Tag: consumer culture

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.

non-fiction gems.

It’s hard for me to find non-fiction books that I love. Sure, I’ve read a bunch of Michael Pollen, Bill McKibben, and Bill Bryson, but sometimes it’s just too dense for the moment. I need a story line, a voice I relate with – not just facts. After Born to Run and Eat and Run I experienced a bit of a lull, but then this year I found several gems – so here they are, with my thoughts:

1. The Third Plate by Dan Barber


My Rating:
I first heard about Chef Dan Barber from a friend who interned at Stone Barns, a farm partner to the restaurant, Blue Hill, that he owns in New York. For a while I avoided reading his book, partially because I was worried it would bore me, and partially because I was re-reading Harry Potter… But don’t wait. It was by far the best book I’ve read all year. Better taste is always listed as a benefit of eating locally, but until now I have never encountered a piece of work that actually investigated it. In this beautifully narrated novel, Barber takes you all over the world, looking at historic farming methods as well as current technological methods, that prove sustainable food tastes better. From free-range geese in Spain to wheat research in Washington state to true barbecue in the south. I got hungry every time I sat down to read. If there’s anything I would recommend you sit down to read, right now, it’s The Third Plate. You’ll emerge with a greater understanding of food system sustainability and a heightened appreciation for truly good food.

2. Farmacology by Daphne Miller

My Rating:
A friend recommended this to me. Nutrition has always, to a certain extent, overwhelmed me. Mostly, I think, because of how complicated it is. I believe in ensuring diversity of diet, choosing foods that are clean and whole, and eating only when you’re hungry more than counting calories, vitamins, and minerals. Daphne Miller, a family physician, thought much the same way. She recognized similarities between how we quantitatively treat humans (through medications) and soil for farming (through synthetic fertilizers) – and the declining health of both patients. She embarked on an investigative journey to discover the connections between what we eat and how we care for our bodies. Her book pairs our farming practices with our medication solutions and finds comparisons, lessons learned, and areas for improvement. The questions she investigates include: how does our treatment of the soil compare to how we medicate ourselves? What lessons can grazing practices provide for how we raise our children? What can laying-hens teach us about stress management? How does pest-management relate to cancer treatment? How can urban agriculture transform community health? And even how can an herb farm teach us sustainable beauty? This book successfully shows how health issues, environmental issues, and sustainability issues are intricately linked – a must read for any health or food nuts out there.

3. Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes

My Rating:
This is the second time I’ve read this book*. I saw Hayes at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) Conference a few years ago – she was the keynote address. Her speech unveiled a view of the mid-century feminist movement that I had never considered before… it was truly radical. Her argument is that suburbia and the admittance of women into the workforce outsourced many homemaking projects that allowed consumer culture to flourish the way it has. She cites many reasons why this was a negative shift, focusing on historic proof and research. Then, she offers advice for how women and men should reclaim some forms of domesticity to increase security, happiness, and sense of self-purpose. Her book is based on interviews with numerous acting homemakers with their successes, failures, and advice strewn throughout the pages. These are people who, in her words, “focus on home and hearth as political and ecological act; who center their lives around family and community for personal fulfillment and cultural change.” This book shifted my thoughts on homemaking, feminism, and consumer culture in ways that no other piece of work in the last few years has. I don’t know how to give it better praise. While the cover and title might deter you, please resist – the lessons in this book are so important.

* I rarely re-read, unless it’s Harry Potter, of course. 



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