Watching my kids’ absolute, uncontainable delight as they play with cheesy, old, used Star Wars toys that my wife and I Santa got off eBay, a thought occurred to me.

I’ve argued before that “materialism” isn’t really the right word for what plagues affluent developed countries. We don’t seem to care about material — that is, things themselves — at all. Indeed, consumer goods are increasingly junky and disposable. Rather, it’s getting, owning, and enjoying the status that comes with things we obsess over. Things are totems, stand-ins for psychological/spiritual needs.

Inveighing against consumerism and calling for voluntary simplicity is entirely futile if it consists only in demanding that affluent Westerners give up their things. Remember, the things aren’t the issue. It’s the needs. Unless those needs can be met some other way, we’ll continue to measure our status and happiness via things.

Point being: those seeking a less resource-intensive society should think less about how to cajole, brow-beat, guilt-trip, or otherwise force people to give up things, and more about alternative ways to provide people the sense of belonging, security, and status that things provide. How can we meliorate the anxieties of modern life in other ways? How can we rebuild communities and ensure that everyone is part of one? How can we ensure that everyone feels loved and valued and safe? How can we provide people with a sense of purpose and meaning?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

That’s a much tougher undertaking, but if you want “behavior change” as a route to environmental health, that’s the task before you.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.