I wrote about my ongoing attempts to rid myself of extraneous material objects in my previous post. The phrase "extraneous material objects" probably sums up the stuff I'm talking about better than the word "clutter". The word clutter somehow seems to imply that if the stuff is neatly organized, it's still ok, even if it's useless, duplicative, and wasteful.
Why do people accumulate stuff? I think at the core there is a human impulse to hoard things. When people were living in more basic conditions it made sense. The family which had accumulated the most food was liklier to survive through the winter. Likewise, when humans began making better tools, the family with the most impressive stock of tools had an edge in survival.
So how did we get from holding on to that state-of-the-art stone axe, to millions of broken Popeil's Pocket Fishermen being stored in garages, basements, and closets? I think there are three parts to the answer.
First, the fact that we have the hoarding impulse built into the human genes makes us, on average, terrible at doing cold, hard, evaluations about whether we need any given object. Second, we are status seeking creatures, and the people with the largest array of objects have in most cultures occupied the highest status. Finally, there are always people eager and willing to convince you that you have a need for objects they are selling. This was true even before the rise of Madison Avenue and the 24 hour a day nonstop bombardment of advertising to which we are subjected.
Now the entire economy is built on people buying things of dubious necessity, and in most cases of shoddy quality as well. I'm not arguing that everything a person owns needs to have some practical utility. Art objects and recreational equipment are perfectly legitimate things to have.
The real problem operates on two scales. On the broad scale, is it healthy to have an economy which depends on producing and more and more poorly constructed McMansions, fat and sodium laden hamburgers, and underutilized junk to store in the garages, closets and attics of those McMansions?
On the smaller scale, which is a healthier and more satisfying way to live? Constantly rearranging piles of inert objects? Or a situation in which a smaller number of possessions are in their proper place, ready for use and easy to find?
Another issue is in the realm of personal economy. If a family buys a lot of things, it requires a larger income than a family which spends less. I've always been convinced that the shift from a one earner family to both partners working had less to do with either inflation or the rise of the feminist movement than it does with the increase in the number of things families consider necessities.
In discussions about consumerism, a question often arises. If a sufficient number of people opt out of the scramble for an increased number of material objects, will it damage the economy, creating high unemployment and the collapse of major industries? I don't really know the answer to that. I suspect that in a better managed world there would be good, productive, fullfilling activities for the population. But since I'm pessimistic that there will be a significant drop in the hoarding impulse population-wide, I doubt Toys-R-Us has much to worry about.
Another question, of a much more personal and individual nature, is what are the real necessities of life, and how many objects of a not strictly necessary nature is it healthy and appropriate to own? For instance, a television is really only necessary if you're a TV critic. Yet TV has somehow solidly landed on the list of necessities for the American family. Even automobiles are conveniences rather than necessities, despite the feeling of most Americans that they can't live without them.
Overall, I've come to the conclusion that too many possessions is at best a distraction from more importants things, and at worst a debilitating and wasteful, resource and energy drain.