The Problem with Minimalism

Barely a year and a half ago, I was one of the loudest advocates for lifestyle minimalism. By “lifestyle minimalism”, I mean the idea that individuals should buy less stuff, buy used and own fewer material possessions. I went 200 days without buying anything new not once, but twice. I embarked on several aggressive downsizing campaigns.

I’d tell anyone willing to listen how they needed to stop buying new stuff, downsize their possessions and live simply. Outside of the internet, I would hold clothing swaps and worm composting tutorials, where I continued preaching the good word. I went way out of my way to find items I needed or wanted used, sometimes traveling on public transit for more than an hour to pick up an item from Kijiji.

I was a true believer.

I cringe looking back now. My only consolation is that it all came from a place of sincerity. I truly believed what I was saying. I wanted to save the planet! I wanted to save humanity!

But from the beginning I started getting feedback that this line of thinking was fatally flawed. Now, I dismiss minimalism as a useful tactic for meaningfully affecting the world. While I do not completely dismiss minimalism’s ability to improve someone on a personal level, I argue that even in this case its power is limited.

Let me explain.

1. Widespread Minimalism is impossible.

As I started my journey studying political economy, one of the earlier concepts I encountered was that of “degrowth”.

Degrowth is the idea that humanity needs to undergo a conscious effort to shrink national and global economies. It emerges as a response to the problem that the global economy is consuming far more resources than the earth can replenish. So, we have to reduce the activity and size of industries, and everyone would have to simplify their lives as well. I wrote an article on Quartz magazine about it here.

Source: http://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/figures/correlation-of-per-capita-energy/gmt7_fig2_energy-use-vs-gdp.png/image_large

As I investigated degrowth more closely, I started to understand the nature of our economic system. It soon struck me that degrowth was impossible in a capitalist economic system.

Why?

Capitalism is a system based on private property and competition. It’s an economic ‘survival of the fittest’ which means that companies have to expand in order to avoid being outcompeted. Thus, capitalism requires constant and never-ending growth to remain stable.

When capitalism cannot grow, or grows a bit more slowly, we get things called recessions and depressions. During these economic downturns, millions are thrown into unemployment and despair. Not good.

So the system must grow, which means that societies embedded in capitalism must continue to consume at increasing rates. The increasing rate of growth is ensured through a variety of mechanisms, including population growth, extending consumer purchasing power through credit and increasing marketing budgets.

What would happen if the entire US population decided to listen to all of those minimalist bloggers and bought as little as possible?

The immediate result would be economic collapse and disaster.

Capitalism may adapt by inciting society to consume more, say through war-making or privatization of public goods and services, but this is a whole other story.

The point is that within our current economic context, if everyone became a minimalist, there would likely be severe repercussions on society.

2. Minimalism isn’t a ‘choice’ for most people.

When my one big article about 200 days of nothing new started getting re-published on a few larger online magazines, I started getting plenty of emails, tweets and comments. Most were very nice, but some piercingly critical. I don’t have the guts to go back and read the comments (you might!), but here is a taster:

“Ya, this is my life all the time.”

“Wow some people self-impose being poor?”

“What a hero, living the life I have to live anyways.”

At first, I chose to ignore these comments. But as I started studying politics and economics, I started realizing that these anonymous internet people were on to something.

My basic assumption writing that article was that most people in the Western world were buying too much new stuff. We were all naughty consumers that needed to be schooled on how to live properly.

Although it is true that there is an issue of overconsumption in some (limited) segments of the population, the more urgent issue is that we have a problem of forced underconsumption in much of the world. Whether living in developed nations or otherwise, many people are not getting the material goods they need and deserve as human beings. Many people purchase used stuff everyday not because they are good minimalists, but because they are poor.

Even for those of us in the lower middle and low income levels who could potentially cut back on purchasing, minimalism is often not a feasible option. I was personally able to throw out a ton of stuff without care because I have the means (at least right now) to re-purchase this item at some point in the future (used or new). For folks working hard, raising or caring for family, strained by the stress of diminishing job security, this is not an option, either financially or time-wise.

There are plenty of bloggers (like me), writers and religious/spiritual leaders, calling on people to reduce their consumption, as if this was the most pressing ill affecting the material and spiritual conditions of humanity. They speak as if they have discovered this amazing new thing that no one realized would completely change the world.

This is an extremely closed-minded view. Only someone speaking from an economically privileged position would dare advance such a thesis. In turn, this thesis can only resonate with that tiny group of the world’s population lucky enough to be relatively financially secure, while ignoring the majority that are not.

3. Minimalism will never save the environment.

The state of the environment gives a lot of people, including myself, major anxiety.  And rightly so, we are in a really bad place. It’s natural to try to look at one’s self to find solutions.

