Our Deep Dependence on Stuff Is Only Human, Archeologist Says
If you feel guilty about holding onto excess stuff, relax. You’re only human. Apparently, our dependent relationship with things has been going on for some 2.5 million years. For those of you not great at history, that’s before Walmart opened.
I recently read an article in which one Ian Hodder, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Stanford University, said that at the heart of humanity’s history is a dependency on objects. I had to talk to this guy.
Hodder, also the author of “Where Are We Heading? The Evolution of Humans and Things,” (Yale University Press, 2018), and “Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), was presumably also intrigued to find where the paths of a modern-day home columnist and a scholar of the ancient realm might intersect, as he agreed to an interview.
Since I cannot improve upon what was actually said by making any of it up, as I usually do, I am simply going to deliver our conversation to you as it unfolded, best as I can. (Parentheticals reflect unspoken narrative.)
Marni: I bet you’re wondering why a home design columnist wants to interview you.
Hodder: Well, I am curious to hear what questions you have for me.
Marni: We both write about our attachment to things. How do you explain it?
Hodder: In the long sweep of human history, the reasons we first got attached to things were much more practical. The first items we attached to were tools that helped us build houses or get food. We’ve found stone tools in Africa, flaked pebbles, that date back 2.5 million years. Then items became very important socially, as they became markers of identity and status.
Marni: That hasn’t changed much.
Hodder: After humans began to settle down, came the notion of ownership. Gradually, humans recognized that you can pick something up, associate with it, own it and protect it from others by fighting over it.
Marni: Which pretty much explains everything from sandbox quarrels to world wars.
Hodder: We’ve been encouraged by capitalism to identify with things and associate with them emotionally and to think our identity and happiness depend on them.
Marni: (They don’t?) I talk about endowment, how humans get attached to things by endowing them with meaning: I wore that dress when I met my husband. This is my lucky notebook. This teddy bear makes me feel more secure. You talk about entanglement, humans’ inextricable relationship with the environment. What’s the difference?
Hodder: Endowment is more emotional and psychological. It’s a part of entanglement, but entanglement is much broader. Entanglement is about the increasing mutual dependency between humans and things, about how we extract from the world to make things, and, in order to keep depending on those things, we need to work harder and extract more.
Marni: (My brain feels like it does when I stagger off a roller coaster.) For example?
Hodder: Take the wheel, which was invented about 6,000 years ago. The wheel was a good invention. (That’s archeologist humor). But now we need the things that depend on it: the wagon or cart, the animals to pull it, the roads to pull it on, later the car, and then oil and petrol, and so we take more from the environment.
Marni: And then the wheel takes the whole planet downhill. (I reach for the vodka.)
Hodder: This is not all bad news.
Marni: Please go on.
Hodder: A lot of positive comes from our depending on things. This dependence is the basis of our survival, success and, for many, quality of life and longevity. We don’t need to feel guilty about our relationship with things. It is very human.
Marni: But what can we do to take it easier on the planet?
Hodder: Well, what you’re doing, Marni.
Marni: Me?! (I didn’t see that coming.)
Hodder: You talk about decluttering, downsizing, getting no more house than you need,
minimalism, sustainability, and deciding what is enough. That’s the right direction.
Marni: But once we get rid of stuff, it’s still in the world. (I’m starting to sound like him.)
Hodder: If we start thinking about what happens to the stuff we throw away, maybe we will stop consuming and wasting so much. We can compost. Buy things made of wood. Give away food we can’t eat. Fifty percent of the food we grow in the world is thrown away. It frustrates me no end. And Christmas tree lights. Americans throw away huge amounts of Christmas tree lights. All that plastic and metal is very toxic.
Marni: Well, if someone would invent ones that actually last.
Hodder: This is not an individual problem. (Phew!) It’s not a local problem. We need to do more at a global scale. However, If you recognize that impacting the environment is something humans have always done, then dealing with it becomes a matter of looking more deeply into who we are and how we relate to our world.
Marni: (Now my head is spinning like a globe.) Well, professor, from evolution to rubbish, we’ve covered a lot. I’m not sure whether I can wrangle all this to the ground and into a column, but I’m going to try.
Hodder: Whether you wrangle it to the ground or not, I’ve enjoyed our conversation.
What do archeology and you and home have in common? Everything.
CAPTION: Archeologist and Stanford professor of anthropology Ian Hodder holds a figurine found at the excavation site of the 9,000-year-old Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey. Hodder says being dependent on stuff is part of being human. Photo courtesy of Jason Quinlan