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Why Do We Like Junk?

This past weekend I posted a column in which I argued that the concern about global warming disguises the fact that the development of fossil fuel energy allowed us to retain the natural resource of woodlands which becomes a beautiful and striking aspect of our environment around this time every year.

What I didn’t mention but will talk about in this column is the extent to which the creation and increase in global warming is as much, if not directly a function of choices we make which could be made differently without having any real impact on the reality of our lives at all.

That being said, take a look at this new house being built a few miles from where I live:

Minus the garage, the living space in this house is somewhere around 2,500 square feet. Notice that the entire frame of the house is built out of wood. Not only are all the roof timbers made out of wood planks, but so are all the walls which are covered by insulation against which tiles, or some other wall materials will be laid.

This house is one of six houses which are being built along a road which used to border a forest from end to end. They haven’t knocked down the forest behind these building lots yet but if there’s sufficient demand, that project will get started at some future point in time.

How many people could comfortably live in this house? According to a floor plan which is part of the sale sign advertising this project further up the road, the house has 3 bedrooms upstairs and each room can comfortably fit two beds.

In 2022, the average size of the new home built in the United States was 2,522 square feet. In 1980, forty-some years ago, the average size of a new home was 1,720 square feet. So, the size of new homes have increased almost 50% in the last 40-odd years, meanwhile the size of the average American family has dropped from 3.29 to 3.13 over the same period of time.

The homes get larger while the number of people living in those homes gets smaller. And the size of a home will determine how much energy is needed to heat the place, air-condition the place, run the vacuum cleaner when the floors need to be done, and let’s not forget that the more space, the bigger and stronger the lighting needs to be.

What the fu*k are we doing with all that space? I’ll tell you what we are doing with it – we’re using it to store all our crap.

Several years ago, I drove from Lexington, KY to my home outside of Springfield, MA. I had some extra time, so I decided to take local roads from Lexington until Philadelphia, where I finally jumped on I-95 and shot home.

I drove through 15 or 16 towns between Lexington and Philly just to see what life was like in those places and here is what I saw: On the outskirts of every town there was a new and very large evangelical church and a new and even larger property containing those walk-in storage lockers which seem to be sprouting all over the place.

The organization which represents the companies that own and operate those lockers, the Self-Storage Association, says there are somewhere around 2 billion square feet of walk-in storage space, and that the vacancy rate in many states is under 10%.

This past Saturday my wife and I drove to a tag sale warehouse near us which contains sales spaces occupied by 25 separate vendors, and here’s a picture of one aisle inside the place:

Are you going to tell me that when the people who own this crap bought this crap that they actually needed one, single thing which they are now selling at a fraction of the price they originally paid?

What is it about consumer goods which make us willing to spend lots of money to live in a home which is large enough to store all this junk which we certainly don’t need? Why are we willing to despoil not the first, but the second growth of forests to build houses which have so much unnecessary space?

It all has to do with the ways we go about defining our role within the community in which we live, and the importance we attach to the status that is connected to a particular role which we play.

Stay tuned for the next column on this issue coming soon.

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