My wife and I are beginning to start the process of buying a house for the first time. For better or for worse, we have become regular viewers of HGTV’s line of television shows that target would-be home consumers just like us. There’s Fixer Upper, Flip or Flop, Property Brothers, Love It or List It, and…boy, could I go on. On the one hand these shows give us an interesting entree into what’s possible when it comes to buying and renovating a house. They may expand our vision so we don’t get stuck on things like existing wallpaper, old carpet, or hideous paint color. But, as I’ve come to understand the (very predictable) arc of these shows, I’m also struck by their danger. They’re basically “Keeping Up with the Joneses” on steroids.
I don’t mean to pick on HGTV, however. The network is simply a reflection of our broader cultural values. The average American house size in the 1940s was around 1,200 square feet. In 1983, the US Census Bureau reports that the average new build was about 1,725 square feet. By 2013, that number rose to 2,600 square feet. So, since 1940, our average American house sizes have more than doubled even as our average family size has decreased!
Moving from the house itself to the stuff inside, Marie Kondo has made a very lucrative career out of telling people how to declutter and organize. Her #1New York Times bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, promises transformation by preaching her KonMari method of decluttering, folding, and asking if one’s possessions “spark joy.” Good friends of mine swear by her method, and the millions of book sales suggest they’re not alone.
At the heart of the story Americans tell themselves is a close link between progress and material goods. Work is to be valued, and work leads to money. With money we can buy things — “goods,” we call them. And in these things we seek to find comfort. But it’s a lie, of course.
Evangelical leader Brian McLaren writes, “the tragedy of consumerism” is, in part, that “the consumer wrongly thinks that one finds this pleasure by having more and more possessions instead of possessing them more truly through grateful contemplation. And here we are, living in an economy that perpetuates this tragedy.”
Or, as Pope Francis reflected in his 2015 encyclical on the environment: “A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment.”