Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Are you smarter than the average squirrel?

Needless to say there was absolutely no way that I was going to be able to resist an Economist article with the sub-head “Why people are stupider than squirrels.”

Bad enough I’m moth-to-flame for those frothing online comments about what morons liberals are, now I have to worry about The Economist comparing homo sapiens unfavorably to a rodent – even a bushy-tailed and cute one like a squirrel.

Once I read the article, I was relieved to find out that I am – phew – not one of those deemed dumber than a squirrel. That honor is reserved for those who pay a lot of money to store crap that they are never, ever, ever in a million, trillion, years going to use again.

But storage – make that self-storage – is a big business. Ten percent of American families use these facilities. And there are 50,000 of “these facilities” scattered across this great nation of ours. And they are chock full of the crap that we apparently, recession or no, can’t help ourselves from buying and hanging on to, as we:

…keep acquiring stuff that cannot be consumed and never rots or rusts: plastic toys, metal garden furniture, porcelain knick-knacks.

There are a lot of reasons to put things in self-storage:

  • You’re on the move and you need a place to temporarily park your stuff. This in spades as people lose their homes but want to keep all the possessions that made their house a home, hoping they’ll be into their next place before the kids outgrow the Big Wheels that they decided to stash.
  • Granny just passed away, and you know she had stuff that’s really valuable, and/or sentimentally valuable, and you know you’re going to want it some day, but you don’t quite have the psychic energy to go through it quite yet. (Do I want to save that Cudahy’s Rexoma cup or sell it on eBay? And what about Great Uncle Henry’s high school yearbook? The still-good BarcaLounger where Grandpa passed on to his reward? Surely someone will want to recline in that, and the plaid’s not half-bad.)
  • You live in a little place in a big city, and there’s just no place to store anything.

It is that last condition that has, in the past, gotten me seriously thinking about putting some things in storage – things like my Christmas decorations, which I don’t need all that often.

But I can never really justify the cost. Not to mention that I always manage to remind myself that it’s a good thing to chuck stuff out.

Although I don’t practice what I preach, I do believe that every year, we should all pretend that we’re going to be moving. And then ruthlessly go through our earthly possessions and toss out, resell, gift, or donate anything that you don’t use, don’t like, don’t need…

I do this pretty much every year with my clothing and, since my replacement rate is far less than my discard rate, every year going through my clothing gets easier. Of course, every once in a while I start looking for that blue sweater I always liked, only to remember that it went in the St. Francis House bag last season. (And, boy, would I feel like a heel if I saw someone wearing it and asked for it back.)

But I also try to do it with other things, as well.

This year, I did start working through the kitchen where I find to my amazement just how much gear I have accumulated over the years. An awful lot for someone who seldom cooks and rarely entertains. Surely, someone, somewhere could use that bowl. That someone for a bunch of stuff was our cleaning lady, and I’m delighted that she’ll be getting some use out of that very nice serving bowl – the one with the pale blue stripes – that my friend Peter gave me a a few – make that twenty – years ago for Christmas.

As I went through the kitchen, of course, I kept thinking that, in a few years time, my nieces would be setting up places of their own. Surely one of them would like those lovely fruit plates, or the teapot shaped like a house. So I’m never quite as ruthless as a should be.

One thing I have learned, however, over all these years living in a not-so-large condo: if you want to bring something new in, you have to get rid of something old to make room for it. Let me tell you, not having a cellar or an attic really does help you cut down on crap accumulation.

Plus I believe there comes a point in the life of anyone who’s not a certifiable hoarder when they really do want to start deaccessioning, as much if not more than they want to keep acquiring. For most of us, that point I suspect is somewhere in our fifties or sixties.

But for those who’ve put stuff in self-storage:

For some reason, they seldom chuck any of this rubbish out. This baffles economists, who assume “free disposal”, meaning that things that aren’t needed can be thrown away without making anyone feel bad about the loss. The fact that so many hoarders pay lots of cash to keep things shows the assumption needs a rethink.

And keep things they do. Although most people go into self-storage thinking it’s for a short-term:

… usually [stored stuff] stays where it is. Contracts are often only for a month or so, yet hoarders stash things away for far longer. At Big Yellow, a British firm, 37% of space is filled with stuff that has been there for over three years.

And most of this stuff is, no doubt, crummy plastic toys that the kids have outgrown. The electric frying plan that just needs a new plug. Outdated text books that smell of mildew. Things that, once you’ve lived without them for over three years, you can probably live without for the rest of your life.

So why keep paying?

Inertia? Nostalgia? The latent hoarding gene?

A cynic might compare human squirrels unfavourably to the wild sort, which usually remember to dig up their nuts come springtime.

And that’s why humans are stupider than squirrels.


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