We love all of our possessions—and we hate them. What are we going to do with all of this stuff?
Comedian George Carlin once famously said, “A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.” And while Carlin left us years ago (his own stuff, from scribbled-on scripts to arrest records, is stored in the archives of the National Comedy Center), that statement has never been more true than it is today. While we've super-sized our homes, gaining 1,000 square feet between 1974 and 2014, they are increasingly stuffed to the rafters. No matter our income level, fast fashion and online shopping have combined with ever-cheaper prices to increase the flow of consumer goods into our lives and homes from a trickle to a tidal wave, with little hope of stanching the flood.
Some things we cherish; others we purchase quickly and soon forget. A quarter of families with two-car garages don't park in them because they're full of things other than cars. Almost one in 10 U.S. households rents offsite storage.
All these possessions are giving us angst. Buying things creates a dopamine high, but once we get them home, we often don't know where to put them. Research conducted at UCLA found that women who described their homes using words like “clutter” and “mess” exhibited unhealthy levels of diurnal cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. (The finding, interestingly, did not hold for men.)
Both men and women worry about the environmental impact of what they buy—and what they throw away. How long can SWACO continue to process the 1 million tons of refuse we send to the landfill each year in Franklin County?
Jeremy Brooks, an environmental social scientist at Ohio State University, looks at human behavior to try to identify ways to encourage sustainability. Brooks says we consume not only to meet our own needs, but also to communicate information to others about what group we belong to and how wealthy we are. In one study, he and his team found that people were impressed by others' pro-environmental behavior only if it was apparent that they could afford to act differently. It's cooler to buy a late-model hybrid than it is to ride the bus. “We're afraid to stop acquiring,” he says, “because people won't know we're successful.”
We all find our own way to make peace with our stuff. Some organize it in giant closets and pantries filled with cabinets and drawers. Some “KonMari” their wardrobes, sorting and purging according to what sparks joy. A few get rid of it all and move into tiny houses.
But the things we own are more than just things. They represent our past and our future; our onetime aspirations; our sense of who we are. “Our stuff,” says professional organizer Cathi Du Puy, who in 20 years of digging through people's stashes has seen an awful lot of it, “is our stuff.”
Can we control our possessions, or are they controlling us? What's the best solution for us—and for the planet? We don't pretend to have the answer, but here's a look at how Central Ohioans are tackling the problem.