Katy Waldman’s March 27 Slate online-magazine response to the March 9 New York Times article “Living with Less. A Lot Less.” by Graham Hill seems to miss the point entirely. In “Is Minimalism Really Sustainable?” she proposes that minimalism is much easier for the wealthy (like Mr. Hill), and therefore not for everyone.
Maybe it is easier. So what?
Like most things, minimalism can be taken to extremes. It can be literally translated to mean having only the bare essentials needed to survive. And in a survivalist situation, yes – money can facilitate a better existence with fewer material goods. With a top-of-the-line tent that will keep you warm in temperatures down to minus 100º F, you won’t need layers of clothing, mountains of blankets, and three big dogs.
But if you don’t like shirt-sleeve camping in the Arctic, who cares? This isn’t a contest to see who has the fewest number of things. This is about discovering exactly what it is that’s most important and essential to you and then getting rid of everything else – regardless of how much that leaves you with. Naturally, it’s almost always less than what you start with. Many so-called minimalists are really downsizing more than minimalising.
So in defense of Ms. Waldman, her skepticism of Graham Hill’s transformative thinking as a good idea for the masses is probably at least partly due to the fact that the word “minimalism” is misleading – as Dave Bruno of The 100 Thing Challenge learned. He has wisely decided to replace the word minimalism with “simple living” to describe his philosophy, and it’s a much better descriptive term. It’s also a term that’s been around the block more than once. Simple living was actually not left unexamined until Mr. Bruno gave it “new life” in 2007 after Richard Gregg coined the phrase Voluntary Simplicity in 1936. Voluntary Simplicity was a measurable trend in the 1980s and 90s – a fact Ms. Waldman seems to have missed, and which might have helped her to understand the basic concept behind the campaign.
Richard Gregg wrote of “a lifestyle purged of the inessential,” and this is echoed by Duane Elgin in his book Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (written in 1982 and revised in 1998): “To live more simply is to live more purposefully and with a minimum of needless distraction.”
Simple living does involve minimizing – but only to the point that you have everything you need in order to live the life you want to live…and no more. It doesn’t mean purging until you reach a magic minimal number. It means purging until you have just enough.
Anything more than that is a distraction or even a hindrance (not to mention greedy, wasteful, and unjust). It’s “clutter” that wastes precious time, energy, money, and resources.
Simple living is about focus. It’s about defining for yourself what you want your life to be about and then getting rid of all the stuff that’s in the way of making that happen. That kind of focus is difficult for us because we are brainwashed from birth into thinking that acquiring material wealth is the answer to all our hopes and yearnings and prayers by advertisers who want us to believe that the American Dream is something we can buy and merchandisers who want to grease the flow of money from our pockets to theirs.
When simple living/minimalism is embraced by someone rich enough to buy everything he thought he could possibly ever want and it didn’t translate into sublime bliss, it makes the argument for simple living all the more compelling for those of us not in the 1% who still cling to the false hope that more stuff will equal more happiness. It’s proof that the “material wealth” carrot on a stick too many of us mindlessly follow is just a damned carrot. Not a fountain of youth. Not self-actualization. Not an answer to “Why are we here?” Not the meeting of our soul-mate. Not the expression of our unique creativity.
Rich or poor, each of us has to find a goal besides the accumulation of stuff. It’s been suggested time and time again that no matter how hard we work at acquiring things, we will not likely be rewarded with happiness.
The experience of Graham Hill – along with others like Tom Shadyac and Karl Rabeder – just confirms our suspicions.