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Do we have too much stuff?

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Today, it’s trendy to denounce consumerism and individualism. But do we know what they are? Consume This! looks for a new way to be Anabaptist in the 21st century by highlighting habits taken for granted. How are thought, faith, and action connected?—Eds.

A new self-storage business recently opened in my end of town. It’s huge – nine buildings with 768 storage units of varying sizes. Looking at it, I wondered: How many people need to rent extra space to store their stuff?

Lots, as it turns out. The self-storage industry in Canada is booming.

“Canadian storage markets are bursting at the seams as skyrocketing consumer demand drives the building of new facilities,” writes Richard Leach in Inside Self Storage, the largest-circulation magazine for storage professionals in North America.

According to Leach, over the past 10 years there has been dramatic growth in self-storage in nearly every province. Today, there are 2,800 self-storage facilities in Canada, compared to over 51,000 in the U.S. (There are only 6,000 to 7,000 self storage facilities everywhere else in the world, combined.)

North America is “consumer-driven,” says Leach, adding that people “like to hold onto their stuff.”

It’s not as though we need the extra space; our homes should be big enough to hold everything we need. The average house built in Canada today is 2,000 square feet. In 1975, it was 1,075 square feet. In 1945 it was just 800 square feet. Since the size of Canadian families is shrinking, we should need less stuff and less space, not more. But the growth of the self-storage sector suggests otherwise.

It’s a worrisome trend for Mark Burch, author of Simplicity: Stories and Exercises for Developing Unimaginable Wealth. Through our excessive consumerism “we are smashing the body and shedding the blood of the greatest gift given to us,” he says. “Caring for this planet is the way we manifest God’s love.”

Burch, campus sustainability coordinator at the University of Winnipeg, is a proponent of what is called voluntary simplicity – the idea that people should purposefully try to live more simply in order to preserve the planet and their sanity.

The term was coined in 1936 by Richard Gregg, who defined it as a “singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty…as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions.”

For Burch, voluntary simplicity isn’t just a way to save money by not buying more stuff. It’s also a way to contribute to the good of the earth and its inhabitants.

“Discerning how much is enough involves placing our personal consumption of things in the context of environmental sustainability, social justice, and inter-generational equity,” he says. “In this realm, we move beyond considerations of what may be expedient or comfortable in terms of our individual lives and consider ourselves to be part of a much larger whole.”

It’s a way, he says, to “create a world that is more peaceful and equitable.”

Simplicity has deep religious roots. Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, the Amish, various monastic orders, and others have all advocated it.

“The ethical and spiritual dimension of this is very important,” says Burch. “We need to subordinate our material consumption to spiritual values. We need to take time to remember who we are, why we are here, and what our purpose is.”

But trying to live more simply today is hard, he acknowledges – it’s like swimming upstream against a raging current. One way some people are helping each other is by joining simplicity circles, where they can find support in buying and using less.

There’s nothing wrong with buying the things we need, of course. We need food, clothing, furniture, a place to live, and many other items. But our culture never gives us a break. We’re always being pushed to buy more of this and more of that. And then, after we’ve gone out and bought more stuff than we can use, we’re told we need to rent someplace to store it.

“We need to consume to live, but we shouldn’t live to consume,” says Burch. That sounds like good, simple advice to me.

John Longhurst

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