The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Friday, October 23, 2009

What's in your wallet? How about what's in your closet?

We are a society with a disease. We caught this disease willingly, even actively embracing it. It is an addiction... to "stuff". And one of the most interesting and telling indicators of this something seemingly innocuous: the size of our closets.

In homes built in the late 1800's/early 1900's, most typical homes had perhaps one closet, usually near the front door for coats. Many had no closets at all, and the attics were made up into living space, not storage. For ones with cellars or basements, those were most often used for short-term or seasonal storage and canned goods.

By the 1930's, homes were being built that had usually at least one closet, and often two or three. But these were usually under stairwells and often pretty cramped and tiny, about what you'd need for a broom and mop and bucket, or a few extra clothes. Basements were all the rage during this period, and more stuff was going into long-term storage down there.

By the late 1950's, homes were being built with larger closets and more of them, and the first "walk-in" closets (still tiny by today's standards, but you would actually stand up in them and move around). Attics began being used for long-term storage more than converted to living space, and basements were getting full of old pictures and trophies and clothes Aunt Betsy made for your mom's wedding.

By the 1980's, typical homes had a closet in every bedroom, hallway, and even bathrooms and utility rooms. Closet size increased dramatically, and walk-ins were considered the norm for the bedrooms. Basements and attics became less common, so they had to come up with alternatives for storing the accumulating stuff. Outside storage closets, carport sheds, and two-car garages (often for storage rather than cars) thus increased in number.

Today, any newly-built home you buy will most likely have nearly 1/4 to 1/3 of the total square footage set aside for some kind of storage (or potential storage, in the case of the garages; how many people do you know with homes that park their cars in the driveway, and when they open their garage it's wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling boxes and containers? I speak from personal experience here.). We have so much stuff in our lives that we must rent or own a home 1/3 bigger than we need (equaling 1/3 more energy to heat and cool, and 1/3 more land area taken up) just to have a place to put it all, and when you realize that the vast majority of it is stuff we will never, ever use again... it's just landfill fodder waiting for someone to haul it off. Think too of the added materials used to build it, and the added cost in rent or mortgage payments and property taxes for these mini-mansions, and it's mind-boggling.

Now imagine this... with nearly 7 billion people on the planet, nearly half of which are either actively consuming all this stuff or dearly desiring to attain the lifestyle to enable them to do so. In just the last 60 years, our incredible productivity, fueled by the active adoption by manufacturers of planned and perceived obsolescence in the 1950's, has enabled the U.S. to become perhaps the richest and most prosperous nation in the history of the planet. However, the cost has been that we have used up resources at a prodigiuos rate, polluted our air, water, and land, nearly wrecked the climate, and have created a mentality that "more is better" which robs us of the ability to simply enjoy what we have, and use what nature provides us with a conscious awareness of limitations, including building for quality and longevity rather than the profitability of six-month product lifespans.

America is addicted to "stuff", and we've infected the rest of the world with our disease. It's way past time for an intervention, and it begins with each and every one of us just buying and using less.

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