WE SHOULD buy less stuff, and spend more of our time and money
on doing things, having experiences, and engaging more fully with
the glory of being alive.
It is a good thought, and one that resonates with a long and
strong tradition of simpler, better living in Christianity - not to
mention the other religions of the world. It is also the theme of a
new book, Stuffocation, just published by Penguin.
"Materialism is making millions of us feel joyless, anxious,
and, even worse, depressed," James Wallman says. He is using the
word "materialism" to mean our desire to buy stuff. He should know.
He used to work as a futurologist, predicting trends so that
companies such as Marks & Spencer and BMW could use the
knowledge to sell us more, well, stuff. But he has gone off all
Wallman has had a road-to-Damascus experience - except he
wouldn't put it that way. As we sit in a pub near his home in
Hammersmith, it becomes obvious that this chipper, youthful
40-year-old has little time for the Church, beyond its being a
means of controlling the population, and less knowledge of what
faith has done for people over the centuries.
Wallman is a nice chap who has come upon the gospel truth that
designer goods will not set you free; but he has come to it by a
peculiar route, and has not much idea of the spiritual heritage of
the things that he is saying.
Let him speak for himself: "Doing things is much more
interesting than material things. . ." So, what is
"Stuffocation is two things. First, it's when you open up your
wardrobe, and it's full of stuff to wear, but there's nothing you
actually want to put on.
"Or it's that feeling you get when somebody goes to give you
something at Christmas - the Homer Simpson cup-and-socks combo,
that kind of clutter - and they're just handing you the problem of
taking it back, or getting rid of it. The sense that we generally
have too much stuff in our lives and our homes."
SURELY there is more to it than a surfeit of socks? "It's the
recognition that the materialistic consumer system that we exist in
is bad for us. We've got to do something about it. We're
suffocating from too much stuff."
That makes us stressed and depressed, he says. "I talked to a
number of psychologists, because people are more depressed nowadays
than they used to be. You ask how they are, and they might mumble
and say, 'Oh, I'm OK.' No one thinks they're doing well. What is
wrong with us?
"We have more material well-being than anybody since for ever.
We have central heating, we have nice homes, we have wall-to-wall
carpet. We actually live better lives than the Queen of England 100
years ago, and we all say 'Oh, it's all right.' It's just
If he means Queen Mary, consort of George V, her life was pretty
plush. And, actually, I have a bit of a problem with this "we".
What about the people currently living in poverty? What about the
million who had to turn to foodbanks for help last year? And that
is only in this country: what about the billions across the world
living on a dollar a day? They don't feel stuffocated, do they?
Wallman smiles. "I'm not saying the book is for everyone. There
will be lots of people who do recognise what I am saying." And is
his message to them, "Buy less and do more"? "In short."
Wallman is not an anti-capitalist, or against consumerism. He
likes stuff. He does, however, suggest a radical decluttering of
your life, and gives advice on how to do it. "I have much less
stuff, hardly any shirts now." But he has two bikes, and lives in a
terraced house in Hammersmith which must be worth a great deal of
"I don't want to smash the system. The best way to turn a horse
is to ride it in the direction it's going. I don't have a problem
with consumerism. I think it's given us so much magic, and
incredible material well-being. It's made life on earth really
awesome for tens of millions of people. That's because of the
consumer revolution, and the value system of materialism. But I
think it has gone too far. It has gone too far."
SO, HE is not advocating a total rejection of consumerism: rather,
a move from consuming goods to consuming experiences: using the
same time and energy with which people like him might pursue the
iPhone 6, for example, to pursue white-water rafting, running
barefoot on a beach, or just spending time playing with the
Wallman believes that this is happening already, among the
well-off, stuffocated Western capitalists his book is aimed at.
"It's a social trend. I think it's the most important trend of the
Why, then, does he think experiences are more important than
stuff? "There's a whole bunch of reasons. One of them is something
"The simplest way to think about that is if you were to buy a
pair of shoes. However much you liked those shoes, you wouldn't
focus on those shoes as you went about your day. Whereas, if you
were cycling through traffic, swimming underwater, diving off a
diving board, or singing with a choir in church, you are much more
likely to be in the moment, doing that thing - in the zone, as an
athlete would call it. Or in the flow, which has been named by this
Hungarian-American psychologist called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as
essential for happiness."
