Are our lives saturated with stuff? Philosopher Emrys Westacott questions our seemingly inexhaustible need to acquire more and more stuff, tracing this behaviour back to the dawn of humanity and showing its exploitation by modern capitalism, asking what the relationship between our stuff and our sense of identity is.
Our lives are saturated with stuff. This is now a serious problem for millions of people living in materially prosperous societies, hence the publication of works like James Wallman’s Stuffocation. In 2009 the United States had 2.3 billion square feet of space in storage units. Ten percent of households were renting at least one such unit. And although the average house size was larger than ever, half of the storage units were being used to store stuff that people had no space for at home. In the UK there is an Association of Professional Declutterers & Organisers, people who are paid to come in and rescue those who are drowning in their own acquisitions.
The problem afflicts people across the socio-economic spectrum. At the top end you have someone like Arizona senator John McCain who, when he was running for president in 2008, was embarrassed by the fact that he couldn’t remember how many houses he owned. It’s common for members of the wealthy elite to purchase houses, cars, boats, and luxury goods far in excess of what they can sensibly use or meaningfully enjoy. But at the bottom end, too, people can lose control of their own clutter. Drive around rural America and it’s quite common to see dilapidated houses and trailer homes surrounded by junk–plastic playthings, broken appliances, rusting car parts. Whether the stuff constitutes an odd, almost defiant, display of abundance, or is there simply because disposing of it would be too expensive or too much trouble, it vividly illustrates the saturation of people’s lives and living space by material possessions.
This problem is fairly new. For much of human history, most people would have been able to fit their possessions into a box, or at least onto a small cart. But the industrial revolution, the advent of mass production, capitalism’s need for ever expanding markets, rising incomes, and eventually the fully-fledged consumer society, complete with 27-7 wall to wall advertising, changed all that. Now the problem for many people is what to do with all those excess boxes of junk that fill their attics, basements, and garages. They look at them and despair! Unwilling to discard, unable to move away, the ultimate solution for many ends up being to die and let the kids sort it out.
This kind of saturation does not feel good. Few people visit their basements or storage units to contemplate with satisfaction, like the miser in his counting house, their accumulated possessions. Just the thought of them produces a feeling more like indigestion than satiation. So how, and why, this situation arises is a little puzzling. After all, it shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid. What could be easier than not acquiring too much stuff?
There are actually two questions here. Why do we acquire so much stuff? And why do we have a hard time discarding it? Neither question has either a single or a simple answer. But here are some suggestions.
Why do we acquire so much?
Regarding our acquisitiveness, first, and most obviously, we live in a consumer society where we imbibe consumerist messages and values as regularly and as unthinkingly as we take in the air we breathe. The basic message behind most ads is: buy X and you will be sexier, happier, more admired and more powerful.
Partly as a consequence of this, shopping has become an important leisure activity. Groups of friends spend whole days cruising the mall; tourists often devote much of their holiday shopping for souvenirs; online shoppers spend many hours comparing items and looking for the cheapest deal.
But contemporary consumerism didn’t appear out of nowhere. It builds on certain ingrained tendencies and habits that are hard to change. For the longest time, when most people possessed so little–one hat, one coat, one pair of shoes–any opportunity to acquire more would be gratefully seized. If a bargain came your way it made sense to bag it. (Advertisers today regularly exploit this impulse:” Buy X! You may not need it, but it’s a bargain!”) Since the end of the Great Depression, though, everything has changed. Today, prosperous societies like the US are so awash with stuff that it’s quite easy to buy things like clothes or household items for next to nothing. Less than a hundred years ago, a decent pair of shoes would represent a significant outlay for most people, and would be unaffordable to many. Today, you can buy good quality used shoes at a thrift store for two dollars. Less than ten minutes work at minimum wage.
We are still in the process of adjusting to this radical transformation of our material circumstances. The analogy between stuff and food suggests itself. People who live for many years on a tight budget become accustomed to taking full advantage of any free food they come across at. Hard-up students, for instance, will make sure that they eat enough of the savory snacks on offer at some campus event to constitute dinner. (Yes, this example is drawn from personal experience.) Later, they no longer need to do this; but the habit has become ingrained, so the behavior continues. A similar observation applies to our society over a much longer time period. From time immemorial, most people had a limited diet and could never be sure of having enough food in the future. Until recently, poor people were typically, in Phillip Larkin’s phrase, “skinny as whippets.” Suddenly–over the last thirty or forty years, that is–an abundance of cheap, calorie-rich food has become readily available at all times. Because it is hard for human beings to shake off the ingrained habits of millennia, we can’t resist stuffing ourselves with more than is good for us. The result, of course, is the obesity epidemic.
Arguably, though, the ingrained tendency that consumer capitalism inflames is not so much a desire for stuff as a concern about status. After all, plenty of cultures have set little store by individual possessions; but in every community, normal people desire and seek some level of recognition and respect from their peers. Nor is this surprising, given that a concern about status is found among our nearest relatives in the animal world. And it’s easy to see how evolution would select in such a desire for status: higher status members of a group will typically have more sex with more mates and consequently produce more offspring.
In human societies, status may be enjoyed for all sorts of reasons: birth; strength, beauty; hunting prowess; martial skills; partners; offspring; virtue; religiosity; wisdom; intelligence; influence; or accomplishments. But in many cultures wealth has long been a major indicator and conferrer of status, and in most modern societies it is by far the most important. Not everyone who is rich feels the need to display their wealth ostentatiously, but many do. The degree of ostentation varies from the elegant aesthete who exhibits sophisticated (and expensive) tastes in art or food, to the vulgar narcissist who emblazons his name across a big gold tower. Those who can will usually display quality: elegant houses; luxury cars; Rolex watches. Those who can’t manage this but want to display something can always opt for quantity, including quantities of junk.
