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The great British make off: how a new materialism can give us back control

By: Ruth Potts
Lecturer, Ecological Design Thinking
Schumacher College

Materialism has become synonymous with consumerism – wasteful, debt-fuelled and ultimately unsatisfying. But what if we’ve not been looking in the wrong place for happiness, and we’ve just got the relationship badly wrong? Like an abusive relationship, we voraciously acquire things we barely use to fill acres of storage space while underpaid workers sleep in tents outside warehouses that feed our seemingly insatiable desire for more. There must be a better way.

Writing in 2012, Andrew Simms and I made the case for a “New Materialism” in which we nurture a more deeply pleasurable, and respectful, relationship with the world of things. Not only do we think it will significantly enhance our collective wellbeing, it’s a vital step if we are to find ways for everyone to thrive while living within environmental means. The New Materialism also offers solutions to key economic challenges such as the need to generate ample, good-quality jobs, rebuild hollowed-out economies and communities – and make everyday goods and services available in ways that escape the consumer-debt trap.

Far from eschewing materialism, a deeper understanding of humankind’s place in a living world of materials suggests the need and opportunity for a different kind of love affair with “stuff” – a long-term relationship of appreciation, slow pleasures, care and respect. Instead of abstinence and austerity, embracing the New Materialism could have profoundly positive effects. Inverting classic expectations of productivity in which fewer people produce more stuff for consumption, the New Materialism points to an economy in which, in effect, more people produce less stuff for consumption.

The American sociologist Charles Wright Mills, writing during the birth of modern consumerism, recognised the value of skilled work and the broader implications of losing it: “The laborer with a sense of craft becomes engaged in the work in and for itself; the satisfactions of working are their own reward; the details of daily labor are connected in the worker’s mind to the end product; the worker can control his or her own actions at work; skill develops within the work process; work is connected to the freedom to experiment; finally, family, community and politics are measured by the standards of inner satisfaction, coherence and experiment in craft labor.”

Work with a sense of craft delivers the benefits at the heart of the false promise of consumerism. In classic economic theory, we maximise our “utility” through what we buy. But in reality, what we do brings the greatest satisfaction. Lifelong learning – a natural part of a society in which we make and repair more – has multiple benefits: enhancing self-esteem, encouraging real social networks and supporting a more active and engaged life.

Makers are sometimes accused of retreating from the modern world – but the opposite is true. As the silversmith Mona Nasseri explains: “The maker begins by connecting with the material, through engagement they enter into relationship with it experiencing a sense of flow. Beyond that, the maker remakes themselves. We come to know ourselves better through the process of collaboration with materials.”

This kind of engagement better satisfies our fundamental need for novelty. Far from the passive consumer version (where we are presented with finished products we have no relationship with) the novelty provided by engaging with materials is constantly evolving and active. Making makes us more adaptable, better able to respond to changing circumstances and better at solving problems. By cultivating haptic – touch – skills, we are more resilient and more self-sufficient.

Seaton Baxter and Fraser Bruce, of the University of Dundee, have found more benefits. Exploring prototyping, they found not only that teams working in three dimensions created more imaginative solutions than those working on paper or screen, but the process created stronger, healthier teams. This social connection through making is something that the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry understood: “The greatness of craft consists firstly in how it brings comradeship.” When we lose collective workspaces where objects are made, we lose the community that comes from making and the rich web of connections that make places feel like home.

The good news is that this New Materialism is already emerging. Everywhere people are beginning to make, do, share and get involved. The popularity of TV programmes from The Great British Bake Off to The Great British Pottery Throw Down represents more than another successful reality TV format. This is not a case of the media leading, but of the media following a deeper shift in the zeitgeist away from passive consumer culture and towards a world in which we are much more in control of the things we have and use.

Shared makerspaces such as Building BloQ in the London borough of Edmonton show the employment potential of an expansion of making. Turning Earth in east London does the same for potters. Make Works in Scotland and Birmingham allows people with ideas to connect with the makers, material suppliers and workshop facilities that can help make their ideas manifest. While politicians fumble, people are getting on and making their own futures; enlightened leaders would do much more to support them. As Al Parra, one of Building BloQ’s founders, explained, the biggest challenge was “standing our ground and articulating a dynamic concept to an inflexible system”.

There are other steps we can take to accelerate this healthier relationship with stuff: a minimum 10-year guarantee would help end the scourge of built-in obsolescence. Community Supported Agriculture reconnects communities with the people who grow food. The same approach could be applied to more of the objects we use: Community-supported potteries could deliver tableware, gradually, by subscription. The same could apply to clothing and furniture. A culture of repair and re-imagining would create ample skilled employment; high street making and mending hubs could bring life back to the hearts of our towns and cities.

This New Materialism unlocks people’s capacity, imagination and skills: this is the real insulation from recession, and the way we can build a better future. It is a better, more direct answer to regaining control over our lives. By creating better quality jobs where people live, we can reduce inequality, and rebalance the UK economy away from finance, and away from London. More than anything, the New Materialism provides a richer and more appealing answer to the question: “How do we want to live?”


Written for and originally appeared in the guardian