Prayer offers the same experience, he says. "I'm trying to say
some churchy stuff." Never mind that, I say. Readers of the
Church Times swim, cycle, do kick-boxing, and climb
mountains, too. "One of the really interesting things about diving
into something, and then coming out the other side, is that you
have an enhanced sense of identity: you feel kind of calmer, and
more centred. I don't have the answer why: I'm just a writer; but
Wallman gave up a well-paid job to preach his own truth. The
most powerful part of the book is when he describes the day his
grandfather died, having just handed to his grandson an envelope
containing a £5 note, and a message urging him to enjoy life:
"Memories live longer than dreams." That made him begin to ask how
he should live in order to be happy.
Then his daughter was born. "I was looking for meaning. You
know: 'What kind of world is she going to grow up in?' I started
putting my thoughts together just after she was born; she is
three-and-a-half now, and it took me two years to research and
write the book."
HE SOUGHT out the experiences of people who have taken a different
approach to life, including the self-styled minimalists who purge
their lives of everything they do not need. He thinks that they are
exciting and trendy. I think they sound like St Columba and his
followers on Iona, a long time ago, and a long way from
Wallman is good - brilliant, in fact - on the way in which our
thoughts and desires have been shaped by advertising and business
over the past century, building stuff that is designed to break,
and stoking us up into a blaze of desire for material goods.
But he is poor at acknowledging all those believers - of all
kinds - who said no, that is not the way - all those people who,
going back centuries to Christ himself and beyond, said that being
human was about more than having things.
If he thinks of them at all, it is as party-poopers, when in
fact they were having a high old time communing with the glories of
There is no mention of Jesus's telling the rich young man to
give up all his wealth, no mention of the disciples' being sent out
with just a change of shirt, or the dramatic change in the
believers after the day of Pentecost, when tongues of fire were
followed by a conversion to a radically simpler, fairer, communal
way of living.
There is no mention of the strong tradition in Christianity of
people saying that money cannot buy you happiness, or speaking
truth to power. Instead, there are just three or four paragraphs on
the Church, as an institution used to keep people in their
"The Church became a vehicle to control society," he says. "They
have used the tenth commandment - thou shalt not be materialistic,
you could call it - to manage people: to say 'There is nothing
going to change here, happiness will come in the next life.'"
WALLMAN could have been harder on the Church, of course. He could
have attacked all the wealth, gold, art, and buildings that it has
accumulated over the centuries. The Pope and the Archbishop must
look like kings of bling to Wallman, who is reluctant to believe
that many Christians are singing from the same hymn sheet as he
I ask him where he is coming from, in terms of faith. "I went to
Sunday school when I was a kid. My parents aren't particularly
religious. I've been drawn to churches quite a lot over the past
couple of years, funnily enough. I go and sit in them when they are
"Last Remembrance Day, I went and sat on my own in church; it
was lovely. I'll go and sit and give thanks, but I can't go to a
service. Some of the stuff they say, I know it's supposed to be
poetry representing truth; but, to me, it's just too daft: it
doesn't make sense. I think it's a much more personal connection
that we each have with whatever that thing is that we can call God,
or love, or whatever."
We argue to and fro for the next hour, developing a respect for
each other's point of view. "So you say that what I'm saying has
been said before in a strand of Christianity, which is one of the
most important philosophies ever? Maybe what I'm doing here is
writing my response in the 21st century to answer the question 'How
shall we live in order to be happy?'"
Maybe that is right. Maybe Wallman is a decent man, writing
according to his own light. Maybe we can learn from each other.
Stuffocation is full of insight and wisdom about the
modern world, if you can forgive him everything he doesn't
It will resonate with a number of believers (and should be
required reading for a lot more). So, as the sun goes down, I find
myself enjoying the experience - more than, say, a new pair of
shoes - and think: "Maybe I won't tell him to get stuffed, after
Stuffocation: Living more with less by James Wallman is
published by Penguin at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop