Census data for the United States show that approximately 35.1 million people moved their residence in 2010—a record low since 1948 when the government began collecting data on intranational mobility. Still, that’s a lot of boxes! I recently had the privilege of moving twice in less than a year. The first move was from the only place my husband and I (and eventually our children) ever shared to a temporary rental a few states away. Sifting through eight years of accumulated stuff was overwhelming. Even after jettisoning much of it via a yard sale, thrift store donations, and giveaways to friends, we ended up with a moving container packed to the rafters, two vehicles full of stuff, and a whole lot of trash. I felt crushed by the weight of it all, and not a little ashamed. After all, I consider myself a minimalist. A friend’s observation that “at least it was the small-sized container” was no consolation.
Anticipating another imminent move, I was determined to trim down even further. Fast forward eight months, and more of the same. Again, I was loading up bags and boxes for thrift donations, and again I found myself surprised and embarrassed by the quantity of stuff to be moved. As someone who longs for a simpler life, being confronted by all of our possessions was horrifying. Despite growing up in the United States during the 1980s, I managed to develop a powerful aversion to stuff, and I have made a concerted effort to stem the flow of unnecessary material goods (and their effects) into my life. I dislike the fierce desiring that merely being in a store invokes, and so I almost never shop. I long for a lighter life, and so I strive to remain unattached to things and purge every chance I get. And I have, for well over a decade, lobbied family members to stop giving me (and now my children) gifts at every occasion. After many years of trying (and in spite of being married to a packrat), I have been relatively successful. But relative to what?
According to Shopping Centers Today, there is an average of over twenty square feet of retail space per American. Compare that with 3.3 square feet per capita in Sweden, 2.5 in the UK, 2.3 in France, and 1.1 in Italy. And it shows. New homes in the United States are around 40% larger than they were in 1975, despite having fewer people per household. That’s a lot of extra space to fill with stuff—but still not enough for us, as it turns out. With about 80% of the world’s self-storage facilities located in the United States, Americans fill an additional 2.35 billion square feet of space with stuff. For three decades running, the country’s self-storage industry has been the fastest growing segment in commercial real estate. Clearly, there is more to the story of excess than mere personal choice.
Though well aware that isolated individual efforts are no match for powerful social structures, the sheer quantity of stuff in my life managed to take me by surprise. Why? In part, it is because the means of ensuring ongoing material accumulation in this country—an unquestioning faith in a growth economy, incessant advertising hell-bent on making us feel perpetually inadequate, lives that feel too busy to find more meaningful ways of spending our time and money, and economic arrangements that maintain artificially low prices on vast quantities of stuff—are so pervasive that they go mostly unnoticed. More to the point, these combined circumstances create a sense of “normal” that induces us to expect stuff-filled homes and lives, and to view any deviation from them as an aberration
It’s easy to forget that things were not always this way, that the structures encouraging excessive consumption and all of its consequences are products of human design and therefore can be transformed through strategic redesign processes. And while personal vigilance is necessary for keeping stuff at bay, meaningful systemic changes will require diverse efforts at multiple levels.
As individuals, a fundamental step is to reduce our wants and perceived needs. One of the most effective strategies for doing that is to remove ourselves from the circumstances so carefully crafted to make us want—shopping centers, catalogs, online stores, and so forth. In general, we need to be more mindful about the stuff we admit into our lives. There are countless ways to go about this. Once you get the hang of it, finding the best stuff-reducing strategies for your own life can be very satisfying.
In local social circles, it’s not difficult to become a force for change. Specify “no gifts” on your kids’ birthday-party invitations. Organize neighborhood swap meets and share programs. Work with your schools, churches, businesses, and other groups to put a stop to the thoughtless distribution of tchotchkes—the lifespan of which can usually be measured in days (or even hours). Reject the assumption that “you can’t remember any occasion without cheap crap,” as a friend recently stated, while holding a small plastic hula dancer with a tiny (and very ironic) solar panel, a recent acquisition from a seven-year old’s birthday party. Value and prioritize genuine goods, like the social interactions themselves, the skills learned, and the fun had, rather than the “cheap crap” intended to commemorate it all.
At the regional and national levels—where we can really make a dent in the problem of stuff—the solutions are more complicated, but they are necessary, possible, and awaiting the actions of motivated citizens working together. One thing working in our favor is that nobody particularly likes garbage. Increasing transparency around the processes and resources devoted to dealing with stuff that is, as Annie Leonard says, “designed for the dump” is key. So is increasing the costs of waste disposal, demanding that companies be responsible for recycling and/or disposing of the things they produce, encouraging cradle-to-grave designs, and supporting efforts to transform our economy into a system that works for people, rather than the reverse. These are huge projects. Fortunately, a lot of smart people are working on them, and we should learn about and support their efforts in whatever ways we can.
Reminders of the insufficiency of personal actions and insights into ways to subdue the sea of stuff are not the only gifts bequeathed from my recent moves. Since relocating into our (hopefully permanent) home in May, we have been doing some serious renovations—some out of necessity and some out of choice. Having decided to salvage the wood for our floors from an old house slated for demolition, we have considerably delayed the point at which we can fully settle in. In the meantime, we have set up a camp kitchen in the basement and have left the vast majority of boxes unpacked. The concrete block downstairs and the cardboard “walls” upstairs give the house a sort of favela feel. At the same time, electricity and the recent addition of hot water make life here relatively luxurious.
The rare opportunity to experience extremes of luxury and simplicity simultaneously has allowed for some fascinating observations. For example, despite having our basic needs met and being generally content with our house, I continue to feel a surge of embarrassment when guests come by. As it turns out, my sense of what “normal” people expect from one’s home is keen and somewhat stubborn. Most importantly, though, I now have proof that I can easily (as I have always wanted to) live with far, far less.
The only question left is: what to do with the stuff in all those boxes?
Debbie Kasper is Assistant Professor in the Environmental Studies Program at Hiram College in Ohio where she teaches, does reserach in environmental sociology, and practices permaculture. She is currently investigating the long-term development of concepts of normality with particular attention devoted to the perceptions and practices that guide everyday life, their environmental impacts, and the processes by which they are transformed.