Consumption

At some point, it has to turn around. I’m thinking about consumption – the buying, using, and reckless discarding of things – a thought triggered by a headline in the May 2007 issue of Dwell (p. 41), Room to Consume? Editor-in-Chief Sam Grawe says, “Without things (or more accurately, things in excess), I would hazard to guess that any one of us could live graciously in a space smaller than the average American family room (that’s 300 square feet). Give us more room and we’ll just fill it up with more stuff.” Ain’t it the truth!

When I was a 20-something, I lived on $400 per year. This included a mortgage payment of some $35 per month (can you believe that?), divvied up with my fellow land-owner. Mind, this was the early 70’s. We owned 20 acres of woodland in North Idaho and mostly lived in a customized Econoline (top sawed off and raised roof built from scavanged concrete forms). We mortgaged a purchase price of $7,500 for the acreage, had time for the flora and fauna of our larch-covered forest in the summer, and worked at whatever we could find in the winter to earn that collective $800. Later, we built a teensy (150 sf?) house of slabs (the first cut taken off a log at our neighbor’s sawmill). Our possessions were few and our staples lentils and rice. We had no utilities and few expenses other than an occasional tool or package of seed. We were happy as clams.

Since then, I’ve managed to amass an enormous number of possessions that fill my 3,500 square feet suburban house to the brim. Books, plants, kids’ artwork, ratty old furniture, leftover building materials, electronics, 40 years of National Geographics that I just can’t part with (what is this about?), closets of linens, toys now being saved in anticipation of eventual grandchildren, hand-me down memorabilia, and a tool for about everything you can imagine. 27 years is a long time to collect.

I’m starting to long for more simplicity, but how does one part with 27 years of child rearing, project making, and random acquiring? It would take a month of days, working steadily, to make any sense of it, and if I ever managed to get rid of something, I’d be sure to need it the next day.

The scary thing is that it’s not just me. It’s no secret that in the US, an awful lot of us have way too many things. Things that jam our houses and our spirits to the point that we have no space for a quiet moment, things that require resources to be snatched from the earth and soon tossed aside in an ever-growing mound of irretrievable junk.

As much I’d love to give it, this is not so much a sustainability lecture as an expression of bafflement. How did I get here? How did we all? I love being able to rummage through my basement storage room and finding the precise bolt or patch of denim I need for a repair or a project, but wouldn’t my life be a lot more breathable if I had fewer possessions demanding so much attention? Same goes for our societal getting and spending. We are facing a global environmental crisis and we are finally beginning to know it, but wouldn’t we have been just as happy if we hadn’t been so greedy?

From fitting everything in the back of a van to today’s excess has been quite a journey – it’s definitely time to put it in reverse.

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