Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 2004 / 19 Teves, 5765

Froma Harrop

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Consumer Reports

Remember the Simplicity Movement? | Whatever happened to the Simplicity Movement? The answer must be pretty complicated.

I was thinking about this as I spent a recent weekend cleaning two messy closets. Now two decades old, the Simplicity Movement advocates lower consumption, paying off debt and living with less.

I find the philosophy immensely attractive and try to follow its creed. I force myself to think three times before buying anything new. I routinely weed out things I use little. And I cart bags of stuff to the Salvation Army.

So how come I had to spend another weekend cleaning closets? The stuff didn't walk in on its own. Meanwhile, the beast of clutter continues to multiply on other shelves, storage areas and drawers.

Seven years ago, USA Today had one of those wave-of-the-future articles on the Simplicity Movement. "A small but growing number of Americans are saying 'enough,' and scaling back, paring down, doing without," it said. It estimated that 10 percent to 12 percent of American adults now practice some form of voluntary simplicity. And it had Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute, predicting that the number would rise to 15 percent by 2000.

Every year, a new poll has Americans saying they would prefer more time over more money, and that they plan to spend less at Christmas. The idea has gone totally mainstream.

Yet every year, the materialistic urge rages on. Americans take on bigger mortgages to buy bigger houses. And they still don't have room for all the stuff.

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"One of the fastest-growing industries in the United States is commercial self-storage," notes John de Graaf, Seattle-based producer of the PBS documentary "Affluenza." "It's an irony that with house sizes nearly doubling since the '50s, and family sizes being smaller, you have the enormous rise of commercial self-storage."

De Graaf remembers a guy who had a four-car garage but always parked his vehicles out in front. "I asked him what he used the garage for, and he said, 'Storage'"

Simplifying must be like dieting. It's something people very much want to do, but not enough to forgo pleasures of the moment. The marketing geniuses dangle sparkly things before our eyes, and all discipline breaks down. And so we alternate between buying binges and crash programs to get rid of clutter. This is an unhappy cycle.

I analyzed my closet contents and came up with excuses. Some of the new clothing was needed. But there were piles of electronics that I don't use, that still work and that no one else wants. Then there were the "heirlooms"   —   old things I haven't the heart to give away, because I cherish the memory of their former owners.

Some older friends recently downsized from a big house to an apartment. The husband wrote down some useful observations, which I will share:

  • At least half of what we bought (excluding food and clothing) in the past 40 years was a complete waste of money.

  • At least half of what's left we probably used once or twice and then never again. We just stored it with the other stuff because we had all that unused space. That leaves the 25 percent of stuff that we have kept.

  • The stuff we have gotten rid of has been trashed, given away or in some lucky cases sold to an antique dealer for about 10 percent of what we paid for it.

  • The next time you go shopping, go to the checkout counter and tell the person that you're only going to take one-quarter of what you've picked out.

Meanwhile, if you can't simplify, you can fake the look. This time of year brings out the advice columns on storing treasures, organizing rooms and generally forcing a bit of Zen tranquility onto the household chaos.

Do these things, they tell us, and your living room will turn into a modern masterpiece of uncluttered walls and spotless floors. In it, a polished coffee table will hold up a dramatic glass bowl containing nothing.

Sure ... Well, I'll try. But first I must figure out what to do with the half-burned fragrant candle, the old videotapes, the remotes, the notepad by the phone (there are 38 pages left). There goes another weekend.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.