Minimalism in its place

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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3 Responses to “Minimalism in its place”

  1. Holly Gates Says:

    Becky was telling me about an NYT article she read about someone who undertook the project to only own 100 things. We both said it reminded us in a way of you and Alexis. She definitely feels the attraction of cutting back on stuff and that there is a moral dimension to owning less things. Of course pursuing such a track is hard to do while married to me!

    Seriously though, I had many of the same thoughts you’ve put down in your post here. Like its great to own 100 things if you are an apartment renter in the city and all your work and recreation takes place inside a laptop. You can own less if you pay other people to do stuff for you. For instance owning a house is responsible for a very large percentage of the items I own, from spare sink traps and wax toilet rings to the little washers that space doorknobs on old doors, tile saw, custom hoist for moving cast iron radiators, etc. I could pay people to do all that stuff and not bother owning any tools or parts, but is that really morally superior? Or how about sewing. What is better: ordering clothes over the internet when you need them, or sewing your own at home? Ordering it leads to owning less things, but is it really a better way to live?

    I can’t argue that I really ought to jettison some significant portion of the junk I own, but I think the central conclusion stands that minimalism on the material front is most of the time in direct opposition to DIY.

  2. fiveislandsorchard Says:

    I think the “100 things” is sort of a contrivance – seems like in order to fit in that box, people do things like count all their underwear as a single “item” – and the guy whose blog I links simply doesn’t count the housewares he owns in common with his girlfriend (wife maybe). The basic point is that within the context of modern society, one way you get to a ‘minimalist’ life is to externalize the vast majority of your needs. Say you could get to 30 things if you didn’t have any kitchen stuff – but they you’re eating in restaurants all the time – if everyone did that a quarter of the population would be serving one another food, maintaining restaurants, washing piles of silverware whether they got used or not, etc. You could go further by not having an apartment, just flit around staying in hotels every night – then somebody washes your sheets and vacuums your floor every single day.

    These things would be great for the economy, but they’d be terrible for the planet. Of course those are extremes, and the valid part of minimalism to my way of thinking is the instinct to reduce the level of consumption. But I think focusing on inventory is a bass-ackwards way to do it. You could maintain a hundred things by every day throwing one away and buying a new one. And as far as impact goes, owning durable goods is not a terrible way to go – a person of significant means could own nothing, and spend their entire income flying around the world in jets, and they would have an obscene environmental impact. On the other hand, take someone like my dad, who has a ridiculous amount of stuff, but the vast majority of it was saved from a landfill, and a lot of which gets recycled into the local capital stock, displacing consumption of virgin materials.

    Two things are getting tangled and confused in numerological minimalism – one is the valid aesthetic proposition that a good life can be achieved through reducing clutter and simplifying everyday affairs. The second is the valid moral proposition that for the good of the planet and in the interest of equality, rich people should consume fewer goods and less energy. Focusing on personal inventory serves the former goal but is only indirectly related to the latter.

    I would advocate that people attracted to minimalism from a moral perspective should attempt to get to whatever number of personal items suits their fancy, taking it as a challenge not to throw away anything that somebody in their community could use, but that they then focus explicitly on reducing their level of consumption, of energy as well as material goods.

  3. Jan Says:

    One way to look at minimalism is purely in terms of material things. But it is not just things that we consume but services as well. As the post above suggests, the more we reduce our “things” the more services we consume. Is that really making any progress? Sometimes owning useful things alllows us to consume fewer services or other things. My wood heater and chainsaw allows me to consume less fossil fuel. My gardening tools allow me to consume less mass produced food and my cooking utensils allow me to prepare my own food rather than buying prepared food. I suppose everyone needs to find the balance that is right for them and it strikes me as unhelpful when folks start setting quotas or making moral judgments about what is superior. Farmers need to own lots of things to farmers, but without them and their things, we would all have to be self sufficient gardeners or starve.
    I think a thoughtful balance makes sense.

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