The downside of all the non-consumption advice
Blogs on “minimalist living” clutter the internet these days with suggestions on how to pare down one’s possessions, work commitments and daily routines. The minimalist motto? Thoreau’s famous quip: “Simplify, simplify.” Like the 19th-century American minimalist, these bloggers praise a life stripped to its essentials — but in a kind of modernized, Mac-friendly fashion. From Leo Babauta’s blog Zen Habits, one of Time Magazine’s Best Blogs of 2010, to Miss Minimalist, whose owner boasts an eBook ranked among Best Books of 2010 by Amazon.com’s editors, minimalist bloggers often scoff at collections of fancy cars and cavernous homes filled with unused pool tables, wine aerators, and fantastic walk-in closets overflowing with barely-worn shoes. Instead, they extol the ease of clothes that all pair well together, the freedom of less on their to-do lists, and the functionality of clean desks and coffee tables. In a Zen Habits post, “Simple Living Manifesto: 72 Ideas to Simplify Your Life,” Babauta offers suggestions like “create a simple mail & paperwork system,” “learn to say no,” and “create morning and evening routines.” In true minimalist fashion, he also offers a shorter version: “1. Identify what’s most important to you. 2. Eliminate everything else.” Bloggers like Babauta claim that minimalism contains the answer to the effects of conspicuous consumption that plague our modern lives: conspicuous non-consumption, or a careful consumption of only the most essential–whatever that means to each of us.
This idea is deeply appealing, of course, especially to those already intrigued by one, if not more, of the other movements minimalism often claims to contain within itself. Browse these blogs and you will find posts on environmentalism, personal finance, health and fitness, and whole foods diets à la Mark Bittman or Michael Pollan. Many of these blogs offer minimalism as an all-powerful panacea to the stress-inducing excesses of modern life.
But the danger of offering minimalism as a revolutionary movement, one that affects all areas of our lives, is common to any self-betterment endeavor: intensified narcissism. Egocentrism swelled in the recent uproar over prominent minimalist blogger Everett Bogue, who proclaimed that the new “minimalist movement is dead.” In defense of the movement, and in turn themselves, many bloggers were keen to point out that they’d been reducing their possessions long before minimalism became a “trend,” and that the ideas of minimalism have been around a long time. Certainly both are valid points. However, the way these arguments function reminds me of when I defended Coldplay in high school after they became a popular band: “I liked them first,” is really “I don’t like them because they’re popular, so I’m a real fan;” and, “they were good ages ago” barely masks a Golden Age fallacy, where the older something is, the better and more legitimate it is — an idea worth calling into question.
In addition to these defensive, self-congratulatory arguments, Minimalists can even recapitulate the very one-upmanship life they originally sought to avoid; instead, it becomes a “one-lowmanship.” Implicitly or explicitly, some bloggers praise the person with the fewest shoes, the least collector’s items or the simplest accessories. A few even feel a palpable guilt about, or at least a need to apologize for, their less “extreme” minimalism, for owning more than 100 things or driving a minivan. Like Flannery O’Connor saying, “I am not a mystic,” one blogger proclaims, “I am not a minimalist,” clearly to dismiss the negative connotations of the term while simultaneously maintaining herself as a minimalist.
Yet apart from such hypocrisies, there is a sound argument and a sanity to what Miss Minimalist calls “minsumerism.” Why should we consume more than we need? Are we not burdened–if not controlled–by our belongings, often beyond their use value? Couldn’t we focus more on what’s important, and perhaps uncover more of what “really” matters to us, if we remove all of the stuff that’s needlessly taking up space in our lives? And when it comes to overstuffed bodies, over-scheduled days and overworked minds, what issue can’t the idea “less is more” improve?
What to do, I wonder, to avoid symptoms of consumer guilt, and complex apologetics for minimalist identities? There are a lot of useless things in our homes, minds and inboxes, and we can draw authentically inspiring ideas from these blogs. Can we get rid of the ego-residue left after we’ve erased the clutter from our lives?
Our stuff doesn’t disappear
Maybe that’s part of the problem: the language of “eradicating” our old excessive selves, and pursuing the illusion of a “clean slate.” When I remove clutter from my home, it doesn’t simply disappear. From a larger perspective (at least according to the first law of thermodynamics) there’s no way to increase or decrease the matter in the universe. Particles are simply moving, rearranging, combining and transforming into energy.
Framed in this light, minimalism itself comes up against a greater reality. Maybe a better approach than “consumer versus minsumer” would be: seek to move things that are out of place to where they might best be used.
Those of us privileged enough to be concerned with our minimalist or consumerist selves partake in a kind of continuity. While things may enter or leave our personal possession, they, like us, still persist in the larger world. The same goes, perhaps, for our old plans, worries and ways. Whether we like it or not, all that stuff is still somewhere, in some form. There’s a kind of peace in this perspective, one that may mitigate the guilt complexes and egotism arising from minimalist pursuits.
Of course, there’s room for egotism in these thoughts as well. But maybe we can find a better place for it.