Americans, in particular, although a good big of the Western industrialized world, have entirely too much stuff. Annie Lenoard’s “Story of Stuff” tells the tale of the linear process in which stuff enters our lives–from natural resource exploitation to factory production to the store shelves to our homes, and rather quickly in many cases, to the landfill. She discusses “planned obsolescence” whereby products are specifically designed to break or wear out after a short amount of time (think about those expensive hiking boots that you bought new that only lasted one summer); or “perceived obsolescence” where stuff is perceived as no longer useful (for example, any technology over 2 years old is “out of date”). Despite these perceptions, the clutter and stuff seems to dominate our lives and new stuff is circulating in and out at all times. But a lot of it also gets “stuck” in our lives rather permanently, taking up unnecessary space, and causing us issues. We hear stories of hoarders who can’t let go of anything–but really, how many among us can say that we don’t have too much stuff? And when this stuff leaves our homes, it creates waste streams and pollution.
About two years ago, I began making a serious effort in my life to reduce the amount of clutter and stuff I had accumulated and–just as importantly–to prevent more stuff from entering. I wanted to share that process with you and talk through some of the issues surrounding stuff. At this point, I’ve cut out 70% of the stuff from my life–and feel much better for it.
Problems with Too Much Stuff.
Wasted resources. A lot of people not only have a house/apartment full of stuff but also a storage unit. A larger house to hold all that stuff, plus a storage unit or whatever else, is a serious waste of space and resources (and in this time of dwindling resources, is this even ethical?) We should live in our spaces, not fill them with useless stuff that just takes up room–and requires heat, maintenance, and so on.
Physical Clutter is a burden, in more than one sense. This brings me to physical clutter. Physical clutter is emotionally draining and can sap one’s motivation and energy. Just walking into a cluttered space gives one a feeling of helplessness and being overwhelmed–and if you are living in this constantly, its really unhealthy for you. I have a good friend who had so much clutter in his physical space that you could hardly walk through there, it wasn’t pleasant to visit. I watched him spend all of his time–for literally years–rearranging it, thinking it would just take him another few weeks to get arranged and once it was, he could do real work up there. But he ended up in this vicious loop where he’d shuffle the stuff from one area to the next, and it was still cluttered, and he spun his wheels in other areas of his life all the same. And he never really realized it was happening, or at least, seemed powerless to stop it. When an extreme event forced the stuff out of his life, it was amazing to see his creativity return, new jobs and opportunities open up, and his general mental state of mind and happiness improve.
The Energetic implications of clutter. As my friend’s story illustrates, there is, of course, an energetic side to having too much stuff. Stuff holds energy–and very frequently, not energy you want in your life. If you’ve ever tried to do a house cleansing, even a simple one with some salt, water, candles and smudge sticks, you probably know how hard it is to clear a space that is full of stuff–it just doesn’t work. Also, other people’s stuff holds their energy, and that can be a real problem depending on whose stuff it originally was. Stuff also holds the energy of the processes used to create it–which can also be an even bigger problem if it was created in a way that caused suffering (I spoke about this at length a few years ago on ritual tools, but it applies more broadly). So when you have all this stuff everywhere in your life, its influencing you on multiple levels.
The most stuff that enters your life, the more demand there is for it. All that stuff had to come from somewhere–and when it enters your life, it was acquired somehow. This acquisition is part of the basic laws for supply and demand: the ore “stuff” that is purchased in a system, the more perceived demand there is for that stuff and the more stuff is produced. This leads to even more drain on natural resources, more waste produced, and more energy expended.
Excess stuff keeps us captive. I think this last point sums all of the above–stuff keeps us captive. Some people have houses or apartments so full of stuff they feel they can never leave (I know a lot of people who say this). Others have stuff from loved ones who have passed on, and by holding onto that stuff, they are holding onto their loved one–which prevents healing and release. When you go to an area that has too much stuff that you really don’t want, you get this sense of burden–and its a form of captivity. The stuff has its hold on you….so how do you break free?
Understanding the Problem: “Automatic” Acquisition and Disposal
To return to the “Story of Stuff” above, we might think about the two automatic behaviors that literally drive the consumptive system: acquisition and disposal. When I say “automatic” here, I’m using a term from learning theory that refers to behaviors that are ingrained, require no thought, and are often engaged in without any critical reflection.
