Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hippies get a bad rap (or: Why A New Materialism)

Please go and look at this picture from Nikki McClure's collection because it illustrates perfectly what we're trying to do here.

The counterculture of the 1960s began as a sociological backlash against the stuffy/uniform/materialistic society of the 1950s. To (over)simplify the situation, society in the 50s encouraged everyone to live in a ranch style house with a station wagon parked outside that you drove to your nine-to-five while wearing a dark suit and tie with a white shirt. You also buzzed your hair (I'm talking men here--you women stayed at home and did the dishes... and did NOT buzz your hair). The counterculture was a rejection of such materialistic revelry.

In the long run, maybe hippies should get a bad rap for letting themselves become polluted by some of the movement's more publicized traits (e.g. smoking grass and dropping acid). Conspiracy theorists point to the evidence that the CIA actually initiated the drug culture. Regardless of who started it, "mind expansion" became a hallmark of the counterculture and this distraction ultimately led to its demise.

Two weeks ago I drove across the country so I would have my car in D.C.
Something about driving across the country (as opposed to flying) made the expansiveness and the beauty more concrete. When we fly, it's as if we appear at our destinations by magic. We climb into a metal tube that roars for several hours, screeches to a halt, and suddenly we're across the country.

While driving, we are aware (at least partially--depending on how enthralled we are by BBC Radio's coverage of the World Cup) of every mile we travel. After all, we have to scan the radio dial to find the next NPR station when the last one gets too fuzzy. We get out to take pictures when we come to a scene that moves us. This visceral experience puts us in touch with the material reality of traveling across the country. It makes the physical nature of our place real.

This is what we must do with the rest of our material world. Instead of the materialism that amounts to the rabid acquisition of stuff, we must adopt a materialism that puts us in touch with the apple blossoms waiting to become apples that occasional get stuck in our hair, the butterflies that are willing to land on our (collective)nose, the woodpecker waking us up in the morning, and the breeze that whisks our napkins off the picnic table and into the grass where ants are transporting crumbs home. These are the material things with which we ought to be obsessed.

More than that, we ought to be more careful about our possessions too. As Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff, said on the Colbert Report, "I want us to have greater reverence and appreciation for our stuff instead of this just mindless buying and chucking all the time. I want us to look at our stuff and think 'someone made this, someone mined those metals, someone felled that forest, or produced those crops, or fished in the ocean, or whatever they had to do to get that stuff, someone brought it to us'. Let's have a little more appreciation and reverence for the stuff we have instead of this mindless consumerism all the time."

That's what "new materialism" is all about.

Here's the view from my tent in Bozeman,  Montana: 


  1. My dad flew up from TX to help me move on Friday. While all my stuff was being 'thrown about' boxed up and jumbled, I found myself being worried about its well being and where it'd end up, and if I'd be able to find it all later. I'm not too materialistic really, and I know we lay our treasures in heaven, but pieces of me wanted to keep everything close, and handy, and well kept because all that stuff is mine and I worked hard to buy it. I told myself it was okay to worry a little. I like your blog so far, maybe you'll help develop more of a political side in me

  2. I know what you mean. There are not too many places I feel safe leaving my stuff. And I agree with keeping a broad perspective on what's truly important, but at the same time, ecological sanity requires some care on our part. Glad you like it :)