Toilet paper has become the unlikely posterchild of the coronavirus. Toilet paper, and its absence. Much has been written about what seems, at first sight, an unlikely association: after all, diarrhea is not one of the disease’s side effects. Hypotheses abound, from the sociology of herd response (copy-cat behavior) over the economics of panic buying (stocking up on cheap toilet paper provides the illusion of taking action) to the psychology of quarantine and minimum standards (people want comfort items). But among the reporting on hoarding and panic buying, what seems to be forgotten is that having two weeks’ worth of supplies at home – today’s official recommendation in many countries – has been the normal for much of history. Not only have we forgotten how to store, we have become blind to the inequalities of accumulation. The current crisis could be an invitation to reconsider storage and to take control of its supply chains.
As an emotional response to fear, hoarding is as old as humankind. When people in ancient Rome were worried about the supply chain of grain, the emperor Nero tried to instill faith by throwing leftover old grain in the river Tiber. The pursuit of profit through hoarding is not new either: compare how Amazon has banned an opportunistic seller from trading his 17700 bottles of hand sanitizer with how authorities in Roman times cracked down on private grain hoarding in times of food shortage.
What is surprising about the current wave of bulk buying is just how obsolete storage has become in most people’s lives. This is a relatively recent turn; the threat of shortage was still grafted onto the memory of those having experienced the Great Depression, the Second World War, and even the Cold War. Today, in contrast, people no longer seem able to look two weeks into the future and estimate their and their household’s needs. We seem to have collectively forfeited foresight. We live in a world of one-click orders, of immediate consumption and instant gratification. But not all types of storage have become a forgotten habit. Instead of pantries with flour, eggs, and beans, we want walk-in closets. Instead of vegetable plots and their produce, garages and their retired consumption goods.
Between the now of instant consumption and the distant future (or utopian past) projected by advertisements, banks, and movies, we have lost sight of the near future, the future in which we can act and intervene, the future in which we have a hold on cause and effect – anything from tomorrow to a couple of years’ time. (This might also explain the widespread loss of faith in politics, which no longer seems to operate in this tangible realm of the near future.)
Storage operates in the near future, and it is the near future in which a society’s structure takes shape. The walk-in closets and garages speak first and foremost of individualism and the breakdown of community. But they also speak of sharp and shifting socio-economic disparities. For most of history, abundant stocks and full storerooms were a sign of wealth. The poor lived their lives day to day, unable to accumulate and store. More recently, the material signatures of wealth and poverty have shifted, at least in the western world of plenty. The poor live in the midst of stuff, the detritus of our consumer society. Multipacks of breakfast cereals, frozen pizza and fries make for a storable, low-budget, but also unhealthy consumption pattern. Underprivileged bodies become stores of quick calories. On the other end of the spectrum, the well-off pass around Marie Kondo’s rulebook, embrace Scandinavian or Japanese minimalism, and cultivate thin bodies. Less is more, but only for the privileged. For those who can afford it, one-click simplicity is supported by an invisible supply chain of warehouses, trucks, cheap labor, etc. Escaping the grip of storage is a luxury many people could not and cannot afford.
The Covid-19 threat puts the divide into sharp relief. Combined with a profoundly unequal healthcare system and in the absence of a social safety net, dysfunctional storage habits put lower income groups at significantly higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, and of dying from it. The privileged in turn snatch and bulk buy, fueled by instant cash and credit, cars, paid sick leave, big houses, time and flexibility. Their toilet paper fetish shows that they, too, have much to learn about storage. The coronacrisis is a wake-up call to return to living in the near future. A future in which life is not perfect, but real; in which the tangibility of needs takes precedence over the ephemerality of wants; in which supplies might degrade, but can save lives. Fair storage could become the new fair trade.