Purchasing, accumulating, and disposing of stuff is all about automatic conditioning. We are literally conditioned by television, advertising, even our school systems, our culture, to buy, buy, buy and toss, toss, toss. Purchasing something is our culture’s solution to any problem or need: needing to demonstrate affection, needing to solve a problem, boredom, a way to smooth over a disagreement, and so much more. When we don’t want something, out to the curb or into the trash bin it goes. We don’t even give this whole process a second thought–we just engage in it, over, and over, and over again. And in the process of engaging it it, we support a system that is literally destroying the land and desecrating this glorious earth that sustains us.
Recognizing this conditioning for what it is, injecting some critical thinking in the process, and eventually breaking the conditioning entirely puts us on the path to a clutter-free life.
Solutions to the Stuff Problem: The Mindset Shift
Before I talk about how I eliminated 70% of the stuff in my life (and continue to eliminate even more), I want to talk about to engage in the mindset shifts that help you prevent new stuff coming into your life and help you make better, conscious decisions surrounding stuff.
Wants vs. Needs. We have a serious problem in our culture in separating our wants from our needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good place to start: the actual needs for human survival are food, water, air, basic clothing, and shelter. Needs above the base needs are not more stuff but rather safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. It is these basic things that are needed for happy human living–and I think a lot of our culture tries to replace these things with stuff…and fails miserably. So when we really take a few steps back to think about what we need vs. what we want, we can start making priorities in our lives.
While my mindset shift concerning stuff came from a lot of places, it was highly motivated by my teaching of an ongoing community-service based course in Pontiac, Michigan, where many people live without their basic needs being met (like adequate food, warm clothing for winter, or shelter). Seeing children in our program without gloves or knowing they were getting their last food for the day with the “snack” at center 5:30pm, really shifted my own view about needs. The goal of my course was to help improve children and adolescent’s literacy skill–but more than once I saw that kids couldn’t work on their reading or writing when their basic needs weren’t met. This really led me to a long series of meditations on the nature of stuff, wants and needs, and more–and lead to this blog post and the resulting change in my life! When you encounter people who really don’t have all their needs met (or you’ve experienced that in your own life), it makes you be more grateful for what you have–and helps put a want and a need in perspective.
A No New Things Policy. Another mindset shift, and series of conversations that can really be helpful is to tell friends and family that you have a “no new stuff” policy. There are different ways you might go about it. The most extreme is to tell them that you aren’t interested in any new stuff, period, and refuse to take stuff when its offered. Less extreme is gently reminding people about your “no stuff policy” when they do give you something, but taking it anyways the first few times as everyone is adjusting to your policy. You can also setup meaningful alternatives: for example, if they want to give you something, baked goods, handmade things, or natural things (beautiful shells, etc) are welcome, as is a helping hand around the home. I have found that this has really led to some interesting and productive conversations. It was also met with some serious resistance depending on who you are trying to talk with (and for some, especially older family members, it takes years of conversations to make it work). Having alternatives to gift giving at holidays and birthdays (see next post) is a really helpful way of helping others make this transition.
Reseeing Gift Giving. A while back, I talked about sustainable alternatives to gift giving for the holidays–this is something my family has been doing for years and its really successful: we by a few gifts for one person, we only buy what they request or need, and we are conscious of waste throughout the process. Since the holidays and birthdays produce an excess of stuff, eliminating that stream of unwanted stuff makes a huge difference.
Gifts come in many forms. I would also add to my suggestions about gift-giving is that there are other gifts that are more valuable than stuff bought with money. What about an hour or two of your time to help someone clean their house or accomplish some other task? What about a song, piece of writing, or artwork you created? What about a nice backrub? What about some fresh veg from your garden or a jam made from berries foraged in the forest? What about teaching a friend something new? What about conversation over a really unique tea? There are all kinds of gifts that we can give that are of our time and our creative expressions that do not require purchasing stuff. When you look at this list, it makess going to the store and buying something look kinda lame.
Eliminating other sources of stuff. Stuff seems to sneak up on you, and in many different ways and forms. Spotting the stuff creep is another step in preventing future problems. Consumerism is designed to send a lot of stuff our way–from free “gifts” of no value sent to you in the mail to swag at work to gifts nobody wants to a culture where shopping is a primary hobby. So working to look at how else stuff enters your life and eliminating those sources helps.
