By Donella Meadows
–December 9, 1999–
My heartfelt advice to you: Never Move.
If you must move, never move to a place with lots of storage space, such as a farm full of old barns and sheds.
If you must move to such a place, never move away from it.
Guess what I’ve been doing for the last month. Right, moving from the farm where I’ve lived for 27 years. Processing literally tons of stuff, brought and deposited there not only by me, but by dozens of people who have shared the place with me over the years.
Old tires. Rusty rolls of wire fencing. Piles of random boards (they’ll come in handy some day). Stacks of old windows (we never got around to making them into a greenhouse). Gallons of waste oil in scattered hiding places. Pieces of pipe left over from every plumbing job. Flower pots, all sizes, plastic and clay, enough to outfit a florist shop (you never know when you’ll want to divide a house plant).
Five dumpster dumps, four truckloads to the metal recycler, three huge bonfires, two loads to the church rummage sale, and a partridge in a pear tree.
When, within one short, dark month, you have to lift, focus on, and decide the future of every piece of stuff you have accumulated, you get a visceral sense of the material excess of the American lifestyle.
If you are environmentally aware, you picture all that stuff wrested from the mines and forests and soils of the earth, and finally, unceremoniously, dumped.
If you have an aesthetic bone in your body, you reflect on the overwhelming ugliness of it all, especially when commingled in the dumpster.
If you are plain practical, once you’ve hauled it all out, once you’ve swept away the spider webs that built up in those untended corners, as you contemplate the clean, airy spaces you’ve suddenly created, you wonder, “Why did I squeeze myself out of all this wonderful working space, just to pile up junk?”
I am appalled at myself. Not only do I try to live an environmentally responsible life, I’m also a orderliness freak. Only when forced to relocate all my worldly goods did I let myself realize that I had kept in order roughly ten percent of my domain, the living space in the house. In the garage and barn and tractor shed the spiders and junk were running riot.
We started with the outbuildings and worked in toward the house, so at first I thought my sins were only ones of omission. It was other people’s stuff, mainly male people. It was heavy: metal, wood, machines. My fault was in allowing it to be dumped so mindlessly. I hadn’t been forceful enough to insist on cleanups. I made resolutions about future forcefulness.
Then we got to the house, where my sins of commission lay. Enough yarn and fabric packed away in trunks for me to knit and sew for the next 250 years. Kitchen stuff: bowls, vases, spice jars sufficient for a multitude. Worst of all, books. It took two days to take them down, sort out boxes of them to give away, pack up the rest. It will take weeks to build enough shelves to unpack them in the new place.
I brought those books into the house, every one made of ground-up trees. I read them, yes, and loved them, but I have easy access to three good libraries. I didn’t need to house a library of my own. I piled up those books because I am impatient; I want to look up a quote or a fact instantly. Because I fend off worries by escaping, and books are my escape mechanism. Because I don’t trust either the outside world or my inner resources to entertain me; my worst fear is to be stuck somewhere without anything good to read. Because I’m compulsive; I hear of a good book and I get it. And because I suffer from two illusions: that the world can somehow be controlled by understanding, and that understanding comes from books.
The books are an expensive, troublesome, heavy, space-occupying fortress against having to confront my inner bugaboos. I guess that’s also true of the mountain of scrap lumber someone else accumulated, or the costly tools that were used maybe once a year and could have been rented, or the closets full of rarely worn clothes, the attic full of dusty camping gear, the fancy equipment for never-cooked gourmet recipes. Stuff taken from the earth to bolster fantasy or foist off fear, stuff our non-affluent household paid a fortune for, stuff I’ve housed for decades, stuff that pressed in and occupied the space of real life.
If I weren’t exhausted from heaving it all around, and if the earth’s resources were infinite, and if we didn’t all feel financially strapped to provide such basic things as schools and health care for the children of the world, I’d laugh off this little quirk of our culture. So we’re stuff-addicted. Some of that stuff is really nice. Some of it caused me to swallow hard before I bid it farewell. I still moved much more than I need to my new place.
But I am exhausted and the earth is finite and children still live in poverty, and so I am appalled at myself and all of us. The price we’re paying for our stuff — in money and time and space and resources — is tremendous. And someday some poor suckers, maybe we ourselves, are going to have to move it all.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999