As long as we live in the cities, we might want stuff, but do not need them. I live in Taipei, a modestly-sized city with around 3 million population. Here we can live a modern urban life (that means we do not have to, like, grow grapevines out of the balcony to substitute air conditioners and to support our nutrition) without buying a truckload of physical stuff. Let's see if that is true.
We can rent. Buying a house is becoming an almost impossible mission for most citizens. On average, an apartment costs around 10 times (US$300,000) the annual income for a household (US$30,000). Every time I ask an Taiwanese what he or she thinks of buying a house, they reply with something along the line of "My life is not complete until I buy a housing property." Sometimes I wonder what they mean is to complete their life by buying an apartment.
Also, real estate in general has ended its historical role as a financial asset thanks to the meltdowns we have experienced multiple times in recent decades. Decreasing number of kids accelerates the downward price trend of real estate. Right now the reason for owning a house in Taipei exists only in one's mind – for keeping the tradition or personal satisfaction. Recently I read a local newspaper, 自由時報, and counted the number of real estate advertisement. I found no less than ten full-page ads. In a day. Obviously they are not selling well.
Taipei has one of the finest metro systems in the world. If that is not enough, buses with fixed rate of US$0.3 – 0.5 run everywhere. In Taipei, a car is something that you drive into the downtown, not away from. Each driver must acquire finest driving skills to maneuver the narrowest streets in Taipei with a humongous BMW/Mercedez to maximize the chance of showing their cars off without scratching them. I know, for male, owning a car is equal to having another girlfriend. We can leave that part to disillusioned businessmen.
Many apartments nowadays come with a set of built-in furniture. Washing machine, fridge, cooking utensils, bed, sofa, and TV. What do we need more?
Days of desktop computer and the endless list of computer accessories are dead. What is left now is only the screen, and it is no coincidence that Apple iMac, essentially a display with DVD drive, CPU, and hard drive, is one of the most popular personal computers. Also, CDs – yes they do exist – are already stuffed into iTunes and then into iPod or iPhone.
Now that leaves us two category of stuff that we still own: clothes and books. At least one of them is going to be squeezed into a tiny space in the near future: Books.
Amazon Kindle is turning into a one-for-all platform for reading books. If that still takes space, Audible (now part of Amazon) is making books even more compact: MP3 files in your iPod. The upcoming Apple Tablet will squeeze newspapers and magazines into a flat panel.
Do you think the reading experience is much better on paper than on screen? Answer: you're old. Check Lucy Knisley's web comic about the crash between old vs. new on screen texts. She is in her 20s, reads way more than older generations – on screen.
According to the above predictions, we will soon all be living in a tiny apartment with large closet. Maybe not.
P.S. What I have listed above is based solely on the daily needs. If you want to be buying or keeping less because of environment concern, then check The Story of Stuff. They tell you all the reason why. Bonus: the subtitles and voice come in various languages.