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.
To many observers, clutter reflects the mind-set of the modern household Ã¢€” 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 Ã¢€” that’s nearly six acres Ã¢€” 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.