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6 Criticisms of Minimalism and 6 Responses

We often talk about minimalism at New Escapologist and our interest is three-fold:

- Environmental: by reducing your consumer habits, you have less impact on the natural environment.

- Financial: by consuming less, you don’t need to spend as much money. Consequentially you don’t need to work so hard at earning money.

- Aesthetic: by reducing physical possessions, you can have a cleaner, more manageable living or working space.

In our time talking about minimalism, we’ve encountered a few criticisms. Some of them are fair, some understandably verge on the hostile (understandable because minimalism asks people to curb their consumer freedom), and others are from people who’ve completely missed the point. In this post, I respond to some of the most common or most remarkable.

1. If everyone drastically cut their consumption, the economy would fall apart (even more than it has already), the jobless rate would be even higher than it is now, and more people would be unable to buy food or pay the rent. (a comment left at our recent interview with minimalist Leo Babauta)

This is a very common criticism of the minimalist lifestyle but it always strikes me as the most bizarre. The economy is a human-made thing designed to make life easier. It serves us. We don’t serve it.

The poster acknowledges that the economy is already ‘falling apart’ but this didn’t happen because of minimalists. The recession happened because of greed (people borrowing more than they could pay back, in order to pay for their excessive consumer desires), financial mismanagement and financial corruption on behalf of politicians and bankers. If we had adopted a minimalist mindset ten years ago instead of wanting more and obsessively seeking economic growth, the economy would be in better shape today.

It is also worth pointing out that our duty to the environment has to precede any duties we might imagine we have to the economy. A used-up planet will not sustain life: human or economic.

2. If everyone created but no one consumed… No one could create. (another comment from the same interview)

This poster, while I’m certain has missed the point entirely, has summarized the aim of the minimalist movement in a nutshell. Ironic, considering all of the discourse we’ve generated around minimalism: it took a critic to ‘minimize’ the argument down to a single sentence.

The environmental dimension of minimalism hinges on the law of supply and demand. At present, consumer demand is high (arguably because of marketing) and so corporations have license to produce vast quantities of product. This has a devastating effect on the environment. Each new product requires the extraction of raw materials from the earth by farming and mining. Materials and energy are also required by the manufacturing process, in transporting the goods to the consumer, and ultimately in disposing of them safely. If we adopt a minimalist mindset – fostered the idea of ‘enough’ – the production process and toll on the environment would be far less.

3. The dump is just unloading the problem: landfill is not a sustainable option. (in response to our suggestion in a School of Life post that accumulated junk is worthless and should be taken to the dump)

Most are familiar with the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. After decades of campaigning by greenies, people are finally excited by the latter two. It’s no longer seen as eccentric to try to get the most out of an item or to recycle your newspapers. What is less enthused over, however, is reduction. In fact, it seems only to be encouraged in minimalist circles. I’d like to go out on a limb and explain why I think reduction is the most important of the three:

‘Waste’ doesn’t happen with at death of a product (at landfill), but at its birth. As soon as the raw materials have been extracted from the Earth, the ‘spending’ of them has happened, no matter how long we manage to save a product from being scrapped. A manufactured product is destined for landfill whether or not we maximize the human use of it. To reuse or recycle is mere interception. ‘Landfill’ is the object’s ultimate destination even if it outlives humanity itself.

It is better to direct our environmentalist energies at the start of the product lifecycle: instead of intercepting products at the landfill, we must discourage over-production at the source. To do this, we simply have to curb our consumer desires. This is called minimalism.

4. My Dad’s gold watch and my bro’s fishing gear, cameras etc. ended in a skip, only because people like you thought it wise to declutter. (an hilarious comment left on a Guardian article about decluttering).

The purpose of minimalism is not to dispose of beautiful or useful things. It prompts you to ask what is of value and what isn’t.

I can’t help wonder whether the poster specifically identified a gold watch as disposable or if he threw his entire house away indiscriminately.

5. Minimalism (if that is what you’re advocating) is boring. Who wants to live in a white box their whole life? [Also, Hoarding is a human instinct]. (a comment left after a piece I wrote called ‘mobility versus stuff)

I don’t find minimalism boring. I find it exciting. When you reduce your lot to the bare essentials, they take on a higher significance. Minimalism is also brave. By clearing away 90% of everything, you draw attention and scrutiny to the remaining 10%. That’s exciting too.

If hoarding is a human instinct (it’s also a mental illness, by the way), it’s one that derives from fear and is probably an instinct holding us back. Just because something is human nature doesn’t mean it’s commendable. Cavemen hoard. Spacemen explore.

If something is available in a shop, it has been ‘permitted’ and is therefore unlikely to be worth owning. Subscribing to libraries and tinkering with free hobbies make us rich. Owning things makes us financially, spatially, intellectually and spiritually poor.

The poster is correct in saying that owning a reasonable amount of stuff is key. The common measure of ‘reasonable,’ however, has to come down if we’re to become a low-impact society.

6. there’s something about the “cult of less” that evokes bulimia: a drive to purge [...] But that hardly constitutes freedom from concern with stuff, any more than bulimia constitutes freedom from concern with food. (Oliver Burkeman‘s commentary on ‘The Cult of Less)

Purging is only one side of minimalist method and is also just the beginning. You will certainly want to consider cutting loose some of your possessions if you want to adopt a minimalist life, but more important is the maintenance of minimalism by not acquiring so many new things. To run with Oliver’s evokative metaphor, this is closer to Anorexia than Bulimia and I don’t think Anorexics are particularly passionate about their food.

More important and realistic than either of these extremes, however, is the adopting of a minimalist mindset: asking yourself what’s important in life and what separates the junk food of ownership from the nourishing diet of experience.

I don’t completely disagree with the criticism: perhaps some of us minimalists are obsessed with stuff. I certainly enjoy a tactile experience such as a nicely-curated record or book collection. Commodity fetishism is something we can all enjoy in sensible measure. But, hopefully, as I’ve outlined above and in various minimalist blog posts at our website, a lot of thought has gone into this stance: it’s not a puritanical reaction against something I enjoy. What I enjoy is mobility: being free of the burden of objects, ever ready to explore the world.

This guest post was written by Robert Wringham, editor of New Escapologist: a publication dedicated to escaping modern tedium (Twitter and RSS).

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