Minimalism: class, fetishes and the fate of the planet

Over the last several years, news outlets, and the New York Times in particular, have portrayed the minimalist movement in myriad ways: fetishistic fad, a type of blindness for the well-to-do, a source of liberation. These often contradictory views are perhaps reflective of a societal confusion. People, so long economically and emotionally enmeshed with their stuff, might not know what to think of minimalism. Does it have substance? Is it something that will seem as ridiculous tomorrow as the Macarana does today?

To make sense of the subject, let’s discuss some of the criticisms of the minimalism movement and see if it’s something we should be paying attention to.

Minimalism throughout history

Prior to the era of cheap, industrially-manufactured consumer good plentitude, there was a term for minimalism. It was called life. In this era — which encompasses all but the last 70 years or so of human existence — people used what they needed, and oftentimes a lot less. Because manufacturing technology was primitive, stuff was labor intensive to make and therefore expensive to buy. To illustrate, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that a 1900 household spent 50 percent of their budget on food and clothing. So socks were darned, bacon grease was kept in a tin can by the stove and so forth. Other stuff was really expensive too. There were things like radio repair shops, because one click shopping had not been invented yet.

This is all we got, yo. Image via Wikipedia.

WWII represented a quantum leap in manufacturing efficiency. Suddenly, stuff was being made with a fraction of the previous labor and expense. By 1950, food and clothes had dropped to 42 percent of household expenditures and would continue to plummet. With more disposable income and enormous industrial capacity at our command, we started making non-essential stuff, perfect to fill the suburban single family homes that were becoming the archetypal American housing setup.

But there was a problem: You can only make so much stuff paying the fair wages most Americans expected. So someone had the brilliant idea to combine post WWII American industrial knowhow with dirt cheap, overseas labor. The US, once the “the making-stuff capital of the world,” according to Derek Thompson of The Atlantic, experienced a precipitous decline in its manufacturing might.

The upshot of this decline was access to abundant and cheap consumer goods. In 2000, we only spent 20 percent of our household income on clothes and food — less than half the amount of just 50 years before. Clothing dropped to 4 percent of our expenses, even though the volume of clothes we had was much greater. Same went for food: we’re spending less and eating a lot more.

The democracy of consumerism

In her recent New York Times editorial “The Class Politics of Decluttering” Stephanie Land suggests, as other Times writers have before, that minimalism is the privilege of the elite, for whom stuff is easily bought and discarded depending on one’s mood. She writes about a Minimalism documentary where, “‘bad’ consumption is portrayed by masses of people swarming into big box stores on Black Friday…slaves to material goods,” versus minimalists, who are “independent thinkers, free to enjoy the higher planes of life” [Full disclosure: I was featured in that documentary].

She goes on to say that “those people flocking to Walmart” are purchasing “furniture, or an entertainment set, or a television bigger than an average computer monitor” on sale because these things would otherwise be beyond their means. The implication being that these are things rich folks don’t think twice about buying. So it’s easy — and hypocritical — to judge the poor mobs for fighting over stuff the rich consider birthrights.

It’s a logical narrative, but one that doesn’t accord with reality.

As the Times’ Annie Lowrey reported a couple years ago, the cost of retail goods has dropped precipitously in the last ten years. It has created what economists call the “Walmart Effect” where “virtually anything produced in a factory” can be bought at bargain prices. Rich and poor alike are drowning in stuff. Working off data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Lowrey reported that poverty is a function of low wages and factors such as housing, healthcare, childcare and education — not consumer goods.

This focus on class obscures the main point of minimalism.

Stripped of its formal/aesthetic construct, minimalism’s message is this: “You probably don’t need that.” “That” could be a new gadget or nana’s quilt taking up space in the basement of the too large home you pay a mortgage on. You don’t need it if you have the money. And you definitely don’t need it if you don’t. The stuff won’t make you happy, and chances are good that it will distract you from the parts of your life that do. As Dave Bruno wrote, “Stuff is not passive. Stuff wants your time, attention, allegiance. But you know it as well as I do, life is more important than the things we accumulate.”

The guys behind the movie Land alludes to — Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, aka “The Minimalists” — both come from dirt poor homes. “We were broke. Dead broke. Food stamps and WIC and various other forms of intermittent government assistance,” Fields Millburn wrote me.

Their respective origin stories involve a pursuit, and eventual attainment of, money and material wealth. “By 19 I was making over $50,000 a year, twice as much as I’d ever seen Mom bring home, but I was spending even more, racking up the credit-card debt. I obviously needed the three M’s in my life: Make. More. Money,” Fields Millburn continued.

He and Nicodemus traveled the well trodden path toward happiness via professional advancement leading to increased stores of stuff and increased overhead, debt and stress. And they also found how that path led nowhere — something, incidentally, the Times documented a few years ago in the op-ed “Living with Less, A Lot Less,” by Graham Hill.

While the devotees of Marie Kondo might suggest minimalism is a Patrician dalliance, there are plenty of people like Fields Millburn and Nicodemus who came from modest means — people who arrived at minimalism after bottoming out on the pursuit of actualization through accumulation.

Image via The Onion

And yes, as Kyle Chayka writes in “The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism,’” minimalism can be culturally appropriated by wealthy folks (first time something like that’s happened, eh?). It can take on a Dwell-Magazine/MoMa Store sheen that obscures the essence of the movement, which is all about intentional subtraction. There are no purchases necessary to be a minimalist, and it’s a good idea to be suspicious of anyone that says there are.

The biggest reason to go minimal

The talk of class politics and fetishization of minimalism misses the biggest point, one that makes all those topics seem trivial. The planet is being ruined in our pursuit of more. A Journal of Industrial Ecology study from earlier this year found household consumption is “responsible for up to 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 50 and 80 percent of total land, material, and water use.”

An initiative called Earth Overshoot Day calculated that “On August 8, 2016, we began to use more from nature than our planet can renew in the whole year.” If we are to even dream of keeping the planet habitable, we must stop consuming so much stuff.

You can even argue that holding onto excessive old stuff shares much of the blame with the new stuff. The infrastructure of storing our stuff — our humongous suburban homes, the $22B personal storage industry we support — are resource-hungry byproducts of our inabilities to let go of stuff.

What minimalism does is makes this ecological imperative a choice rather than an imposition. It says, “Don’t be afraid of having less, because it’s pretty great.” And it’s not a BS message either. Ample research attests that the best things in life aren’t things. That relationships and rich experiences and expressing gratitude for what we have are the hallmarks of a good life. And stuff — whether it’s a new iPhone or your spoon collection — is just stuff.

Minimalism can be seen as a realignment of priorities, and a preparation for a world when we cannot have everything we need when we want it. But minimalism is not an act of sacrifice. Or rather it’s no more of a sacrifice than removing a malignant tumor. Sure, it hurts at first, but it’s really good for you and lets you live a longer, happier life. You won’t miss it.

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