'Should it spark joy?’: Australia’s long legacy of decluttering
If Marie Kondo’s new show has inspired you to do some decluttering around your house, throwing away a mountain of junk, spare a thought for future archaeologists who’ll be sorting through your rubbish in 150 years.
New Netflix TV show, 'Tidying Up with Marie Kondo', follows the eponymous Japanese 'tidying expert' as she enters the lives and homes of American couples each episode to teach them how to declutter and "choose joy".
At the heart of this trend is a worrying statement about today's culture of consumerism, where people are able to throw away literally thousands of pieces of clothing without so much as a second thought.
As some of the biggest producers of waste in the world, Australians shouldn’t be surprised that we have a long history of throwaway culture that dates back as far as the Victorian era.
No such thing as ‘away’
The latest tome on decluttering, New Minimalism, points out that there is no such thing as ‘away’. As in, when we throw something ‘away’ it doesn’t really go away (if only it did).
When I donate or discard something it disappears from my life but must remain somewhere: in someone else’s possession, recycled into something else but still ultimately destined for landfill. That thrill I get from being rid of unwanted objects that were weighing me down, that joy sparked by a tidy drawer, has lasting consequences outside my home.
This is painfully evidenced by salvage excavations undertaken by archaeologists across Melbourne. The working-class Little Lon district yielded over 500,000 artefact fragments and the recent Metro Tunnel digs close to 1 million.
Beneath the city sky scrapers are countless cesspits (old-fashioned long-drop toilets) that households used to discard their excess rubbish when the pits were phased out in the 1870s. Despite a weekly rubbish collection, people found plenty of trash to fill the pits. It was a city wide KonMari™ clear out 19th-century style and it’s still there.
Just as our landfills will be in 150 years on a vastly larger scale.
I spent many years painstakingly cataloguing artefacts before it really clicked that Victorian era Victorian’s were incredibly wasteful. You would think that items shipped half way around the world in the 19th-century would have value, be carefully mended or sold second hand. But there is plenty of evidence from Melbourne’s archaeology that this wasn’t the case: perfectly good ceramics discarded because they were no longer fashionable, complete bottles thrown out even though a bottle washing factory was located a couple of blocks away, a rubbish pit at a drapers shop filled with seemingly good clothes and shoes.
How much of this decluttering can the world take?
What your rubbish says about you
Rubbish reveals an incredible amount about individuals and society.
There’s something intimate about examining someone’s rubbish. All their consumer choices are laid bare. I know that the newly rich, convict-born Mayor of Melbourne liked flashy, colourful things, that the working-class Irish Catholic Moloney siblings were investing in decorating their home nicely and in education and toys for their nieces and nephews living across the lane, while their neighbours the Cornwells were very frugal, had simple possessions and discarded no toys for their seven children instead saving for property.
While these individuals were shopping away Melbourne society was being shaped by the Gold rush. Instant wealth acquired through luck meant that old determiners of status were becoming less relevant. Old social hierarchies were being challenged, more and more people moved into the middle class, and people increasingly communicated their status through their stuff. Keeping up with fashion meant generating waste and the legacy is still here both in the ground and in society.
This week there are reports that some charities are resembling a “dump site” from people leaving their unwanted items in and around overflowing donation bins, rendering the items effectively unsalvageable after being left in the elements and destined for landfill.
As you’re undertaking the KonMari™ method and contributing to this latest epidemic of waste, remember that there’s every reason to expect that archaeologists in the future will excavate our landfills and talk about the insane wastefulness of our era. Maybe let that be the guiding light next time you’re discarding things that are perfectly good and don’t need replacing then sitting down in the evening to do some online shopping (I say as I contemplate buying new dining chairs because the covers on mine are getting shabby).
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