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Given the lack of a standard profile, perhaps it's no surprise that explaining hoarding's psychological origins remains problematic. Theories abound, none of them completely satisfactory. Some research suggests the possibility of a genetic component; another hypothesis holds that attachments to possessions are substitutes for parental love missing in childhood; still other psychologists propose that hoarders are actually staving off fears of death by creating "time capsules" of stuff as a personal legacy. One of the most common themes among hoarders is their inability to differentiate between the significance of one item and the uselessness (to everyone else's eyes, anyway) of another. For them, every single knickknack, piece of junk mail, broken dish, or worn-out battery carries as much personal significance as a painting by Leonardo—and you certainly couldn't part with a masterpiece, could you?
Trying to convince hoarders to divest themselves of their possessions can be time-consuming, with what can amount to an individual debriefing session before parting with each item, and even then resistance can be high. As for sudden interventions that forcibly wrest possessions from their hoarders, they may work in the short term, say Frost and Steketee, but the behavior resumes almost immediately. Within weeks, the residences overflow with new stashes of stuff.
One of the most discomforting aspects of reading their book is the recognition of at least some aspects of these messy lives in our own. Aren't we all prone to some amount of clutter? Loath to part with prized souvenirs? Don't museums exist precisely because we prize collectors and collected treasures?
So where do Frost and Steketee draw the line between prizing our possessions and pathology? "It hardly matters how much stuff anyone owns as long as it doesn't interfere with his health or happiness or that of others," they write. "But never has hoarding been so visible as it is today in westernized societies. Perhaps the abundance of inexpensive and easily accessible objects makes it the disorder of the decade." Indeed, in the same way that a few decades ago eating disorders remained largely hidden behind a screen of shame or privacy, hoarding may well be the latest behavior to spill out of our psychic closets and into public consciousness.
But that doesn't let us nonhoarders off the hook for the environmental impact of all of the stuff spilling out of our closets. That's the subject of Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—and a Vision for Change. Her basic message is that we need to rethink our consumer-culture mantra of shop-discard-replace-repeat and repeat-forever.
Leonard, a long-time environmentalist who's best known for the animated 20-minute film with the same title as her book (the film came first and can be seen for free on the Internet) takes us on a roundtrip tour—from raw materials to manufacturing plant, distribution and sales points, our homes, and ultimately to garbage dump and toxic waste—of such everyday items of Western culture as electronic devices, clothing, and paper goods. This documentation of how we're passively buying into production practices that contribute to poisonous waste every time we go shopping and depleting the earth in the process is more gruesome and troubling than the edgiest film imaginable.
The bare facts are overwhelmingly depressing: not only does the United States, with only 5 percent of the world's population, consume 30 percent of its resources and produce 30 percent of the world's waste, Leonard writes, but if every single country consumed at the same rate, we'd need three or four additional planets just to keep pace. Think about that before you throw away another of the 150 million cell phones our population ditches each year.
Despite page after page of downers like that, Leonard is correct when she claims that she isn't "against stuff." She just wants us to recognize "that each thing we buy involved all sorts of resources and labor." Nor is she wrong to see herself as an optimist, an active cheerleader for positive change. Part of that is reframing the widely held assumptions that changing to a green environmental model will lead to, if not real sacrifice, at least less convenience (there go the water bottles). Her answer: instead of focusing on "the quantity of our stuff" we should imagine a world based on the "quality of our stuff." It's a great motto, but some of the examples she presents of how to lessen our dependence on oil (do away with war!) and lower levels of consumerism (try community living and sharing, like her Berkeley, California, neighborhood does!) seem like throwbacks to the 1960s.