Keeping Stuff Around vs. Passing It On

A frequent theme in my writing (and in my life, and in many people’s lives, particularly in the USA and other places where people tend to accumulate more material stuff than they can use) is the dilemma, “Do I keep this around in case I might need it someday, but in the meantime I’m burdened with storing it; or do I pass it on to someone else and thus risk not having it when I need it?”

This dilemma is particularly pronounced among people who don’t have money to just rush out and buy something new. Or people who have ever experienced poverty, even though they are now living in material comfort. And maybe most of all, this dilemma is particularly pronounced among those of us who just hate wasting stuff, and recognize the ecological and moral disaster of constantly buying new stuff rather than reusing.

It is a dilemma for sure. And each person will resolve it differently (and we make different choices for different categories of stuff too. Clothing is more perishable than a pile of surplus metal. And surplus paper and art supplies may be moreperishable than clothing. There are also the “technologically perishable” items, such as the ancient phone-chargers and other dongles taking up space in people’s desk drawers.

One thing I am noticing for myself, though — and I’m sharing it in case it might ring true for you too — is that most often, the social capital I gain from giving away stuff I’m not using more than makes up for the potential cost of maybe needing to reaquire the same or similar item later.

Most often, I don’t end up having to acquire the item; I either don’t need it, or I find a used one discarded at curbside right when I need it. (The goddesses of curbside bounty are powerful, generous, and highly responsive; I highly recommend you cultivate a working relationship with said deities if you haven’t already! They take requests in all forms, even just a passing thought of the needed object will often suffice.)

By “social capital” in this case I simply mean a goodwill connection with a neighbor (“neighbor” could be either physically proximate, or proximate online even if they’re in a different geographic area from you).

This post came to me early this morning when I was in my garage doing garden-related tasks, and I happened to look up at my back deep-storage shelves and saw, for the umpteenth time, the never-opened boxes and boxes of metal flashing left by the previous owner of the house (I think he was into welding).

Metal is useful, and I guess I had been thinking I might fabricate something from it someday. But … I don’t do metal fabrication, nor do I plan to take classes in metal fabrication, welding, or suchlike. In the meantime, someone might really have use for that nice metal.

The metal does not seem to rust, even in our coastal climate which is rough on metals. It’s pretty darn near nonperishable from what I can tell. But, I get peace of mind from clearing away things I’m not using. And I’m a big believer in the idea that new good stuff, that we need right now, comes into our lives when we are willing to let go of stuff we’re not using.

On a related note, I once heard of a landlord who had 10 empty buildings, housing 17 storefronts. By “empty” I mean the buildings have no tenants. (Word has it that his asking rent is high.) He has been keeping the buildings to try to sell to one big buyer; he doesn’t want the hassle of trying to sell them to individual buyers.

Well, recently, his number of buildings dropped from 10 to 9, as a result of a strong storm that brought wind and hail. The building, already fallen into decay from not being in active use, was so damaged by the storm that he had to have it demolished. And, the contents of the building were irretrievable.

I mentioned the building was vacant — but I meant vacant in the sense of not having a tenant; not bringing in rent. The building was actually full — of stuff. Some of it historic; most of it probably very useful. All of which was a total loss, as the building was unsafe to enter for any of the stuff to be retrieved. It all got hauled away with the bricks and other rubble.

The owner had no insurance (building too old, etc.). So he has lost $100,000 or something. I imagine he’ll be able to write it off on his taxes, so it won’t be that bad for him financially.

Where I see his loss is social. He’s already incurred a lot of badwill over the years for keeping his buildings vacant and contributing to blight. And I have to wonder how much goodwill he might have built over the years by finding ways to get that building, and its contents, into circulation in the community. We’ll never know now, but I expect he could have built a significant amount of social capital — and probably made some money too!

I’m a strong believer in the flow. In permaculture design we talk about “stocks” and “flows.” A “stock” is a stash; a stockpile; a bank account; a pantry with canned goods in readiness for hurricane season; goodwill built up in one’s community over time. A “flow” is just what it sounds like. It’s what comes into our lives, and what we put out into our communities and the world.

Stocks are perishable. Even stainless steel, even money — are perishable on some level. Flows, on the other hand, are constant, dynamic, and lead to more stocks and flows.

Stocks are good and prudent to have, within reason.

If I had to pick between stocks and flows, I’d have to pick flows. The reality is, though, we never have to pick. We always have both, and they feed each other. As long as we don’t try to keep things around in a frozen state, stocks and flows will always be there for us in a fertile and self-multiplying interplay.

Too large a stock of something sucks one’s attention; stops the flow of one’s energy and creativity.

It’s time for me to post those boxes of nice shiny metal flashing on NextDoor — or just walk over to my neighbor’s and see if he wants it. Sure, some future housemate/co-owner of my sweet seaside urban permaculture micro-homestead could turn out to be a metalworking genius who will make us a super-awesome Rocket Stove or TLUD stove. But we can cross that bridge when we come to it!