Humanity has a “stuff” problem. Even in frugal Germany, the average person owns 10,000 objects, and as a whole, our trash has clogged the oceans’ surfaces with 18,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer. But in his new book, Empire of Things, which chronicles the history of material culture, Frank Trentmann suggests we can’t reverse course without acknowledging how emotionally attached we’ve become to our possessions. Six centuries ago, the average person owned limited, utilitarian goods. Now, with the modern market’s cheap prices and abundance of choice, more people can (and do) make personal statements about their identity through cars, clothes and kitchenware–and they change those statements often. In this sense, “things are an inextricable part of what makes us human,” Trentmann writes. But to protect our planet–and ourselves–he concludes that we need to better appreciate “the pleasures [that come] from a deeper and longer-lasting connection to fewer things.”
This appears in the April 11, 2016 issue of TIME.