The valuation of stuff

Programmer-essayist Paul Graham writes clear-sighted, kick-in-the-pants essays on cutting the crap from life in all its variations. From his latest:

Stuff is an extremely illiquid asset. Unless you have some plan for selling that valuable thing you got so cheaply, what difference does it make what it’s “worth?” The only way you’re ever going to extract any value from it is to use it. And if you don’t have any immediate use for it, you probably never will.

He’s asking us to look at stuff the way businesses look at capital investments, in accounting terms: the salvage value of most consumer goods is zero and likely less, as it will cost you in time, money or both to get rid of it. And more time and money if you don’t get rid of it and instead continue to clean and store and worry about and move your stuff from place to place.

He closes by saying:

…except for books, I now actively avoid stuff. If I want to spend money on some kind of treat, I’ll take services over goods any day.

I’m not claiming this is because I’ve achieved some kind of zenlike detachment from material things. I’m talking about something more mundane. A historical change has taken place, and I’ve now realized it. Stuff used to be valuable, and now it’s not.

One of the new sustainable business models is to base your offerings on services rather than goods. I’ve been wondering if there’s a way that we could mobilize a bunch of, say, Hollywood movie stars to take up the cause of lower material consumption. Unrealistic to ask people to stop disposing income on stuff, but why shouldn’t it be services rather than goods.

A lot of the US green movement right now seems to be focused on advising people to buy greener stuff: IdealBite, Treehugger. But it’s still stuff, and often stuff that we can do without. Prius > SUV, but public transport > Prius. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

Along similar lines: Carbon offsets and biofuels once seemed like a have-your-cake solution, but awareness of their problems is rising and it’s becoming clearer that we just really need to work on using less energy.

More on all this later.

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