Reseeing existing stuff and avoiding perceived obsolescence. The other thing here that’s important with a mindset shift is getting ourselves out of the consumer mindset and avoiding the “perceived obsolescence” that plagues our culture. Electronics are the worst offenders in this regard, and they have been one of the focus points for my own re-seeing of existing stuff. Given the serious ethical issues under which electronics are produced and the environmental hazards of disposal, I’m trying to get the most out of them, stretching them way beyond their typical two year cycle. There is this perception that anything that is older than 2 years is useless in terms of electronics. I’ve found that this is simply not the case: with careful maintenance and maxing out the RAM, my 6 year old iMac is running just fine and is still able to handle anything I throw at it. My computer before that is still being used by my parents for web browsing and word processing. I don’t have a smartphone and have been using the same standard phone for 4 years now. These are conscious choices that put me at odds with most of conventional thinking and behavior, but that’s ok (I’m not one for convention anyways).
Recognizing what stuff IS important. Some stuff is important to us, and there is nothing wrong with that. I think that recognizing what we value and want to keep and cherish is also an important part of this process. For me, I realized that my herbalism supplies, my art studio, my books, and my gardening and homesteading supplies were important: these were the things that enriched me creatively and spiritually and allowed me to live sustainably. So while I did make cuts in these areas, I allowed myself to keep these things guilt-free.
Eliminating Stuff and Reducing Clutter
By now, hopefully I’ve convinced you that excess stuff in your life comes with its share of serious problems. And while the mindset shifts above can help new stuff from entering your life, its not going to really solve the problem of the existing stuff in your life. And the existing stuff is a real problem, because it often has energetic and emotional holds upon us. Let me say this: if you take on the mindset shifts and be vigilant about the stuff you don’t need, you will only need to do the following (painful) process once. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Let’s talk about how we can engage in sustainable, sacred action even in the process of removing excess stuff.
In my case, I had a largish house where a lot of stuff was mine (like a well-stocked art studio and too many books); I also had stuff I had been holding onto for sentimental value that I hadn’t used or touched in years (like old video games, instruments, old clothes, various kick-knacks). But I also had a lot of stuff that people had unloaded on me: friends’ s who had stayed with me for periods of time and left “a few things” to come get later; excess stuff from my divorce (where my ex took only what he wanted and left the rest), things people brought over thinking it would be useful for me (and wasn’t), and so on. When I started wanting to reduce this stuff, I was overwhelmed with the amount of it. These are the principles that helped me through this process:
Producing No Waste. When people get overwhelmed with stuff, the most likely thing that they do is turn to the automatic behavior of disposal–that is, they throw it away. While this is certainly a response to deal with the immediate problem (too much stuff), it creates ethical dilemmas of its own because you are putting more waste into the system, especially when that stuff could have another use. Not to mention, you are perpetuating the cycle of consumption and disposal. One of the permaculture design principles that I’ve been working with really seriously for the last few years is “produce no waste” and if we think about eliminating stuff from this perspective, it becomes more challenging, yes, but certainly more rewarding. Our stuff may not be wanted by us, but it can still be used in a great many ways by others, and tossing it in a dumpster shouldn’t be on the table.
Eliminating Ethically and Consciously. Thinking about eliminating stuff ethically, then, leads us towards “alternative” movement streams that don’t end up in the landfill. For household goods and clothing, you might look for alternatives, alternatives even beyond the Salvation Army and Goodwill (a lot of your stuff ends up in their dumpster). We have a local center (the one I mentioned earlier) that accepts household items and clothing; they give all of this freely away to anyone who is in need. If you have no such center, you can also use Freecycle and Craig’s List: giving stuff away for free is an easy way to meet new friends, give someone something they need, and remove stuff from your life that you no longer need. You may also think about friends or family who need the stuff you have: when I cut down my art studio by 30%, I gave nearly all of it to two places: a local community center for kid’s art and a good friend who was looking for some supplies. Musical instruments I had had since I was a teenager also went to the community center–I had difficulty initially letting go of them, but when I heard they would be used to start a band to keep the kids off the streets, it was joyful to give them away. A few years ago, I gave my big screen TV away to a friend who is a caretaker for a disabled person: the disabled person’s TV was going out and he needed another one. What options you have really depends on your circumstances and local area, but do ask around to family and friends–you’ll be surprised how many people are in need of something you may have to give. And when you can make a difference with that stuff–it makes the process all the more enjoyable.
