Friday 23 August 2019

What our attachment to so much stuff tells us about ourselves

This article first appeared in Malta Today

The latest craze to sweep the Internet, or more precisely, Netflix, is Tidying up by Marie Kondo, a tiny Japanese lady who has become all the rage in the Western world.  It all started with her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up which has been published in 42 countries in many languages and has sold more 6.5 million copies.   Now, the TV series has brought the clearing up process advocated by KonMarie (as she is known) directly to viewers who can watch as she purges real homes bulging with stuff into more livable spaces.  

Of course, her method of only holding on to things which ‘spark joy’ has led to a lot of memes: “so far I have thrown away all of the vegetables, the electric bills, the scales and my treadmill.“  There also the inevitable quips about whether this method can include getting rid of annoying family members. 

Her technique of patiently folding towels and clothing into small rectangular shapes to fit into drawers and wardrobes has likewise been the butt of countless jokes as people post what the KonMarie result looks like and their own disastrous attempts. She is like a quietly ruthless, efficient little dynamo as she meticulously works her way around the home, organizing bathroom and kitchen cupboards, workspaces and children’s toys.  

Despite her critics and the satire, it is easy to understand why KonMarie has been so successful. She has latched on to something which lies fundamentally deep within a lot of us: the constant yearning for a sense of calm and order which can only be achieved through the minimalist look.  I have always been mesmerized by traditional Japanese homes where you don’t see one bit of clutter or any clues to indicate that anyone actually lives there. The only thing you see are items which are functional and practical; everything else is tucked away out of sight, has been thrown away or has probably never been purchased in the first place.  And while I am fully aware that getting to that degree of minimalism is not for me because I prefer the ‘lived in look’ type of home, whenever I spot an article which can tell me how to declutter I read it religiously, with all the best intentions, and even manage to emulate some of the ideas.  The very fact that I have read it already makes me feel better and putting one or two of the tips into action gives me a sense of accomplishment which can last for days.  

So when I came across this Netflix series I could immediately connect with it and understand why it has become all the rage.  Following the progress, as truly cluttered homes bursting with an obscene amount of things are magically transformed is downright cathartic.  There is also, let’s face it, something particularly smugness-inducing when you realize that compared to some of these other people, one’s own home looks positively tidy.   I really believe it is true that a cluttered home is stress-inducing and often wonder how people can live or even function in such a chaotic environment. 

It is when KonMarie asks her clients to lay out all their possessions (according to category) that it hits you how many things, often in duplicate, we in the West just love to buy.  The attachment to certain items, even though they have been hidden away at the back of a box room or closet for years and they have forgotten all about them, is also revealing.  Getting her clients to part with what they do not really need is often the most difficult task of all, and it becomes almost physically wrenching for them to dispose of the extra stuff despite the fact that they are clearly not using it.  One woman had real difficulty in parting with single socks for which she could not find the other matching sock (you always have that nagging feeling that the minute you throw it away, the other missing sock will magically re-appear).   

What is it about consumer culture which propels us to keep buying more and more even as our apartments and houses are groaning under the weight of it all? We keep having to figure out new ways to store and organize what we have and yet we are perpetually and constantly falling into the trap of lugging more things into our homes. 

Juxtaposed along this is the other reality – of those who have very little or next to nothing because they have fallen on hard times.  It is a cruel and unfair world we live in to realise that there are those who are living on the streets in a cardboard box for a bed, while others have to hire a diminutive Japanese consultant to teach them how to get rid of what they have because they have way too much. 

Too many cars, not enough petrol

It was not with a little irony that I read that the GRTU may give a directive to petrol stations to go on strike because the Government has failed to keep its promise to help them with changes to their infrastructure. The Malta Today reported that the dispute was “over the lack of progress to provide some €21 million in government funds for petrol pump upgrades. A GRTU study conducted in 2014 had found that 80 out of 90 petrol stations in Malta and Gozo need to change all their equipment, from the petrol pumps, to piping and the underground storage tanks in order to bring them in line with an EU directive which have to be made by 2020”. 

I found it ironic because when this news came out I had just read another story about how University students were complaining yet again about the dire lack of parking available on campus. There are 7,000 students with a parking permit, while only 600 spaces are available for students.  A Park & Ride scheme operated from Pembroke direct to University has not succeeded mainly because of the fee of 1.50 Euro per trip, which does not make sense for students on a budget. Incentives to encourage students to carpool have also not really taken off.  Everyone loves their car too much.

If 80 petrol stations go on strike, I can see a situation where no one will need any encouragement to leave their car at home because they will be forced to do so.  Even if the larger petrol stations remain open to provide commuters with fuel, the queues will be quite something.  I guess that is one way to see how creative the public can be in figuring out alternative means of transport. 

In the meantime, sprawling petrol stations (which are more like commercial complexes) continue to be given the green light to be built on ODZ land because the 2015 Fuel Service Station Directive Policy has not been revised as promised.   The justification for these very large petrol stations has always been that the petrol pumps in the heart of certain towns and villages which are in the middle of busy traffic areas, will be removed.  However, to date, I have seen no sign that this will be happening.

The obvious question is therefore: why has the Government promised to pay for the upgrade of these small fuel stations if the idea is to phase them out?  Something is not adding up.  At the time of writing, Minister Joe Mizzi, who is responsible for this sector has not issued a reply to the GRTU statement. Meanwhile, I won’t be surprised if we start seeing queues forming already as people start panicking and begin stockpiling their petrol supplies.  And that’s when the fuel will REALLY run out and that is when it will get interesting. 

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