Mottainai: could wistfulness be the remedy for compulsive consumerism?

Mottainai is a Japanese term that neatly sums up the regret of wastefulness. Maybe if we cared for our objects as though they had souls, we would waste less?


Mottainai, simplistically

The basic idea of mottainai is this:

  • to waste a resource is shameful
  • waste is something to regret
  • objects have a spirit
  • they are judging you

I made up the last one – but you can start to understand where Marie Kondo’s cultural logic and penchant for thanking her things comes from. I like the concept of mottainai, because it gives us a reason to consider the object’s feelings, not just our own, the true beauty of which being that it – by proxy – calls us to consider what other living beings might make of our disposal choices.

We often rank disposal options by convenience, or if we are further evolved, by how much or little harm will be done to the environment into which will receive our discard.  But what of the harm to the object’s esteem, and its desire to be useful?

Which leads me to a philosophical question:

Is the solution to our society’s wastefulness in finding detachment from our things, or in fact the opposite – to become more attached to our things? 

I.e. does a practice of gratitude for the objects in our lives lead to a more consumerist mindset or less?

I’ve found that the more I cherish and care for what I have, the less I look for more (both for practical and emotional reasons). An inadvertent sort of minimalism. A byproduct of the pursuit of less waste, not the other way around.

My minimalism (stretching the term here) isn’t about aesthetics, counting my things, or finding detachment. It’s more to do with using the things I already have, and helping materials that are already in circulation to have a second life.

If I need something, I look first for secondhand because I can’t bear the mottainai that results from materials destined for landfill.

If they have souls, let’s not let them suffer. Mottainai.

4 thoughts on “Mottainai: could wistfulness be the remedy for compulsive consumerism?

  1. Moittainai, what a wonderful new word you’ve taught us. (After a few practice runs I can spell it, but I can’t pronounce it!) It’s a beautiful concept, and my own personal twist is that, since I’m a Christian, I think in terms of the resources God has given me, and I should be a good steward and not waste those resources.

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