Our national love affair with stuff has its critics…
By Christine Rosen
For as long as human beings have accumulated stuff, there have been critics of the practice. In The Inferno, Dante Alighieri described lost souls condemned to roll enormous weights back and forth to each other, howling, “Why do you hoard?” and the other: “Why do you waste?” As Dante helpfully describes these doomed creatures consigned to the fourth circle of hell: “Hoarding and squandering wasted all their light and brought them screaming to this brawl of wraiths. You need no words of mine to grasp their plight.”
Their plight is still with us, at least if you believe the many critics of Americans’ consumer spending habits. One in 10 Americans has so much stuff they need to rent storage facilities to hold it all, according to the New York Times. And this is despite the average new American home more than doubling in size during the past 50 years.
Once upon a time in post-World War II America, people embraced stuff. They purchased the latest consumer goods – appliances, cars, and Howdy Doody dolls for their kids. Filling a home with such markers of middle-class success was the aspirational ideal, celebrated in popular culture and in advertisements that showed happy families surrounded by their presumably tasteful purchases.
Now we are supposed to want less and to consume on a smaller scale – smaller houses, smaller cars, smaller carbon footprints. Design-focused magazines feature homes so devoid of things that they resemble monastic cells. This appeal to minimalism comes 60 years after the shipping container transformed the global movement of consumer goods. Pioneered by a North Carolina trucking entrepreneur named Malcolm McLean in the 1950s, containerization, or “intermodalism” as McLean preferred to call it, introduced efficiencies that dramatically lowered the price of many everyday items.
And we have been buying them with a vengeance. Most American homes now have more television sets than people and we spend more on clothing and jewelry than we do on higher education. Our national love affair with stuff has spawned reality television shows with titles such as “Hoarders” and “Hoarding: Buried Alive.”
Not everyone is pleased about this. In 1997, PBS stations nationwide aired “Affluenza,” a documentary celebrating Americans who had turned their back on excessive consumerism. (The message evidently didn’t catch on everywhere. In 2013, lawyers representing Texas teenager Ethan Couch, who killed four people while driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, blamed “affluenza” for his behavior.)
Lavish experiences can be more widely and effectively flaunted via social media than beautiful items, of course, which are best coveted by a discrete audience of first-hand witnesses.
Ten years later, we still had too many things. At least that was the argument of “The Story of Stuff,” an animated short film that burgeoned into a movement. “We have a problem with Stuff,” the organization’s website says. (Notice that Stuff must be a menace, it’s capitalized.) “We use too much, too much of it is toxic, and we don’t share it very well.” Acolytes of the anti-Stuff movement praise “zero waste revolutionaries” such as Lauren, described as a “Brooklynite 20-something who fit five years’ worth of trash in a mason jar and recently launched an upscale ‘package free’ shop.”
For those of us who still measure their annual waste in landfill acreage, not mason jars, the past decade has provided us with countless best-selling books about how to become more organized and streamlined about our stuff. The undisputed doyenne of de-cluttering is Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing consultant whose combination how-to/self-help manual, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, became an international phenomenon in 2014. Her trademarked “KonMari Method” urged followers to free themselves from the burden of having too much stuff and to embrace new rituals for the stuff they did have (like thanking their socks for their service before folding them and putting them away).
Consuming little (and boasting about it on social media) is now a way of signaling one’s virtue. As a result, it’s far more socially acceptable to mock hoarders than it is to confront one’s own acquisitive tendencies.
The theme of all these books might be “less is more,” but as Kondo’s experience reveals, there is a lot of money to be made helping others wrangle their Stuff.
Kondo now helms an empire that includes spin-off books, online courses, tidying apps, and a certified KonMari Consultant program that trains people in her methods so that they can go out and “organize the world.” (The minimum price for entry to an upcoming two-day seminar in San Francisco is $2,000.) Our era’s enthusiastic commodification of minimalism is one of many ironies that will delight future historians.
And Kondo’s army has competition. The explosion of stuff has generated entirely new fields of productive labor such as the professional organizer – the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals has 3,500 members “dedicated to helping people and organizations bring order and efficiency to their lives,” for example. Then there are the employees of organizing-focused businesses such as the Container Store and producers of the proliferating number of reality television shows such as “Hoarders” and “Storage Wars” that broadcast profiles in consumer excess.
