3 failures of minimalism.

Constantly reading about minimalism while packing compelled me to write about it, but since then I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I got more likes on that post than I’ve gotten on a single post in a long time. Intrigued by this response, I looked even further into minimalism on the web – it’s everywhere! I ran across numerous blogs devoted to personal journeys towards minimalism and similar ideas. People love “tiny houses” and having fewer than 100 possessions – and a lot of people like to follow the blogs of people who live that way.

Minimalism is good, right? Having less stuff is sustainable; getting rid of stuff creates happier, healthier people. Right? For some reason the concept of minimalism started to bother me, even though I knew these writers were doing what was best by them. I took a few days to figure out why, and through debating with David I narrowed it down to three problems: waste, the definition of stuff, and dependence on consumerism.

1. WASTE: Minimalism is often framed as disposal. “Get rid” of everything. Don’t “hold on” to stuff. When you buy one item, “get rid” of another. Less stuff in your house = less stress, more happiness, a better life in the minds of those who believe in minimalism. But from a sustainability perspective it’s extremely dangerous. Instead of emphasizing not buying more things we’re emphasizing throwing things away. In a country where the average person will produce 102 tons of waste in their lifetime we can’t afford to think this kind of minimalism is acceptable.

Minimalism is great if you make sure to:
1. hold on to things that are truly valuable.
2. donate, repurpose, or recycle everything you’re getting rid of.
3. and; when you do buy new things, make sure you know how and where they were created.
4. but; above all else, avoid buying new things.

2. STUFF: Not all things are stuff. This drives me crazy. David and I own many more than 100 things – but the things we own are useful things, not useless stuff. Too often there is a ridiculous effort to achieve # in one’s inventory, whether it be 200 or 100 items. This promotes getting rid of things that are actually useful, which is not only wasteful but counter productive, leading to point #3:

3. DEPENDENCE: I’ve always found self-sufficiency and minimalism fascinating – yet, with little investigation it’s easy to discover that these two things are rarely synonymous. When you own less than 100 items you’ll find it hard to fix things that break without tools, to grow your own food (farm tools, preservation supplies, etc. etc.), and to provide your own entertainment (musical instruments, art supplies, or board games). Minimalist lifestyles often rely on consumerism for access to food, entertainment, and other goods and services – making it a suitable lifestyle only for those with money, another issue I’ll avoid for the moment. For example; without our food processor and canning pot we would have to buy pre-processed foods, without our guitar we wouldn’t be able to play music, without our electric razor David would have to pay for a haircut every two weeks. Of course, there are always ways to decrease the need for these items (such as borrowing tools from a neighbor or renting farm equipment) but many people won’t always be able to borrow what they need – and they need to know that owning those things isn’t bad.

What I recommend is:
1. when getting rid of something, consider what you might have to outsource as a result.
2. don’t get rid of anything that you actually use, on a regular basis.
3. don’t justify buying something solely by trading something else out, it should have another purpose.
4. try not to buy anything that’s new: get something used or just don’t buy it.

Minimalism is not inherently bad, in fact I love the concept. As someone who practices sustainability and self-sufficiency having less unnecessary “stuff” is a great first to decreasing my reliance on consumerism and my impact on the planet. However, I have to be careful that simplifying my life doesn’t translate into waste and dependency. I’m not saying it’s impossible to be minimalist, eco-friendly, and truly independent; but we can’t all be Rob GreenfieldHaving useful things that fulfill the three tenants of independence, happiness, or sustainability isn’t bad – it’s buying useless stuff that doesn’t fulfill those tenants that is. That’s what we need to focus on.

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2 Comments

  1. Morgan

    Yup. To be a producer rather than a consumer you need tools and ingredients and resources. The more you are trying to make yourself, the more you need all this STUFF. Ask anyone farming or homesteading and they got bee stuff and cow stuff and processing stuff and land stuff. Unless you are working with others, you are saddled with a lot of weight and life energy sunk into materials.

    It seems to me that you can live nomadically Peace Pilgrim style in extreme minimalist style. And that is kind of what your trip is all about, no? Reduce it all and then reduce it further. Let the full brunt of the rain and sun hit you on the face and see what happens. There are whole legions of retirees remembering this as they reduce life to what they can carry on their backs and begin to walk the camino de santiago.

    Some things positively glow with the essence of ownership. When my grandmother died, I wanted her polyester nightgown. Her JCPenny towels. When my mother in law died suddenly and we inherited a whole house of stuff to sort some of the objects where tangible goods but not personal. Some, were hot with memory. Like your boat shoes. Those deserve to be tied to the roof rack.

    • Exactly, we shouldn’t be afraid to hold on to things that are useful or nostalgic – as long as we don’t start thinking every single thing is useful or nostalgic, that’s not healthy. Thanks for the awesome words!

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