Storage Nation

Seven square feet of commercial storage space now exists for every American.  That’s nearly a quarter of a five-by-five self-storage unit for each man, woman, and child in the U.S., or one whole unit for each average family, or over 2 billion total storage square feet nationally, whichever number makes you more queasy.  I can’t say I’m surprised.  Storage unit complexes seem to sprout in a manner comparable to airborne weeds.

Like our world’s highest rate of oil consumption, or world’s highest rate of obesity, these are numbers of which every American can be proud.  We are world-class hoarders of stuff.  Even though the average U.S. home size has grown by 80% over the last thirty years, Americans still don’t have enough empty space to fill with crap, so we pay for more empty space, to make room for more crap.

Adam Smith didn’t mention that consequence of capitalism, in his seminal Wealth Of Nations, where he posits that narrow self-interest leads to the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  What it leads to is endless marketing that convinces us to buy an endless variety of unnecessary merchandise.  Our homes, and garages, and sheds, and cellars, and growing numbers of storage units, are filled with the overflow.

America has the world’s highest gross domestic product for good reason; we spend it on ourselves.  Americans pay out six times as much as they save, amounting to an annual shopping spree exceeding $10 trillion, and it all has to be kept out of the rain somewhere.

I have three discarded cell phones sitting on a shelf, alongside an old computer, a label maker, four high school year books, a stack of used software CDs, a sweater, and supplies for my humidor.  My shelf, repeated on a grander scale, across America, is what drives the U.S. economy, and, by extension, the world.  The international marketplace depends upon our desire to fill sheet metal sheds with globally-produced stuff.

I’m complicit, and I don’t have a storage locker.  For example, I have very large closets that I pack like lockers.  In fact, based upon personal experience, and intensive research done watching House Hunters, I’d say American closet space has exploded in the last fifty years.  Where else are we going to hide the shoes and clothing we rarely wear, but aren’t ready to get rid of yet?  I have piles of pants waiting for me to lose twenty pounds, and shoes wrapped in pantyhose to keep out spiders.

Simply the fact that I have a closet is a sign of extravagance.  Back in Bible times, there were no closets because there were no extras.  A change of clothing was a sign of wealth, and was why a cloak couldn’t be taken as collateral for a loan.  It was the only covering the person possessed.

In old farmhouses, from even a hundred years ago, there are no closets because there wasn’t anything to put in them.  As an elderly farmer once told me, “We had two sets of clothes, put on and take off.  The closet was the hook on the back of the door.”

One hundred years later, we store goods like pharaohs, caching things away, albeit, on a cheaper scale.  Pharaoh-worthy storage units are hand-painted and filled with expensive crap believed to be useful beyond the grave.  American units are filled with non-HD TVs, used luggage, boxes of books we’ll never read, and secret stashes of porn.  None of it is stuff you’d want to have in heaven.

Obviously, Americans are not saving for eternity.  Our stuff is mostly plastic or cheap furniture.  So what are we saving for?  Why are we willing to spend money on lockers and sheds and garages when the money might have been spent on important things like college educations or a trip to Disneyworld?

The answer is that people have always collected useless stuff.  Early forms of money were stones with holes in them, or sea shells, or dog’s teeth.  They were tokens used for establishing worth, and have become a symbolic form of power.  As a medium of exchange, useless stuff is able to determine the value of everything, including humans.  The one with the most useless crap wins.

It’s the axiom that drives America.  If our heart lies with our treasure, the heart of America lies in a sheet metal shed.  That’s why we can squirrel away increasing amounts of unnecessary gear, while simultaneously complaining we can’t afford the cost of supporting each other.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

One Response to “Storage Nation”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, and even felt some typical American guilt and remorse for my wastefulness and constant consumption. May even do some charity this weekend, but sill, I’m keepin’ my storage unit!!!!!

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