But this is wrong way of approaching the problem, and unfortunately, it is a perspective adopted by many mainstream environmental organizations.

What many don’t realize is that the biggest consumers on this world aren’t you and me.

They are Big Oil, Big Industry and Big Military. For example, One geographer estimated that 90% of companies have caused 66% of all carbon emissions. Let’s say that the rest of us – that is the 7 billion humans that do not own and control these companies –  have caused the remaining 33% of carbon emissions.

What does that bring an individual’s contribution to? It’s trending close to zero. Does it really make sense to ask someone to reduce their 0.000000005% contribution to climate change?

You might be thinking that people are the buyers of the products of these companies, so they share equal responsibility.

But do they?

As an urban planning student, I’ve studied at length how most North American cities are built around highways and roads. It’s not reasonable to say “be minimalist – don’t own a car or drive less” if you live in most cities. You’d be imposing a huge inconvenience on people, or for others like young mothers, the elderly, the disabled, you are imposing what approximates house arrest. It’s unreasonable to blame people for adopting behaviors made necessary by the external environment.

A zoning map of Los Angeles showing the priorities of the city. Source: http://www.lahistoriaconmapas.com/

This isn’t to mention the myriad of ways in which we are psychologically and socially coerced into making certain purchasing decisions. Companies wouldn’t spend billions on advertising if it wasn’t working. In fact, many companies would go bankrupt if they stopped advertising, underlining how powerful an effect advertising has on people.

In any case, the world economy under capitalism needs constant growth to stay stable, as mentioned above. So it doesn’t matter how much you individually consume or don’t consume. The economy must continue to grow (and in the process consume more and more resources) and will do so, with or without you.

You and your minimalism don’t matter.

4. Minimalism is a Distraction.

There are a lot of reasons why people go minimalist.

For some, it’s about saving money.

For others, it’s about finding happiness.

For me, it was about saving the planet.

These are real problems, and no one can deny that.

Unemployment and job precarity is increasing, forcing people to figure out ways of spending less to make ends meet. The economic environment that we live in shuns the integral social aspect of human nature in favor of competition. Of course, the planet is going to shit.

But minimalism, as an individual choice, merely addresses (in a very small way) the symptoms of these problems. It can never offer a cure.

The problem with minimalism is that it reinforces the capitalist idea that it’s all about little, old you. You are the problem. You are the solution. You can do it all on your own. Change comes from within.

False. Change does not come from within.

Change that have a real and lasting impact have always been as a result of collective struggle and higher-level policies. What’s more feasible: trying to convince 1 million people to stop buying so much clothing, or implementing a law which restricts a few hundred companies from producing more clothing than the environment can manage? If we were really interested in addressing overconsumption, these policies would be what we’d be implementing for fast and effective solutions. Of course, it will never happen, because profits would be affected.

Finally, minimalism is a lot of freaking work. You need to be creative in what you use, you need to borrow lots of stuff, and you need be constantly disciplining your buying impulses, which are promoted by every aspect of our society. This effort detracts from the real necessary work to organize with others and pressure the government and industry for the changes that society needs.

It made me and others feel like they are doing some impactful when we really aren’t. For that reason, I daresay that it’s harmful in some ways to promote minimalism.

Is Minimalism Completely Useless?

I’m tempted to say YES.

But, I’ve had many people take my buy nothing new course. Many people have emailed me thanking me for my writing and telling me how it’s positively impacted their lives. Heck, it’s positively impacted my life too. It helped me through a very difficult part of my life (losing my father), and it really opened up my mind, intellectually speaking.

It will not have a lasting impact – your unhappiness, lack of meaning or financial woes find their causes in much more than your purchasing habits.

But I guess I can concede that minimalism is a start.

Just please don’t stop there.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Minimalism

  1. Assya,

    Point number 1 is absolutely untrue. I’d recommend reading “Limits to Growth” to unpack that more. Things that grow continuously, at increasing rates, are called cancer, and they always result in death.

    There are many ways for a capitalist society to function without ever increasing growth.

    1. Hey Dave,

      Thanks for your comment. I read Peak Everything, which seems to be similar to this book, but I’ll pick it up as well. If anything, I think these types of books reinforce this position.

      Capitalism is a system based on private property and competition. It’s an economic ‘survival of the fittest’ which means that companies have to expand in order to avoid being outcompeted.

      The point isn’t only that we need to stop growing the economy – the point is that we need to shrink it. We are already overshooting the limits of many resources (as the book you recommended describes), so we need to reduce consumption which means shrinking the economy. Capitalism in a state of slower growth or negative growth creates recessions and depressions.

Comments are closed.