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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living in the Material World

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood interviews photographer and author Peter Menzel about his recent photographic journal of typical families in 30 countries around the world. The images examine the consumptive patterns of people in developed and less-developed nations. This segment originally aired in November of 1994.


CURWOOD: While the lifestyle in Cuba today is lean, Cuban health care and educational systems are still considered to be among the best in Latin America. But what is important when it comes to happiness for people everywhere? That's the question photographer Peter Menzel and a team of photo-journalists set out to answer. The results are a fascinating book called Material World: A Global Family Portrait. It's a set of photo essays of middle income families from 30 countries around the world. They removed all the objects from their homes, placed them outside, and posed with them, the most prized possession at the center. The American family put its Bible in front; the Bhutan family its Buddha, the Mexican family its television, and the Haitian family its machete and goat. Peter Menzel says despite the obvious differences, he found common desires among the families.

MENZEL: Well the families all wanted 3 things, Steve. They wanted physical security and economic security. They wanted more leisure time, and they wanted a better education for their children. That was pretty universal.

CURWOOD: Let's go on a visit now to these places.

(Children's voices, a television)

CURWOOD: Where are we now, what time is it?

MENZEL: We're at the Yukita's in suburban Tokyo, and I'm sitting on the floor at the dinner table and they're having a typical Friday evening meal. And as always, their wide screen television, high-definition television, is on in the background. And they're usually watching the news or a movie, and here they're watching a Kung Fu movie while they're talking and eating, discussing homework. They take a break to clip one of the kid's toenails. The father talks about his work, the mother talks about her work. Everybody's talking, eating, while there's this Jackie Chan Kung Fu movie in the background that is, like, incredible.

CURWOOD: If you look at the picture of the objects that they have, and this is on page 48 and 49 of your book, we're looking at a unicycle, books, dolls, pogo sticks, clocks, toys, baskets, clothes, bookcases, there's a Toyota minivan I guess under all this stuff. There's a washer, there's a dryer, there's a video game player, there's of course a refrigerator.

MENZEL: Japan's got one of the highest income levels in the world, and also one of the highest life expectancies in the world. They still have to be very active in order to make a living there, and they work very hard 6 days a week.

CURWOOD: Let me talk a little bit about sustainability and - well, for lack of a better word, comfort. Some of the most sustainable societies that you showed here, I'm thinking of Bhutan, don't seem very comfortable. And those that seem very comfortable, Japan or the United States, don't seem all that sustainable.

MENZEL: Exactly. That seems to be the problem. Bhutan is an amazing small kingdom in the Himalayas that until the 1960's had no currency; they had no road to the outside. They had no airport until 1970. All of a sudden they're letting 2,000 tourists in a year, and Westerners are going there looking at these people with very strong Buddhist traditions doing subsistence agriculture. It looks idyllic until you actually go inside of their house, go behind the walls, and see how they're really living.

(Child speaking with a man, bird song)

MENZEL: We're in Namgay's house on the second floor of their rammed earth house in this small village of Shinka. There's 12 other rammed earth houses in this village. And everyone's sitting on the floor; there's an open fire. They're cooking rice and they're eating rice from a central bowl. They put it into their bowls and then they're eating with their hands. With one hand, and with the other hand they're trying to keep the flies off themselves and the food. There's swarms, clouds of flies all over the place. All the kids had dysentery, and they, their life expectancy for a woman is close to 50 and for a man it's in the high 40s.

CURWOOD: They don't seem to have too much in the way of material goods here. They - the father has a religious object, it looks like some kind of a Buddha.

MENZEL: Right. His Buddhist idols were his favorite possessions, and everyone we asked in this village said the same thing; they would pick the same thing.

CURWOOD: Mostly they have vessels for holding things here.

MENZEL: Right. These are ceremonial water cups.

CURWOOD: In the background we have the rest of their possessions, a few rugs and a few more vessels.

MENZEL: Right; they really don't have much furniture. They have a few cabinets, and the rest of it is pretty much hand-made items, tools. They've got animals, pigs, goats, chickens, and they harvest wheat and rice by hand.

CURWOOD: Peter, I'm noticing that throughout this book you have keys to the people in the pictures. And in each and every case, the number one person is the dad. Is there a reason for this?

MENZEL: Right. Well, there's a Chinese proverb that says that man is the head of the family and woman is the neck that turns the head.

CURWOOD: Do you think all these families were comfortable with you listing dad as number one?

MENZEL: I think the dads in all these families are very comfortable with us listing dad as number one.

CURWOOD: Who's happier here? The ones from the poorer countries that have the simpler lifestyles, or those from the more advanced industrial countries?

MENZEL: There actually isn't that much difference between affluent and less affluent, because they are average families. They don't really lack too much. The spirituality that comes out of some of the poorer families more than makes up for their lack of material possessions. And I think that's what we can learn from the whole project, the whole book, is looking at different cultures and finding out what we can adapt to our own daily lives to make them a little bit more meaningful.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much.

MENZEL: You're welcome. Thank you.

CURWOOD: Peter Menzel's book is called Material World: A Global Family Portrait, published by Sierra Club Books.



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