What to keep. Rather than think about what you want to eliminate, think about what you want to keep–and the rest can go. I mentioned above the things that I valued: I put those on a list, and I worked to eliminate anything that I didn’t hold in that kind of value. This made the decision process much easier. For me, a lot of this ended up being stuff from my life-before-sustainability: gaming supplies, electronics, DVDs, and more. Once I realized what was important to me now, I was able to find better homes for what wasn’t.
Create a “staging area” for Letting Go Because stuff is overwhelming, I found that it helped to create a “staging area” where the stuff could sit for a time while I mourned its loss. Stuff would go into the room I wasn’t using, and I would have time to let it go before moving it off to its new home. There were things in my life that I would never use again (like gaming books, etc) but I couldn’t bring myself to let them go for many years. But when I had the staging area, I could let them sit there for a while until I did my mourning and then pass them on to someone else who could–and did–make use of them. This is especially a useful strategy for things that you have either had a long time or had a deep emotional connection with. This worked really well: I was able to spend a lot of time going though every space in my home and then, once that process was done, was able to rehome all of it fairly quickly.
Enlisting help. Other people don’t feel about your stuff the way you do–finding the *right* friend or family member to help you eliminate is a good idea. You don’t want someone who will talk you into keeping anything–you want someone who is ruthless and firm, who will convince you that you don’t need what you think you do. It may take a few tries to find the right friend, but when you do, he or she will be invaluable in helping you eliminate clutter.
Going, going, gone. After you have started this process and gave away the first lot of stuff, you’ll find that subsequent reductions of the clutter are actually much easier. Now, I have very little emotional attachment to any stuff, and I can easily give it away (and can be that ruthless and firm friend who can help others do the same).
Other Ways of Managing Stuff
In addition to eliminating stuff and making sure new stuff doesn’t enter our lives, there are at least three ways of reseeing our relationships to our existing stuff that can also help:
Making conscious purchases of higher quality. Purchase carefully and consciously can help slow down waste streams. I still do buy stuff, but I try to think about my purchases, plan them in advance, and when possible, allowing several days or weeks between a decision and the actual purchase. I generally try to never buy anything on a whim. There are exceptions to these rules, of course, but they are good general principles to follow for daily living. The other issue here is to purchase things that do not have planned obsolescence–rather, purchase things of higher quality (and usually higher price) that will last longer. Iron skillets are a great investment, as are a good pair of leather boots taken regularly to a cobbler and regularly oiled.
Making it last and taking care of it. When stuff is cheap and plentiful, it has less value. By making less purchases and making them carefully, your stuff takes on more value to you. You can also make a conscious effort to take care of what you have better so that it doesn’t wear out or break easliy.
Repurposing. Creative repurposing can take many forms–one of the ways you might think about solving problems or using existing stuff is to see it in new ways. This helps us purchase less and also gives our stuff a new lease on life. There’s the whole movement of “upcycling” or taking old clothing, books, and other items and creating something from nothing. For example: I took a bunch of old jeans that couldn’t be donated and made a rug; I gave that as a gift to a friend who had cold floors and liked handmade things. This repurposing is especially useful for stuff that isn’t high quality or is worn out….trying to find a use for it can be a creative, fun challenge.
The Move to Simple Living
The more space we have, the more space we have to fill. Choosing to live in smaller spaces, with less gizmos, gadgets, and clutter, can lead to more fulfilling lives. I’m doing that as we speak–leaving my homestead of 5 years and moving into a space less than half the size of my previous house. While this move was for other reasons (described in my earlier post), I’m also using it as a chance to make some “stuff changes” in my life that will help. Moving to a smaller space will help me continue to be conscious of my space and storage, will allow me to have a smaller environmental footprint, and live a more meaningful and simple life.
Apparently, I had a lot more to say about eliminating stuff than I first realized! Its been a very important part of my own transformative process, and one that I’m glad I endured. Even though eliminating stuff was hard at first, the challenges were worth the rewards! Thanks for reading 🙂