"Stuffocation" in the First World

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, February 2, 2017

"Stuffocation" in the First World

After 32 years of marriage and four children who are all married with children of their own, Susan and I have been on a de-cluttering binge.      

Some people are hoarders. We’re not. But we have been “accumulators,” meaning over the many years we have accumulated a great deal of stuff that we simply do not need.

We’re not alone.

I recently read of a formal study by UCLA anthropologists that dug into the stuff that fills American homes. The smallest home in the study measured just under 1000 square feet, yet among the home’s two bedrooms and living room, researchers found 2,260 items.

And get this: they only counted items out in the open, not things in drawers or cupboards.

Among all the homes in their study, here’s what they found on average:

  • 39 pairs of shoes
  • 90 DVDs or videos
  • 139 toys
  • 212 CDs
  • 438 books and magazines

Of the homes studied, nine out of ten had so much stuff that they had to keep household things in the garage. In fact, three out of every four homes had so much stuff in the garage that there was no room left for cars!

The UCLA anthropologists call it a “clutter crisis.” British author and trend forecaster James Wallman calls it “stuffocation,” which he defines as “suffocating under too much stuff.”

At Mecklenburg Community Church, we’re currently in a series on achieving financial freedom. This past weekend, we talked about how rich we truly are; an idea that was prompted to my thinking by a book by Andy Stanley titled How to Be Rich.

The idea is simple: compared to most people in the world, the average American – even who might be considered a low-earning American – is rich in the eyes of the world.

For example, we observe a five-day workweek. Most of us have to work just five days in order to have seven days’ worth of food and shelter, clothing and health care. That leaves about 50 hours per week for nothing but leisure. That’s unique to all of human history.

Or think about this: If I offered you a job with an annual salary of $37,000, would you feel rich? Probably not. But for 96% of the world’s population, that would be a staggering increase in income. In fact, if you earn more than $36,000 a year, you are in the top 4% of wage earners on the planet. 

That’s rich.

Or think about your problems:

Bad cell phone coverage?

That’s a rich people problem.

Can’t decide where to go on vacation?

Rich people problem.

Computer crashed?

Slow internet?

Car needs repair?

Flight delayed?

It’s not part of Amazon Prime?

It’s not streaming on Netflix?

All rich people problems.

The next time there’s a watering ban for your lawn in your neighborhood, remember that many people – mostly women – carry jugs on their heads the length of multiple football fields just so they have water for cooking and drinking. They can’t imagine a place where there’s so much extra water that house after house just sprays it all over the ground.

That’s why there’s that phrase floating around about “first world problems.” We know about “third world” or “developing world” issues. “First world problems” are all about the economically privileged bubble we live in compared to the rest of the world, and how much we whine about it. The phrase even launched a whole set of jokes and videos. Watch one of my favorites here.   

All to say that in the remaining years of my life, I want to give more, save more and live more simply,

… which means having less stuff in my first world bubble.

James Emery White



Brad Hewitt, “How to Be at Peace and Get What You Want,” Christianity Today, December 13, 2016, read online.

Andy Stanley, How to Be Rich.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

"Stuffocation" in the First World