A Short Story About Stuffocation

James Wallman 22 May 2014

When James Wallman came into the Speakers Corner Office, he told us all about 'Stuffocation'; how we've had enough of stuff and why experiences matter more than ever. We were intrigued and a few of us went home and threw out a few items of clothing that had been lying in our wardrobes untouched for the last few years. The idea is simple, we are used to valueing our success based on the amount of stuff we have ie. cars, houses, designer clothes etc. People are starting to find that the ever increasing amount of stuff they own can be a little overwhelming.

James told us that as a society we are beginning to suffer from stuffocation, caused by having too much stuff and experiences are beginning to take over. Here is a short story about stuffocation written by James Wallman...

Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Krispy Kremes

When I write down and consider the list of reasons causing Stuffocation, I can't help but think there is something missing. All these factors make it plain why Stuffocation is happening now, but they do not make sense of how we got here. They do not explain why we have kept on buying more and more and more things, even though we already have more than we need and more than we can cope with. The best way to throw light on that is through a story I think of as the “mystery of the Krispy Kremes”.

On Thursday, 14 February, 2013, the Lothian and Borders police received what sounded, on the face of it, like a routine call. There was a jam out on the ring road, by a retail park called Hermiston Gait. Most other places wouldn't have mattered so much, but Hermiston Gait is by the start of the M8, one of the busiest motorways in the UK and the main artery connecting Scotland's two biggest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Commanders at HQ soon decided to do what any police force anywhere round the world would have done, given the circumstances. They warned drivers to avoid the area, and sent a couple of squad cars over to check out the reason for the problem – the new Krispy Kreme doughnut store.

When it had opened for the first time at 7am, an hour before sunrise, the previous day, three hundred people were lined up outside. Staff served coffee and the brand's doughnuts as quickly as they could. They served 400 customers in the first hour of opening, setting a new Krispy Kreme record. But even that was not fast enough. No matter how hard they tried, the queue of people would not budge. The line of cars for the store's drive-thru kept building up too. First it jammed the retail park. Then it slowed down the cars and trucks on the roundabout. By the next day, it was clogging up the traffic for the M8. That was when the police came over to check on the queue, and the doughnuts.

Not everyone was as excited about the new store as all those people lining up. “If Edinburgh is overweight today,” grumbled a man from Britain's National Obesity Forum called Tam Fry, “it will be obese tomorrow.”

Krispy Kreme's Original Glazed contains two hundred and seventeen kilocalories, including three grams of protein, twenty-two grams of carbohydrates and thirteen grams of fat. The calorie counts go up from there. Krispy Kreme doughnuts are, it's fair to say, not the world's healthiest snack.

The people standing outside knew this. The people sitting in their cars knew this. So why did they wait – for up to two hours – to get served, when they knew the thing they were queuing for was not even good for them?

Before you decide the answer is obvious – this is Scotland, home of the deep-fried Mars Bar, and therefore “case closed” – consider your own behaviour for a moment. You know that Krispy Kremes, and all sorts of things, are not very good for you. Yet, every now and then, you eat them. Sometimes, you even queue up for them. Why? Why do you, and me, and all of us crave foods we know aren't good for us?

There is no one better to solve this riddle than Michael Wansink, a food scientist sometimes introduced as the “Sherlock Holmes of food”. Wansink has been working out why we eat what we eat for more than two decades. The answer to the Krispy Kreme question is in his book Mindless Eating. “We are hardwired to love the taste of fat, salt, and sugar,” he wrote. “Fatty foods gave our ancestors the calorie reserves to weather food shortages. Salt helped them retain water and avoid dehydration. Sugar helped them distinguish sweet edible berries from sour poisonous ones. Through our taste for fat, salt, and sugar, we learned to prefer the foods that were most likely to keep us alive.”

Wansink's explanation as to why we like certain foods draws on a branch of the social sciences called evolutionary psychology. This not only makes sense of the sort of foods we are attracted to but also how much we eat. “We have millions of years of evolution and instinct telling us,” Wansink wrote, “to eat as often as we can and as much as we can.”

That wisdom made sense when food was scarce. But it made a lot less sense when, in the 20th century, combine harvesters and synthetic fertilizers and higher-yielding seeds produced not only enough, but much more than enough.

This gave us an entirely new problem. Because, although the automatic, hardwired impulse to eat as often and as much as possible was no longer relevant, we were not able to simply switch it off like a light switch. Trained to cope with scarcity, we have struggled with abundance.

Having evolved over thousands of years to eat as often and as much as we could, many millions have become fat. This has happened on such a massive scale that we have a new name for it: the obesity epidemic.

The idea that we are making decisions in an age of abundance using mental tools honed in an age of scarcity might seem obvious. But it is worth repeating at a time when many millions of us not only have enough, but way too much stuff. Evolutionary psychology, I think, is key to understanding why we keep wanting and buying more, even when we already have far more than enough.

We are now living in an age of material abundance. Before, material goods were expensive and scarce. Clothes, for instance, were so hard to come by they were handed down from generation to generation. A shirt, before the Industrial Revolution, cost around £3,000 in today's money. But now, things – shirts, shoes, cups, cars, glasses, books, toys and a zillion other things – are ubiquitous and cheap. Once again though, our inbuilt impulses have yet to catch up. As a result, many millions of us are filling our homes and lives with stuff. Overwhelmed and suffocated by stuff we, as individuals, are feeling Stuffocation. As a society, we are feeling Stuffocation. Stuffocation is the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic.

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