Stuffocation is a book for skeptics. James Wallman, who happens to be British, takes on affluenza and the various movements away from it. Anyone who has a “clutter problem” should feel relieved to see just how widespread it is. Wallman makes clear that it’s a cultural phenomenon, and addressing it on a sociological level helps to gain perspective.
The single fact that stood out the most for me has to do with the way that clutter has made house fires more dangerous, due to what is called ‘flashover.’ This is the point at which a house fire becomes so hot that everything in the space bursts into flame. According to Wallman, the flashover point used to take about 28 minutes, thirty years ago. Now, due to the sheer mass of stuff in the average home, it takes between THREE and FOUR minutes. That is abjectly terrifying. I always worry that my clients will die in house fires, because
1. They have to pick their way through “goat trails” in each room and they might not make it out of a dark, smoky house,
2. They sometimes have rodent problems, and rats are known to chew wiring and thus cause house fires,
3. The piles of books, papers, and fabrics could easily catch fire,
4. They often pile various objects on and around their stoves,
5. They tend to delay home repairs due to a list of reasons.
I never knew that simply having a large quantity of stuff increases the danger of a fire quite so much! Now I have to worry, not only about my people, but about the emergency responders as well. Love a firefighter: clear your clutter!
Another interesting point was that research on cortisol levels indicates that clutter is much more stressful for women than for men who live with them in the same home.
Wallman takes on minimalism, a subject dear to my heart, and I laughed at several points. He points out that the leading minimalist writers and thought leaders each have a specific number of personal possessions that they discuss. Yet, despite the rules-lawyering involved, each person has arrived at a different number representing minimalism. I have felt the impulse to take a complete inventory of my possessions several times, and I have read many of these books and articles. Every time I picked up a clipboard to start work, I quickly decided that I should downsize more stuff first! I agree with Wallman that there is no way the category BOOKS counts as one item. [guffaw]
Next comes the “simple life,” the time-honored tradition of moving to the country to live a more traditional, agrarian lifestyle. Wallman points out that Henry David Thoreau only tried living at Walden Pond for two years before permanently abandoning that much-vaunted simple life. I have been interested in simple living since the early 90s, and personally, I have no desire to move to the country. My grandmother grew up on a farm, and she moved away! Farming is not learned so much as it is acquired, through years of compounded lore-gathering. It is not an undertaking to be commenced on impulse, let’s put it that way. I have enough veterinary problems with my pet dog, who has the quite common canine problem of Addison’s disease, to want to think of multiplying that by livestock. To me, urban life is simple, while country life is endlessly demanding and complex.
Wallman’s proposal is what he calls experientalism, the focus on experiences rather than material items. He directs his keen analytical gaze on this trend as well – nothing escapes him – and makes a solid argument in favor of it. We keep items such as a surfboard for their use, not necessarily their decorative value. He provides an example of an Australian man who has a vast cache of expensive sporting equipment, all of which he uses regularly. I tend to agree that this still counts as minimalism, although it might be less compatible with a nomadic lifestyle. Ultimately, why would anyone keep a single darn thing that didn’t get used or enjoyed regularly? (Other than a fire extinguisher, which I hope you have and equally hope that you never need. I keep mine under the kitchen sink).
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and kept reading it at times when I should have been doing something else, namely, packing for my move. I would put it in the same category as The End of Overeating and Mindless Eating, in that it takes what feels like a personal failing and demonstrates how broader forces are in play. It’s a fascinating, quick read with great insights. It also mentions Jenna Marbles and Monty Python, if that tells you anything. Highly recommended.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.