American Consequences - December 2017


By Christine Rosen

For as long as human beings have accumulated stuff, there have been critics of the practice. In The Inferno , Dante Alighieri described lost souls condemned to roll enormous weights back and forth to each other, howling, “Why do you hoard?” and the other: “Why do you waste?” As Dante helpfully describes these doomed creatures consigned to the fourth circle of hell: “Hoarding and squandering wasted all their light and brought them screaming to this brawl of wraiths. You need no words of mine to grasp their plight.”

Their plight is still with us, at least if you believe the many critics of Americans’ consumer spending habits. One in 10 Americans has so much stuff they need to rent storage facilities to hold it all, according to the New York Times . And this is despite the average new American home more than doubling in size during the past 50 years. Once upon a time in post-World War II America, people embraced stuff. They purchased the latest consumer goods – appliances, cars, and Howdy Doody dolls for their kids. Filling a home with such markers of middle-class success was the aspirational ideal, celebrated in popular culture and in advertisements that showed happy families surrounded by their presumably tasteful purchases.

Now we are supposed to want less and to consume on a smaller scale – smaller houses, smaller cars, smaller carbon footprints. Design-focused magazines feature homes so devoid of things that they resemble monastic cells. This appeal to minimalism comes 60 years after the shipping container transformed the global movement of consumer goods. Pioneered by a North Carolina trucking entrepreneur named Malcolm McLean in the 1950s, containerization, or “ intermodalism ” as McLean preferred to call it, introduced efficiencies that dramatically lowered the price of many everyday items. And we have been buying them with a vengeance. Most American homes now have more television sets than people and we spend more on clothing and jewelry than we do on

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