Archive for the ‘minimalism’ Category

More on minimalism

September 12, 2010

In conversing with Holly and others I’ve been refining my thoughts on minimalism since the last post. In general I’m sympathetic with the instinct that attracts people to minimalism, but I can’t help my annoyance with the smug triumphalist and numerological tendencies of its presence online, and I think it’s confusing a couple of valid but distinct propositions. The first is the aesthetic claim that there’s a personal or spiritual benefit to be realized by reducing clutter and focusing on the people and activities that make us happy and serene. The second is the moral argument that people in the rich world should reduce their rate of consumption of materials and energy, for the sake of the planet and our fellow humankind. Obviously the two propositions are related, but they aren’t the same thing, and what bugs me about the minimalists is that they seem to be trying to wrest the mantle of moral superiority of the latter proposition, and wrap it proudly around the former. Like I say, I’m not too far from agreement with the thrust of minimalism, but obviously I’m irked enough by what I read to write two blog posts about it, so a-ranting I will go.

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Minimalism in its place

August 23, 2010

I learn from the ridiculously snarky Eben Weiss that trendy people are now into minimalism. I suppose this should be encouraged. An expanding global population (that’s us) is starting to feel the thin leading edge of resource scarcity, and it would be fortunate if a cultural movement emerged that encouraged people in the developed west to be satisfied with less physical stuff. But trendy minimalism seems to devolve quickly into self-congratulation edging towards self-help hucksterism. In addition to claimed ecological and spiritual benefits, there seems to be a sizable freedom-and-independence streak running through modern minimalism, and in that vein, I propose that trendy urban minimalism actually stands to make a practitioner less independent and more of a consumer than he might otherwise be.

Cycling is a classic focal point for minimalism. But anybody who does real bike commuting knows that keeping your gear in good working order requires maintenance, and maintenance requires tools. Though not a really serious rider, I have accumulated a small toolbox of skinny wrenches, splined freewheel removers, and other assorted bike-specific equipment. It sounds good on paper to winnow down your possessions to some impressively small number, but in doing so, you may be tempted to ditch those cone wrenches – which is fine until you need to adjust your bearings. Then you’ll have to go pay green money to someone at a bike shop to do it, or limp around thrashing out your hubs until you manage to hook up with a friend who does have a set of tools and borrow some. I’m not arguing that everyone with a bike should have a room full of bike tools, or against borrowing per se, but it’s only polite to have some gear of your own with which to reciprocate. Otherwise you’re just a freeloader – like those people who don’t vaccinate their kids because of the vanishingly small risk of complications. Until recently the kids would probably be fine, because of all the other parents who dutifully vaccinated their kids. But then the trend got too trendy.

But I digress. The point was tools – good tools are a key to thrift and functional independence. I have for instance previously argued that even for apartment dwellers with street parking, it can be faster and cheaper to change your own oil – if you have tools. Advocates advocate minimalism as an antidote to consumerism. I think minimalism has a valuable place, but with the right tools you can get beyond the one-dimensional scale of consuming more or less, and become a transformer, a producer. This instinct to get beyond consumption and directly produce the basic physical stuff of our sustenance is the driving force behind the orchard project, and most of the other stuff I do. While I’ve argued that the maker revolution is oversold, I think there’s a bright future for clever people engaging in low-input production responsive to evolving local needs. But it’s hard to get very far if all you’ve got is a web browser. Beyond the very basics of cooking (pots, pans, pantry inventory) and mending (needles, thread, sewing machine, scrap box) that until recently would have been recognized universally as basic home economics, one obvious place for folks to start (assuming they have access to even a small piece of dirt) is gardening. But to garden successfully you need a handful of tools, and more importantly you need to invest time and effort in building up the soil and learning the specific nature of the place. When you invest in soil, when you plant rhubarb or asparagus or apple trees, you tie a part of yourself down to that place, and this is antithetical to the freewheeling live-out-of-a-macbook minimalism that’s being advertised.

I suppose that there is a tiny set of people who blog or code for a living and spend all their time online, and maybe its theoretically possible for them to live out of a backpack, couch surfing. But for a professional blogger to advocate that his audience pare away their physical life and go digital is like a junior high gym teacher advising all his students to become professional athletes. Couch surfing is not a sustainable way of life, at least among the people I know. And the last time I checked, the online universe was powered by ads, which often as not are advertising, um, stuff.

Afterthought – Japan is a decade or two ahead of us on the minimalism front, but their term for it lacks the rugged individualist vibe: grass eating men


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