Perhaps more than any other social order, capitalism inflames our desire for status and channels it into a competition for wealth and property. Not everyone participates, of course. But one only has to consider how many people buy lottery tickets (over 70 percent of adults in the UK), and how much they spend on them (over $70 billion in the US in 2014), to recognize that the hope for riches runs deep and wide.
Why is it hard to discard?
Regarding the second question–why do people find it so hard get rid of their excess stuff?–there is, here too, more than one answer.
First, and most obviously, many of us are lazy slobs. Once the amount of superfluous stuff in storage reaches a critical mass, just looking at it induces a weary defeatism. We put off the task, and the pile continues to grow.
Second, holding onto things is for many people an ingrained habit that arises out of the simple thought that an item one is not presently using may nevertheless one day be useful again. On the face of it, this is a reasonable argument. It was presumably first put forward by some dude in the stone age who had to justify the piles of weird shaped rocks that were cluttering up the cave. Today, though, the argument that “it’s a perfectly good x that might one day be useful,” holds little water in many cases. An outmoded computer is about as much use as an out of date phone directory. The current rate of technological change leaves a lot of stuff in the dust–which is precisely where it ends up. We hold onto broken equipment thinking that we’ll repair it one day; but today a slightly broken camera or TV probably costs more to repair than to replace. Other stuff, like clothes, kitchenware, or toys, may not exactly be obsolete, but we can replace them at little cost. This is the truth in a world of disposables.
So part of the reason we don’t throw stuff out more readily is that here, too, as with our impulse to accumulate it in the first place, our mindset and behavior are anchored in an earlier time when they made more sense. But there are arguably other, deeper reasons. The stuff that saturates our homes isn’t just any old junk. It has a meaning. For it represents the story of our lives. The figurine that was a souvenir from the holiday in Spain; the lava lamp that was a birthday present from a now deceased college friend; your “sportsmanship” award from high school soccer. Getting rid of these things can feel like ripping pages from a journal. This is especially true when the things that need to go have to do with one’s kids: baby sailor outfit; first scribblings; bulky, ugly, third grade art projects. Junking this junk, like trashing photographs of loved ones, can even carry a whiff of betrayal.
Erasing the detritus of many decades means facing up to the unidirectionality of time’s arrow and the permanent loss of what has passed. It foreshadows the erasure of all the other traces of one’s life on earth. Rather than awakening and confronting such thoughts, most of us find it pleasanter to just shove that box of whatever it is against the back wall of the attic. The kids can deal with it–one day. But of course the kids, in their turn, may feel the same reluctance to erase historical material that belongs to and establishes their own and the family’s identity.
Jean-Paul Sartre argues that human beings are typically troubled by their awareness that, unlike every non-human thing they encounter, they lack a fixed, given identity. Being uniquely self-conscious, we are unique in having the freedom to choose our identity; but even after choosing it, we retain the freedom to choose again and differently, which means our identity never achieves solidity. We suffer, in consequence, what he calls ‘the nostalgia of impermeability’–the longing to be more thing-like–and we spend much time and effort striving, and failing, to achieve this. The failure is inevitable, which is why Sartre describes this quest as “a futile passion.” It is not too much of a stretch to see all the collecting, hording, acquiring, and storing as one manifestation of this passion, and the discomfort many feel in letting go of their stuff as expressing an attachment to the sense of identity that it gives them.
Saturation and the spirit of capitalism
Evolutionary psychology and philosophical accounts of human nature may or may not help explain how people’s lives come to be saturated by stuff to the point where they feel it as an oppressive burden. What is surely beyond doubt, though, is that our economic system at the very least exacerbates pre-existing tendencies. For capitalism has no place in its ideology for the notion of saturation. The system is geared toward maximizing the production and consumption of as many things as possible. If a market isn’t saturated, keep producing and advertising. If it is, discover or create a new market. The idea that most of us pretty much have all we need for a perfectly satisfactory life is anathema to this system.
There are, of course, many who criticize this outlook, and their lines of criticism can draw on a venerable philosophical tradition going back to the Epicureans, the Cynics, and the Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome. Laboring to make more money to buy more stuff, say these sages, is not the path to happiness; leisure, friendship, and enjoyment of life’s simpler pleasure are far more important; and this is a conclusion that has been confirmed by contemporary psychology. But it is not one that interests our mainstream politicians who are, by and large, servants of the economic system. For them it is a given that whatever increases GDP is good. They see nothing odd or unreasonable about the goal of producing and consuming as much as we can ad infinitum. None of them seem inclined to ask the sort of critical questions posed by Robert and Edward Skidelsky in How Much Is Enough? Or to pass on to the voters Thoreau’s advice, “Simplify! Simplify!”
In recent times, though, a new reason has emerged for questioning the sort of frenzied economic activity responsible for our world being saturated with stuff. This is the argument that such activity is damaging Earth’s delicate ecosystems, causing environmental problems such as global warming, pollution, habitat destruction, and reduced biodiversity. The argument is powerful, but as individuals we still find it hard to de-saturate, in part because of ingrained habits, and in part because the juggernaut of capitalism is unlikely to slow down or change direction voluntarily. Perhaps there is hope, though, in the fact that we have now reached the point when people are so oppressed by the stuff that saturates their lives that there is a market for professional declutterers, and books like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up become best sellers. Small shifts in lifestyle in the direction of simplification can be liberating to the individual, and collectively they may help redirect where the world is heading.