American abundance: How much is too much?

August 20, 2008|By Jennifer Moses

MONTCLAIR, N.J. - My husband, three children, dog and I recently moved - from Baton Rouge, La., where we lived for 13 years, to Montclair, N.J. I thought I was a fairly meticulous housekeeper, the type who cleans out closets and attics regularly. But it turns out we accumulated more stuff than currently exists in, say, Haiti.

So we had a great purge. Then we moved, and started unpacking the stuff we hadn't gotten rid of, things so numerous that, if listed, they would fill up a piece of paper as long as the New Jersey Turnpike.

In the middle of our Baton Rouge purge, a friend mentioned something called "the 100 club." The idea is that in order to live in some sort of balance, we'd do well to limit our material possessions to 100 objects.

The trick, of course, is how you count. I could either count 21 sweaters, two dozen pairs of shoes, 18 dresses, 31 T-shirts, four pairs of jeans, and so forth, or I could count "wardrobe" as one item. Not that I'm on the verge of actually doing anything remotely related to paring down my material existence to a few basic essentials. But the idea is tantalizing nonetheless.

Especially as I now live in a place of such abundance that people put perfectly good furniture out on the sidewalk on trash collection day.

True, most of it seems to be of the fairly beat-up and worn-out variety, but still: What kind of person just plops things as lovely as Bentwood rockers, double strollers, painted bureaus, matching bookcases and working electric fans out on the sidewalk next to the garbage cans?

Actually, I do.

In my frantic efforts to get rid of excess stuff before our move, I not only hauled tons of stuff to the Goodwill but also ended up putting all kinds of things on the sidewalk in front of our house. And I hoped that someone would simply take it.

The point isn't that as my move date approached, I became increasingly frantic, but rather that even in Baton Rouge - a place with staggering poverty - there is so much excess everything that householders in every neighborhood routinely put things on the curb.

My new neighbors were quick to explain that while it's undeniable that trash night in these parts would be considered market day in many nations, the intention here isn't wasteful, but rather practical. Even so, you really have to wonder what to make of a place (America at large, and not just my tiny and privileged corner of it) where we swim in such material abundance that it is, in fact, drowning us.

The Washington Post recently reported that at the rate we're spending, three out of five middle-class baby boomers won't have the cash flow to feed and house ourselves adequately during our golden years. That's some 77 million boomers who, like me, enjoy buying the occasional flat-screen TV or to-die-for pair of shoes at the mall. And meanwhile, of course, there are those pesky starving children in ... well, everywhere. But then again, have you seen the latest Lexus?

Go ahead: You decide who gets your hard-won dollars.

Where do you draw the line between enjoying the material things of this world and saying enough is enough? Is there a line, or merely our own individual ethical and material comfort zones?

Of course, the biblical prophets had plenty to say on the subject, as did Jesus, Gandhi, Bob Dylan and my new neighbor, Bruce Springsteen.

Perhaps Mark Twain put it best when he said: "The lack of money is the root of all evil."

Then again, Mark Twain never encountered a Target Superstore, not to mention Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Jennifer Moses is the author of "Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou." This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

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