America’s addiction to stuff

Every day as I drove by a construction site, I wondered what massive structure was being built in the midst of a recession. Finally after months of speculating, a new sign revealed that it was a climate controlled self-storage facility.

In a time when people are financially stressed, numerous people oddly pay substantial fees to store things that they do not even use. Many legitimate reasons exist to use storage: a move, military service, or the loss of a home, but this gigantic complex, and many other ones like it, serve more than legitimate needs.

The storage industry is one of the fastest growing businesses in the United States. Currently, there are 46,500 self-storage facilities with rentable space totaling 2.2 billion square feet or 7 square feet per person (man, woman, and child), and Americans spend $20 billion annually to store their belongings. To put it another way, every American could comfortably stand in a self-storage unit – at the same time!

Construction of new units has slowed in the past year, but the industry is still doing well financially. Some financial experts have called it a recession-proof business. This article, however, is not meant to offer stock tips or investment ideas, but it seeks to explore why we need so much storage. I would maintain that Americans love stuff, buying it, admiring it, holding on to it, and hate giving it away. In short, we are addicted to stuff.

A whole slew of new television shows are dedicated to helping people addicted to material goods, like Clean House and Hoarding: Buried Alive. These shows are particularly painful to watch as they document people choosing garbage over their families and loved ones. Even one of my wife’s favorite shows, “House Hunters,” which chronicles people searching for a new home, showcases American’s love of excess, particularly when couples tour mini-mansions. These houses have closets larger then my first floor, but it has become cliché for one spouse to joke: “This should be able to store MY clothes.”

One does not have to be a hoarder or live in a mansion to experience the pressure society exerts on individuals to buy more and more stuff. I had an eye-opening moment pulling out baby supplies in anticipation for our second child’s arrival. First came the swing, then the gym, following by the Bumbo, Exersaucer, bouncer, high chair, Pack ‘N Play, two strollers, car seat, and boxes and boxes of toys and clothes. I am sure my parents did not own half of these items. My grandparents probably had less than a quarter of these baby supplies, but I needed all of them or so I thought.

Industrialization has made us incredibly more productive than past generations, but the existence of more stuff does not necessarily lead people to want to purchase more items. Marketing provides the motivation. By age 65, the average American will have seen 2 million commercials, and daily, we are exposed to more than a thousand ads on television, the radio, print, the Internet, signs, and logos. We are being programed to want stuff and want it now. The will, which houses your ability to say no, is slowly being worn down.

Marketing helped generate the madness of Black Friday, with one family starting to wait in line on Wednesday at 10:00am for stores to open on Friday morning and a mad rush at Wal-Mart resulted in the trampling to death of a 34-year-old employee in 2008. Slick branding also motivates people to pay $1,000 for a pair of shoes, just because it is a Jimmy Choo. People have even begun to identify themselves as a brand, like the well-known advertisement says: “I am a Mac … and I am a PC.”

The Great Recession, while causing a great deal of pain and suffering, also provides important lessons. Politicians debate endlessly who is to blame for the economic turmoil. Was it the bankers, brokers, home owners, Republicans or Democrats? Probably, a combination of individuals caused the downturn, but a single motivation underlined the whole process – greed. Americans simply wanted more and more, but the escalating profits and spending was not sustainable.

In addition to the dangers of limitless greed, the downturn highlighted the false security of material wealth. In one moment, an individual could go from a millionaire CEO to a broke and rejected man. This fleeting nature of material prosperity should inspire us to seek spiritual ends over material success and to always be grateful for the many blessings we have been granted.

Furthermore, the recession brought attention to the growing gap between the rich and poor, but I would look at this disparity as an international issue, not only a domestic one. We need to contrast our society with the developing world, and I firmly believe every American should visit a country that is truly impoverished, with people living on the streets without electricity or running water. During my trips to Mexico and India, I realized the local population, even in their poverty, was happier and more generous than Americans. The experiences I had visiting these countries put everything in perspective.

A return to the state of poverty or a job loss is not necessary to understand the true value of goods. We do not need to reject stuff but possess them with moderation, enjoying goods without attachment, giving away more than we keep.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.