value for us. The accumulation of things is still at the essence of what it means to be American.”

Thorstein Veblen described this in “Theory of the Leisure Class,” where he satirized consumerism by coining the expression “conspicuous consumption.” Veblen wrote in 1899: “The basis on which good repute in any highly organized industrial community ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods.”

Veblen goes a step further, saying that, above and beyond conspicuous consumption is “conspicuous waste,” the next level in pecuniary strength. If that’s not enough, Veblen said, one’s social status really rises by wasting human labor, which is the ultimate definition of wealth and prestige.

“The conspicuously wasteful honorific expenditure,” Veblen writes, “may become more indispensable than much of that expenditure which ministers to the lower wants of physical well-being.”

We need to become better materialists, urged the Times: “Rekindling our love of things may be the key to saving the planet. When we purchase things we value from both an ethical and sentimental standpoint, we are more likely to preserve them even when they are defunct or no longer in vogue.”

If we wish to be good materialists, we must attach ourselves permanently to our stuff. That would mean consuming more plastics to become the material we love. At least it might keep it out of the oceans.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at