By Donella Meadows
–March 30, 1995–
It was 1992 and photographer Peter Menzel had been covering oil fires in Kuwait and clan wars in Somalia, when he heard about the wild success of Madonna’s sex book. The contrast between that exercise in fantasy and his experience of the planet’s hot spots was too much. “I thought the world needed a reality check,” he says. So, in reaction to the Material Girl, he went to work on a book called Material World.
Menzel’s book is now finished, and it is as visually stunning as anything produced by Madonna. But instead of providing an escape from reality, this book plunges you into it. It takes you on visits to 30 families in 30 nations, from Iraq to Kuwait, from Haiti to Cuba, from Iceland to Spain. You see ordinary people doing their household chores, playing with their kids, going to work. You see their dinners, their religious ceremonies, their schools, even their toilets.
Most spectacularly, each household poses for what Menzel calls the Big Picture — the family members in front of their house, surrounded by everything they own. Look hard at all 30 of these Big Pictures and you will learn more about the world than you will from a year of TV news.
Take, for example, the two Big Pictures that Menzel has chosen for the cover of the book: the Skeen family of Pearland, Texas, and the Namgay family of Shinka, Bhutan.
Rick and Pattie Skeen and their daughter Julie and son Michael stand in front of a typical American suburban house with two stuffed deerheads on the garage door. (Rick is a hunter, and Michael enjoys a National Rifle Association coloring book he got in school.) Pattie holds open an illustrated Bible, the possession both parents value most. Surrounding the family in early-morning light are tables, chairs, couches, washer, dryer, refrigerator, four bicycles, three radios, three stereos, five telephones, two TVs, one VCR, a computer, a truck, a car, a dune buggy — and much more. (You can imagine the moving crew it took to assemble and disassemble this Big Picture.)
The Namgays of Bhutan, halfway up the Himalayas, are a family of twelve: father, mother, four children, five grandchildren, and an uncle. They stand in front of their simple three-story house (the bottom floor is for animals), an hour’s walk from the nearest dirt road. Arrayed around them are polished brass vessels, oil lamps, statues of the Buddha, three storage chests, three blankets, eleven baskets, handmade hoes, bags of rice and wheat, dried red peppers, and the real wealth of the family — cattle, oxen, a pig, chickens. The Namgays have a broken battery-powered radio. They have no electricity and have never set eyes on a TV. They also regard books as their most valued possessions, the adults religious books, the children schoolbooks.
These two families illustrate the material contrasts of the world, but not the extremes — there are richer households, and poorer. The Abdulla family of Kuwait has four cars (Mercedes, Mazda, Honda, and Mitsubishi) and more furniture than can be believed, including a 45-foot-long sofa that can seat 24 people. Getu Mulleta of Ethiopia, with an income of maybe a hundred dollars a year and oxen as his most valued possession, lists his hopes for the future: more animals, a second set of clothing, better seeds and tools, and peace in the world.
The contrasts are stark, but Material World reveals similarities as well. It’s astonishing to see how much the world is coming to share one culture. There’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger poster in Uzbekistan, a Chicago Bulls cap in Kuwait, a Barbie doll in Italy, Super Mario Brothers in Thailand. Only four families of the 30 have a computer (US, Iceland, Kuwait, Japan), but only five (Mongolia, India, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Haiti) do NOT have a radio. The Mongolian family, which lives in a yurt, doesn’t have a radio but does have a TV — in fact 22 of the 30 families are likely to spend an evening watching television. Eighteen families have no car, but most of them have a bicycle or a motor scooter (Thailand) or a simple home-made boat (China).
One’s first impression of this book is of its pictorial lushness. The photography, layout, and printing capture the astounding color and variety of the human world. But there is a deeper beauty here that sinks in only when you’ve spent a few hours in the company of these families. Judgements cease. Comparisons pale. The possessions, which are the ostensible focus of the book, look less and less important.
You come to see not the things but the people — the gatherings of friends, the long-legged adolescents, the squalling babies, the hard work, the smiles, the patience, the common striving, and the courageous commitment to a thing called “family,” which has much the same meaning the world over.
I don’t know whether Menzel intended this book to induce guilt in people who have everything, but if he did, he failed. The book certainly demonstrates that some people have many more possessions than others. But more than that, it demonstrates that a full, real, interesting, challenging life has more to do with character and human relationships than with what you own. The book is called Material World, but its deepest message is that material consumption is not at all what life is about.
Material World by Peter Menzel, San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 1994, $30.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995