We’re Not Materialistic Enough

It’s time to go back to the land

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 29th May 1999.

Ask anyone what’s wrong with consumer society and they’ll almost certainly tell you that it has made people “too materialistic”. We are obsessed, we’re always told, with things, and our material engrossment is killing the environment, our relationships and our spiritual lives. It strikes me that precisely the opposite is true: we are not materialistic enough.

Consumerism demands the fast and careless use of materials. It relies on our detachment from and incomprehension of the material world. Do you know where the components of your TV or your computer come from? Do you even know what they’re made of? Have you ever considered how these materials were extracted, which peoples needed be displaced so that their lands could be mined or logged? Can you sharpen a knife? Or are you forced to buy knives with serrated edges, or buy a new one every time yours gets blunt? If the answers to these questions embarrass you, then you are, like most of us, a non-materialist.

Our lives have been distilled into a set of curious abstractions. While our bodies, our minds, our responses to stimuli remain those of migratory savannah apes, forced to fight, flee, hunt and harvest to keep ourselves alive, today we must slake the great lust for life which these capacities have left us with by hunting a deal or gathering a pay rise, by fighting over the pool table or fleeing the wrath of our partners. And I don’t know about you, but for me it simply doesn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not remotely sorry that I don’t have to make a living hunting buffalo across a trackless steppe, while simultaneously being hunted by hyaenas. But this interior life, this detachment from the material world, just isn’t enough for me. Chained to my desk, I feel only half of me is alive.

We go on holiday partly to escape all this and reaffirm some sort of attachment to the material world. But the ethics of consumption seem to follow us from desk to beach. There is, on the whole, little opportunity for real engagement with the physical world through which we travel. Whenever I’ve taken a lazy holiday, I’ve felt like a spare part.

Five years ago, I sunk my future holiday money into buying a small share in an organic farm. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. Now, whenever I need to get away, I go down to Somerset to help the other shareholders scythe the meadows, pick the apples, make cider, plough the fields with a shire horse, fell trees and restore the farm ecosystems wrecked by fifty years of intensive agriculture. As we allow no internal combustion engines onto the farm, there’s never any shortage of work to do, and the result is that I feel more useful than I have ever felt before.

The raw satisfaction you get from the sight of the cords of timber you have felled, snedded and sawn, the stooks of hay that you have mown, raked and stacked, or the piles of apples you have picked and graded, make all the other petty gratifications of work – like concluding a successful meeting, for example, or completing an article – look artificial and preposterous. And I know this might sound silly, but work of this kind has even made me less afraid of death. As I have begun to acquire a better understanding of the material world, I have come to see how liberating the loss of our belief in a Christian (or for that matter Buddhist or Hindu) reincarnation can be. The selfish, individualistic notion of an independent resurrection instead gives way to the idea of a collective reincarnation, as you begin to see how our components are scattered then incorporated, inevitably, into other organisms. To me this is infinitely more reassuring than the awful lottery of the Christian Heaven or the Christian Hell.

Happily, you don’t have to buy a share in a farm to enjoy all this. Organic farms, unlike conventional ones, are often desperate for labour, and an organisation called Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) exists to connect the work to the workers. It costs £10 to join, and thereafter every holiday you take is free, as the farmers provide board and lodging in return for your labour. Be warned, however: it might just turn you into a materialist.

Send an SAE to: WWOOF, PO Box 2675, Lewes, East Sussex, BN7 1RB.