The Walkthrough Principle

Imagine this:

You are standing in the doorway of your home, looking inside.  In front of you are objects — including the house itself — that you see and use every day. Maybe you’ve passed by them hundreds of times, not giving them a second thought. But not today.

From today, you are going to see things differently.

You take a step inside. You begin to walk through your house.  Slowly, systematically, you are going to look at every single item in every single room, from the light switch to the chair to each individual book on the bookcase, the TV remote, the bathroom vanity and the toothbrush holder on it.  Everything.

As you are looking at the things you own, you are asking these questions: 

  • What is it made from? 
  • Where was it made? 
  • How was it made? 
  • Who made it?
  • How did it get to me?

As you begin this process, you will realize two things very quickly.

  • One: You own a lot of stuff.
  • Two: For the vast majority of the stuff you own, the answer to those questions you just asked is “I don’t know.”

The world we live in today is immensely materially complex.  It is virtually impossible for most people to row backwards up the provenance stream of most of the things that we own, use, and rely on every day.  Food.  Water.  Shelter.  Clothing.  Much less the thousands of other things we have added in to the mix.

Okay. So, now imagine yourself back in the doorway of your home, but this time, turn around.  Look to the outside.

Yeah.  Holy Cow.

Since the industrial revolution, the discovery of petroleum as a fuel source, the invention of plastic, the computer, electricity and electrical communication, so on, life has become explosively and exponentially more materially complex.

By necessity, this means that we have become increasingly detached from the objects that we own and use.  The difficulties that have come out of this mode of materialism are numerous and well known.  I’ve heard the phrase “throw-away culture” more times than I can count.  Sweat shops, conscripted labor, child labor, waste, pollution — and on and on. But aside from the known and named problems, I have heard many people express a sense of “wrongness” that is sometimes difficult to pin down.

The question is: what do we need to change about modern materialism?  And how?

Okay.  Now, imagine yourself in the doorway of your house again, but this time, imagine that it’s a hundred years ago.  Even though most of us really don’t have a solid idea of what life was like at any time prior to, say, the mid 20th century, intuitively we know that it was “simpler,” at least in the material sense.  But what does that mean, exactly?

Take another look at the objects in your home.  For each object, ask yourself the question:

Could this thing I own, be made by an individual or a small shop, with relatively simple tools and materials that are reasonably accessible to the average person? 

The obvious answer for many of the items will be “No.” A television, a microwave oven, a cell phone — all of these require sophisticated machinery and materials that are beyond the scope of anyone or anything but a large factory. Others will be an obvious “yes”: bookshelves, most furniture, tableware, and so on. Some will fall in between: what about a cooking stove? Fine cloth? Books?

When you stop and think about it, it’s a little astounding to remember that less than 150 years ago, nearly everything that people needed and wanted was made in small workshops, by skilled craftsmen using tools, techniques, and materials that were for the most part within the reach of the average person.

This is cottage industry, and it ruled the world.

So, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me: I’m no Luddite.  Obviously not — you’re reading this on a blog, for crying out loud. However, I do feel that:

Today, we are in a fantastic position to look to the past and retrieve centuries-old principles, refine them with modern knowledge, to make a better more satisfying and beautiful future. 

Using natural resources from the world is an absolute necessity, you can’t get away from it.  Additionally, everything you do is going to have an impact, period.  But I believe that this is not solely a necessary evil — I believe it can actually be a good thing.  Working closely with raw materials of the natural world has the potential to connect a person more closely to the natural world.  Making things for use by our friends and neighbors can create connections between us.  Exchange among communities creates a bond.  These are all good things.

If you think it can’t be made by cottage industry: think again.

I encourage you to engage in this Walkthrough Principle in your home, your work, your community. Make a list of the objects that you own and use, think about how you can change your relationship with those things, and with the people who make them. A simple note pad will do, or you can use the Walkthrough Principle Workbook. My hope is that this process will spark a fire in you, that you will want to start putting your hands and your mind to making useful and beautiful things, made with skill and passion, a bigger part of your world.

With love and hope for the future.