More on minimalism

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.

I’m taking minimalism most basically to propose that we should maintain a relatively small personal inventory, and I’d say there’s a pretty good argument to be made for that – in some circles of friends I suppose I’ve been identified as a minimalist. I remember being happy that even for some years after I left college everything I owned (including bikes, futon, etc) would fit in and on top of my trusty Tercel wagon – and Alexis was if anything more austere by prevailing standards, despite a somewhat larger station wagon. The benefits of simplicity hold true for a lot of people, but it’s primarily an aesthetic proposition, and presupposes a certain level on the hierarchy of needs – there really are some people for whom happiness really does equate to fine crockery or Hummel figurines. But the moral/consumption arguments for minimalism are weak, for several reasons. First, inventory is not the same as consumption. Inventory is the time integral of (consumption rate minus disposal rate), and for most people, lifetime gross consumption will dwarf the inventory they hold at any one time – so it’s misguided and imprecise to claim moral superiority for low inventory. A person could constantly buy and discard things, one at a time, creating huge amounts of waste without violating anybody’s proscription on inventory. Second, there are lots of types of consumption that don’t contribute to personal inventory, but nonetheless have significant impact. The most insidious is probably air travel – a single round-trip flight half way around the globe is easily enough to negate a whole year of dedicated bike commuting. Food is another big one – I’ve written here many times about the outsize impact of eating meat, which (aside a few steaks in the freezer) doesn’t register on the minimalist watchlist. Third, as a practical matter, most of us westerners live in a relatively wealthy and wasteful environment, where perfectly functional stuff can be had for the taking curbside on trash day in many places. In the town where I grew up, when the old-fashioned dump was replaced by a modern “Transfer Station”, some enterprising citizens including my folks built a small lean-to on the site, the ‘Georgetown Mall’, where townsfolk can put and take used clothing, housewares, toys, and reading material. To the detriment of the local Salvation Army it has been a fabulous success, most especially a boon to young people setting up housekeeping but generally appreciated by people of any age or class, so long as they’re not hung up about the stigma of secondhand. Adding the occasional landfill-bound item to personal inventory is hardly vice, especially where the item in question (a functional cast-off sewing machine, say) has the potential to boost self-sufficiency.

I wrote at length last time about tools and the productive opportunities they enable. My own personal inventory finally overflowed my car when I embarked on a long-time ambition to build a traditional wooden boat, which involved buying a large bandsaw and some other woodworking tools. But I think the point is more general than tools; somebody has to hold and care for the physical stuff that enables the productive capacity we all enjoy. While in some forms minimalism is surely a great way to get to a pleasant and truly low-impact lifestyle, it wouldn’t surprise me if for many converts of a certain income bracket it becomes a matter of buying experiences, externalizing the annoying, messy maintenance of the associated capital stock to others. For the reality is, (er, well, ok) we are living in a material world, and anybody who hops on a plane with nothing more than a backpack is manifestly taking full advantage of that world, possessions or not. The very fact that we can be indulging in online debate about how best to spend our spare time and money – and how best to curate the art forms that our lives have lately become – reflects the impressive physical surplus that the modern economic system develops. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the online minimalists seem to make their living selling ebooks online full of advice on how to make a living selling ebooks online – virtual communities flourish because of the material bounty of our society. In a modern industrial society, some people are going to be involved in building, maintaining, and advancing the capital stock that delivers that bounty, and some are going to be involved in the more rarefied pursuits that are so enabled – it’s been that way since agriculture was invented. To claim moral superiority for dis-involving one’s self from the physical machinery makes no sense, unless you actually dis-involve yourself, in which case I’m unlikely to be reading your blog: an IT entrepreneur recently told me that the first consideration in siting a server farm is the presence of massive quantities of cheap electricity. In my mind’s eye I see the minimalist bloggers surfing serenely on the wake of a tremendous cruise ship that is society, waving from a casual yoga pose and tutting about all the fossil fuel that’s burning down in the engine room. The proper attitude of one in such a position is not disdain, but gratitude – mixed perhaps with a passing thought as to how one might fashion a paddle.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh here. Obviously there are plenty of Americans who could use some prodding to reduce consumption and simplify their lives, and I don’t claim that the moral argument for low inventory is entirely without merit. It could be said that having lots of stuff is an affront to poor people, a rude gesture of non-caring that’s liable to enflame the passions of hut-dwellers overseas, some of whom may become suicide bombers. But in that situation I suspect that one’s attitude toward the stuff (i.e. of entitlement, vs. gratitude) probably matters more than sheer quantity, and I maintain that low personal inventory is neither necessary nor sufficient to living a moral life, for the reasons I have described. So, given all this, a proposition: If you want to argue for the aesthetic benefits of reduced personal inventory, by all means do so, in the interest of zen transcendency, christian charity, marxist solidarity, or whatever fashion suits you. And if you want to advocate for reduced consumption, for the sake of human health and equality, political and climatic stability, and concern for our fellow lifeforms on earth, I’m right there with you. Just don’t tangle them all up and then try to sell me a book.

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