Leave It To The Orangutans

I’d like to have a chat about your stuff.

You know, all of the material stuff in your life that is breeding in your basements, hosting spiders in your attics and stealing minutes from your life.

It’s really hard to part with things sometimes. I finally gave away a sweater my mother-in-law bought me 25 years ago, and I’m still sitting here thinking about it as if I gave away my dog.

If you’re like most people, you probably have enough stuff by now, but yet we keep buying more of it and bringing it into the house. Human beings like their stuff. But I’ve started to notice lately that it starts to own you when you’ve got enough of it. No matter how organized you are, your things need to be cared for, stored or moved around and accounted for.

Sometimes our things become exhausting.

Here’s a true story: My friend’s mother and her aunt were hoarders, and they were funny about their things. They didn’t want anyone else to have their stuff-even when they died. They didn’t leave wills or any items earmarked for family. My friend’s aunt was so stubborn about this that when she died, she left her house near Saratoga Springs to crumble in a field. This aunt had also saved a million dollars and left it to a foundation that supports orangutans rather than leave it to her family. She decided that when she died, if she couldn’t bring her stuff with her, then no one else (at least human) was going to have it either.

In case it didn’t sink in the first time, I did say orangutans.

Like my friend’s aunt, we have real feelings about our possessions-even stuff we haven’t looked at or worn or used in a year. Some of my friends across the lake have four sets of china in their basement. It’s sentimental, but they’d have to host a lot of dinner parties to make it have real value. It might be hard for them to sell because it holds old memories, but think of all the orangutans they could support.

I’ve been thinking lately that I need to change my ideas about possession and owning things.

Think about this: Americans are only 5 percent of the world’s population, but we’re using 30 percent of the world’s resources and creating 30 percent of the world’s waste. I’ve never been interested in environmental activism, but I still feel a twinge when I hear that 80 percent of the world’s original forests are gone, or that we’re destroying the Amazon rainforest at a rate of 2,000 trees a minute.

We’re consumers in the greatest sense, and our value is often determined by how much we consume, so we don’t always like to look at the numbers. But once we do, it’s hard to keep looking at stuff the same way.

The average person alive today consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago. And some critics say it was designed this way. After WW II, one of President Eisenhower’s economic advisors said that the American economy’s purpose was to produce and consume more goods, and we all enthusiastically jumped on board this program. Unfortunately, so many things are made to be useless as soon as they’re bought that a lot of what we consume ends up in the dump. And perfectly good things end up there too, because we perceive things that go out of style to have no value.

There’s been a push lately for Americans to live a bit more minimally. It was spurred by the recession and also by our own ideas about being conscientious consumers. There are hordes of people who have joined the “100 Thing Movement” which challenges people to pare down their possessions to 100 things. (I call that camping.)

I’ve read about people who have done it – even people who refuse to buy anything that will produce waste, including their groceries. If it has a wrapper, they won’t buy it. That’s a little over the top for some, but I’ve decided this year I am going to make a concerted effort to get rid of things I’m no longer using. (Let me know if you need a 16-part food processor from 1984.)

I hope to pass some of these things on to non-tree swinging family members and do my best not to have my own corner of the dump. It’s good to free up a little space sometimes and make more room for living.