And yet, criticizing people who accumulate too much stuff has also become a shorthand for those intent on bludgeoning the public with apocalyptic environmental messages and arguments about the many sins of neoliberalism.
In this worldview, even childhood and death aren’t safe. Zealously pared-down spaces free of Legos and the other flotsam of family life are now a regular feature in magazines with titles like Simple Living, along with helpful reminders such as the fact that 40% of the world’s toys are consumed by American children, even though they are only 3% of the world’s kid population. Parents are even told to discard children’s art projects and instead take a picture to remember them.
At the other end of the lifecycle, adult children write essays outlining their horror at how much stuff their aging parents have accumulated over a lifetime (a portion of which likely includes their own elementary school art projects).
For those of us who still measure their annual waste in landfill acreage, not mason jars, the past decade has provided us with countless best-selling books about how to become more organized and streamlined about our stuff.
So serious is this epidemic of old-people stuff that Americans are turning to other cultures for guidance. The Egyptians wisely buried their dead’s stuff with them, condemning them to an eternity of posthumous organizing. Or perhaps the answer can be found in the Swedish practice of dostadning, which loosely translates as “death cleaning.” Margareta Magnusson, author of a soon-to-be-released book on the subject, suggests 65 as a good age to begin the process. Approaching senescence isn’t terrifying enough – why not also grimly sort through the detritus of your life?
Yet even here there are market opportunities. Websites such as Everything but the House serve as virtual (if macabre) auction spaces. Anyone with an Internet connection can peruse sales from across the country, with their piles of clothes, shoes, jewelry, and mementoes all available to the highest bidder. One sale there featured personal items once owned by televangelist and Crystal Cathedral founder Dr. Robert H. Schuller, who died in 2015. Virtual vultures (and mere voyeurs like me) could buy photos of Schuller with Dan Quayle and Ronald Reagan, bid on a 14-carat gold pendant of Jesus, peruse an autographed copy of Nancy Sinatra’s book about her father, or zoom in on a figured mahogany Gothic Revival console. Suddenly, the Greatest Generation is reduced to the greatest generation of Hummel figurine collectors.
But these self-appointed guides through the excesses of consumption overlook a simple reality: Humans tend to expand to fill the space they are in, and one of the most effective ways to do that is with their stuff.
Consider the American closet. We have an industry built on building, organizing, and maintaining the small rooms that hold our clothes and shoes. Businesses such as the Container Store and California Closets entice us with organizational systems like the adorably named Elfa that nevertheless rival the federal tax code in their complexity. In fact, these companies encourage people who buy their closet organization systems to hire expert installers who, like good tax auditors, will come to their homes and corral their stuff. (See? More jobs!)
These businesses have also learned the lessons of good marketing. Just as luxury watchmakers project their product as catering to a certain kind of discriminating consumer, closet organizers are creating a specific image. Patek Philippe ads feature chiseled and prosperous-looking patriarchs sitting in mahogany-lined studies going over paperwork, not heavily-bearded dudes from “Duck Dynasty” decked out in camo and passing the time in their pickup trucks. And so closet organizing companies don’t feature images of bewildered Americans staring at piles of moldering paperbacks and VHS tapes in their dimly-lit storage units (the reality). They show beautiful women surrounded by piles of expensive shoes and clothing (the fantasy).
That’s because our feelings about our stuff are just that – feelings. It’s really about emotion, not consumerism run amok. We’re needy, slightly irrational humans, not neoliberal stooges.
When we see a drawer full of perfectly folded socks, what appeals to us isn’t the socks – it’s the promise of order and control that their perfect organization suggests. This is why Martha Stewart never undermined the fantasy by showing us her junk drawer, only helpful tips for organizing our own.
In the end, the reality isn’t that scary. We love our stuff, and many of us have too much of it. But if the price of living in a prosperous and free society is a small monthly storage fee for our things and intermittent scolding from the self-appointed cultural elite, then we’re getting a bargain.
Christine Rosen is one of the founding editors of The New Atlantis, where she now serves as senior editor. She is working on her forthcoming book, The Extinction of Experience, to be published by W.W. Norton. Her past books include Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement and My Fundamentalist Education.
Ms. Rosen’s essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, The American Historical Review, and The New England Journal of Medicine.