Before the current economic downturn whenever I entered an American specialty store I would ask myself, “Who’s buying all this stuff?” Aisle after aisle, stack and rack after one another—piles of stuff (clothing, electronics, kitchen gadgets designed to simplify life). How was all of this stuff ever going to find a buyer?
For a time—too long at that—much of it did find someone to drag it home. Everything was cheap, so we all became accustomed to buying things we didn’t need and hardly ever used. Remember bread machines—just one craze that swept the country several years ago? Well, if you were suckered into buying one of those machines, how many times did you use it? Assuming a half a dozen times, as my wife did, then each of those loaves cost about $25.00. How many years has it sat on some shelf, abandoned and almost forgotten? Salad-shooters. Pasta machines. Tortilla presses. Crock-pots. Waffle makers. Fondue dishes. Coffee grinders. Bundt pans. Ice cream makers. Knife sharpeners. Nut crackers. Individual salt and pepper shakers. Electric juicers. Egg timers. Apple peelers. Indoor grills. Even something called a “banana hanger.” Mostly useless (or at least unnecessary) stuff.
Half of the things in our house—probably much more than that—my wife and I never use, look at, wear, or consume, and yet there in closets, shelves and cupboards are all the unnecessary objects we have purchased down through the years. Too many sweaters, sport coats, shoes, belts, hats, scarves, jackets of every kind, ties, even watches I don’t need or wear, backpacks, briefcases, tote bags. VHS blank tapes for a lifetime (utterly useless now that DVDs have taken over), every space overflowing with more and more recent purchases—too often superannuated by the next advancement in technology. LP records, 35 MM slides, tape recorders and cassettes.
And when I decide that I do want that bread machine or that apple-corer that I purchased years ago, can I ever find it? Of course not; it’s hidden under more unused detritus.
We are all drowning in our own houses and apartments—even in our automobiles—surrounded by things we do not need and rarely ever use. What was the purpose in buying that DVD movie that I never watched or the book I never read? Well, yes, they were both bargains, so I convinced myself that I needed them. And what about the extra TV in the guest room, about to be made obsolete by high definition TV?
I think about a recent trip to India, with a bulging suitcase of clothes, toiletries, enough medicine to prevent every major infection known to mankind and then some, extra shoes, batteries, and eyeglasses, guidebooks and maps, telephone and camera chargers, increasing in weight every day as I stuffed more purchases (all cheap, of course, bargains too good to pass up) into my bag. The suitcase held enough clothing for a week before I needed to wear anything a second time or have something washed—more changes of clothing in that one suitcase than most of the people in the country have in their entire possession.
In fact, with only one exception (kitchen cooking utensils), that bag of mine probably contained more possessions than most Indians (and most people in the world, for that matter) will ever own in their lives. No problem–my weighty suitcase was mostly lifted, moved and carried by others–fortunately, since it was approaching such an incredible weight that I could scarcely lift it. Much of it was filled with purchases that, since I’ve returned home and unpacked, remain stacked on a chair, waiting for me to figure where I’m going to put them.
What must the porters at hotels have assumed was in my suitcase each time one of them had to lift the bag for me—bricks, rocks, bars of gold? And the housekeeper who made up our room every day: what did she think as she got a glimpse of the contents of my toiletry case: clippers, scissors, shaving gear, ear plugs, dental floss, clothes pins, spot remover, Chapstick, hand lotion, rubber bands, Band-Aids, battery-operated toothbrush, you name it.
Well, we’re going to have to get used to less stuff. Not simply because we’ve finally realized that we can’t afford it (even when it is cheap) but because we don’t have any place to put it. For years, I’ve had a practice I’ve followed as an academic who teaches literature. If I buy still another book, then I must give one of the older ones away.
And now I’ve begun following the same procedure for clothes, shoes, small appliances. Try selling these things? Are you kidding? Have you looked on ebay lately? There’s too much of everything. Too much stuff. And a lot of it is not finding a bidder.
Now that we’ve all slowed down our purchase rate, our economy’s busted. But, thank God, President Obama has not told us to go out and spend money (as his predecessor did). Rather, Western economists are now telling the Chinese and people in other Asian countries that it’s time they started purchasing more stuff.
Do we really want them to do what we did to ourselves?
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.