Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Material equilibrium

I always believe that we should not be too materialistic. The US economy thrives on people buying new things and replacing things they already have. I have been brought up in a culture where reuse is valued highly. I loved quirky things like the toothpaste squeezer, which lets you get the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube. I had once made a pencil holder using the remnants of an old fountain pen, the main purpose of which was to hold wooden pencils which are too short to hold properly and write. I used to love to come up with gizmos like these. Now, I am in the land of splurge and am forced to throw away reusable things and buy new ones. Of course, it helps our economy, but we, as consumers, need to draw a line at some point.

So, I came up with the law of Material Equilibrium: Make a conscious effort to gauge your needs, and once you achieve critical mass, try to maintain equilibrium rather than exceed it.

Take a simple scenario of the things in your house. You are just out of school and landed a great job, and have some green bills in your pocket and you want to run to the nearest store and buy everything they have. Fine, but let's set our priorities first. Get your necessities first. Then, splurge and get some luxuries. OK, get lots of luxuries. After a while, you are at a point where you own a nice little house filled to the brim with cool things. The next thought in your mind: I need a bigger house to fit all these things. IF you do get a new house with lots of space, you will end up in the same situation a short while later, and will be looking for an even bigger roof. The snowball effect continues until there is no more cash to move/fill up.

Let's stop before we get there. First step is to take inventory of our current possessions. You look around and see that you have all the necessities, and lots of luxuries to keep you warm and cozy. At this point you have reached your critical mass. Of course, this critical mass varies from item to item. So, different things have different masses. That itself will help you prioritize things. Say, you want a new plasma TV. You look around and see 5 tube TVs spread around the house, and then you see an unreliable junker sitting in the garage. You know where you have reached critical mass, and where you need to concentrate.

Once you set your priorities, it is time to maintain equilibrium on the things that have reached critical mass. Let's say you feel the need for a new couch. Then, you have to weigh the real need, and if you really feel the need, you have to get rid of one you currently have. Replace the one you have (which you don't need/want anymore, for some reason) with a newer one (which you need/want). See the struggle to define need and want. You need to consciously determine what you 'Need' versus what you 'Want'. Did you ever wonder why the supermarkets stock milk and bread at the back corner of the store, AND stock up all the junk food on the 'way' to the milk and bread? Milk and bread are essentials, and everyone buys them. While you are making your way to the essentials, the friendly supermarket staff is helping you define what your 'Needs' are;-) And, you end up with a few bags of doritos, chips, etc. All you went to the store was to buy milk and bread!

Once you determine that you have reached critical mass in a certain area, just try to maintain equilibrium. You want something in an area, you need to part with one of the things you already have in that area. That is the theory of maintaining equilibrium.

One day, I was strolling the mall and saw the latest (at that time) digital SLR from Canon, and immediately started salivating. But, my rational mind kicked in (wiped the saliva off), and started thinking. I already own 3 film SLRs, 2 P&S digital cameras, and who knows how many P&S film cameras, and now, I want another one! At that point I decided that I was a little bit over critical mass (way over critical mass, if you ask my wife), and I needed to pare some before getting the digi SLR. So, off went a few of my cameras on Craigslist. I still feel that I need to 'make space' for the new digi SLR. It is going to happen soon.

Sometimes, I feel this imbalance and immediately know that somethings need to be pared. You get that feeling too. You just have to heed that feeling, take a moment and look inside yourself and decide on what you want to do. We don't want to add to the tonnes of garbage that the world generates. Do you?