Americans’ Wealth Leads to Clutter

Joseph Verrengia, AP’s science writer, tackles the dismal science of economics and the social science of sociology, arguing that Americans’ homes are cluttered because our material wealth has outpaced our biological evolution.

U.S. Material Wealth Leads to Clutter

To many observers, clutter reflects the mind-set of the modern household — overburdened, disorganized and compulsive. To others, clutter is a broader symbol of a ravenous culture dependent on easy credit, piling up debt and consuming a lion’s share of the world’s resources without considering the consequences. “People’s homes are a reflection of their lives,” says Los Angeles psychologist and organizational consultant Peter Walsh. “It is no accident that people have a huge weight problem in this country, and clutter is the same thing. Homes are an orgy of consumption.”

The obesity analogy isn’t a joke. While personal spending drives much of the U.S. economy, the resulting clutter from all that shopping is so pervasive that some researchers wonder if it might have a deeper, biological component, similar to overeating.

Their speculation borrows from evolutionary theory. Modern humans developed some 100,000 years ago as hunters and gatherers living in fundamentally harsher circumstances. Today, we are surrounded by abundance, but our bodies have remained genetically programmed to eat everything in sight and store calories to survive winter, drought and famine. To some nutrition experts, it’s a primary reason two-thirds of Americans are overweight. Similarly, our forebears saved anything that could be materially useful because they had to make everything from scratch.

Clutter emerged alongside industrial specialization and mass production in the 19th century, and it was then that the biological need to save everything morphed into a desire to acquire. Suddenly, the rising middle class was buying items once reserved for royalty. Tea sets. Mantelpiece figurines. Forks used only to eat fish. And the opportunities to acquire have only skyrocketed. The old corner store stocked fewer than 1,000 items. Today, a Wal-Mart SuperCenter covers a quarter-million square feet — that’s nearly six acres — and carries 130,000 products.

A plausible bit of pop psychology. Kim and I are currently trying to unburden ourselves of clutter, having just merged households and received boxes of wedding presents. We’ve made several trips to the local AmVets to donate excess household goods, especially clothes (mostly mine, oddly enough) and are still packed to the gills.

The amusing thing is that we live in a reasonably large house with four bedrooms. The house was built in the mid-1960s and has doubtless been more than spacious enough to accomodate the raising of several families. Yet, with only two adults, we find that there is not enough closet space.

Still, of the problems to have, too much stuff is among the more preferable. It’s far better than obesity in terms of impact on one’s health, to be sure. And, in the grand scheme of things, obesity is a mallady that most of the world’s population would gladly trade for their circumstances.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. odograph says:

    FWIW – There is an earlier article on hoarding junk and evolution at Britan’s Times. I talked about it here. and I think I found it at the HuffPo

    I suspect AP did a ‘merican version of the Times article … but the affect apparenlty applies to European wealth as well 🙂

  2. Elmo says:

    “My furniture, part of which I made myself, and the rest cost me nothing of which I have not rendered an account, consisted of a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs, a looking-glass three inches in diameter, a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet, and a frying-pan, a dipper, a wash-bowl, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a japanned lamp.

    None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin. That is shiftlessness. There is a plenty of such chairs as I like best in the village garrets to be had for taking them away. Furniture! Thank God, I can sit and I can stand without the aid of a furniture warehouse.

    What man but a philosopher would not be ashamed to see his furniture packed in a cart and going up country exposed to the light of heaven and the eyes of men, a beggarly account of empty boxes? That is Spaulding’s furniture. I could never tell from inspecting such a load whether it belonged to a so-called rich man or a poor one; the owner always seemed poverty-stricken.

    Indeed, the more you have of such things the poorer you are. Each load looks as if it contained the contents of a dozen shanties; and if one shanty is poor, this is a dozen times as poor. Pray, for what do we move ever but to get rid of our furniture, our exuviae; at last to go from this world to another newly furnished, and leave this to be burned?

    It is the same as if all these traps were buckled to a man’s belt, and he could not move over the rough country where our lines are cast without dragging them, — dragging his trap. He was a lucky fox that left his tail in the trap. The muskrat will gnaw his third leg off to be free. No wonder man has lost his elasticity.”

  3. Bithead says:


    She’s re-dressing you already?
    Been there, done that, don’t have the T-Shirts anymore.

  4. James Joyner says:

    BH: Heh, no. I’ve accumulated a rather large warddrobe over the years, both as a function of having been essentially the same size for nearly 20 years and having held jobs in different climates and varying types of clothing. I had a three bedroom house to myself for a number of years and never much had to cull, what with all the closet space.

    Kim, on the other hand, has worked for the same company for ten years and wears very casual clothes to the office.

  5. Fred says:

    Clutter has spawned a whole industry of mini storage / piblic storage / self storage companies. When I first noticed them popping up like mushrooms I knew Americans had reached a tipping point of having too much stuff.

  6. odograph says:

    Re. Storage – YES!

    The industry totally plays this need. I was shocked on my Great Drive North (California to Alaska) to see storage units all along the way, even in remote areas of the Northwest Territories.

    I have heard that there are enough storage units in America to provide standing room for every man, woman, and child, in the country.

    … and of course, the vast majority of users end up playing many times the replacement value of their contents for the rent to store them.

  7. Jim Rhoads (vnjagvet) says:

    Another article written by the species “perpetual scold”.

    I am sure Al Gore will pick up on this soon.

  8. DL says:

    You take away the clutter and you’ve taken away the buying. You take away the buying and you’ve taken away the jobs. You take away the jobs and you’ve taken away our wealth, and now you’ve got a third world country without clutter!

  9. odograph says:

    Did you ever see that “mass production – mass consumption” cartoon? It was a classic (Warner Bros? Elmer Fudd?) … the elves show up at night to help the shoemaker, but get tired of bringing all their elve relatives to meet demand, and explain factories, mass production, and mass consumption to him. Pretty funny, and pretty true.

    The thing is, there is also a certain amount of “running on the mouse wheel” here. Surveys show that while incomes (and consumption) have climbed dramatically since the second world war, happiness has not risen significantly in industrial countries.

    I suspect that “clutter” is a case where people could gear down and be happier, even with a little less mass production and mass consumption.

    (Clutter is more likely made overseas these days anyway. We spend locally on gas-food-lodging … things that do not clutter.)