The New American “Cult of Less”

Tammy Strobel owns a grand total of four plates. Kelly Sutton’s apartment is bare except for a neatly made bed and a gaggle of electronic devices. Chris Yurista doesn’t even have a home, but relies on his bicycle, laptop, and the generosity of friends (and sometimes strangers) to get by.

I don’t want to come flying out of the gate railing against these people’s lifestyle choices, though my instinctive reaction to these articles was an eyeroll. In the juxtaposition of consumption-saturated culture and the conscious decision to pare down physical belongings, clearly the latter exhibits a more thoughtful understanding of economic and environmental stewardship.

Speaking from personal experience, less is often more. I can’t express how relieved I was, every one of the four times I moved over the last year and a half, that the only furniture I owned was a tiny bookshelf and all my belongings could be packed into about ten cardboard boxes. It made setting up each new home simple and left the door open for me and my husband, once we were financially settled, to start acquiring thoughtful purchases like a desk and a bed, without feeling guilty about all the junk we’d already accrued.

That said, I have a few qualms about the specific type of simple living being exemplified by the people above. The first, and most important, is that the entire concept of a minimal-goods lifestyle, particularly in the case of Yurista, assumes there are kind souls out there willing to share their less minimal (hell, perhaps even maximal) lifestyle with you.

Hospitality is a virtue which becomes impossible to practice in Yurista’s case, and less-than-achievable even for the others who have a roof to invite people under. Pictures of their living spaces show no decorations on any walls, and few if any chairs or couches to sit on. Strobel can invite two people over for dinner (three if she boots out her husband) before she runs out of plates. Making a space inviting and enjoyable to inhabit, then sharing it with other people (maybe even a minimalist couch-surfer!) is a valuable societal contribution, no matter how unsexy and normative it may seem.

One of the predominant facets of the so-called “cult of less” involves simply moving from hard copies of books, music, photographs, and miscellaneous files to digital versions of the same. We are all, to a certain extent, doing this. Every one of the minimalists interviewed mentioned getting rid of a book collection, which honestly hurt my heart a little bit. I won’t regale you with how meaningful it can be to feel a page as opposed to a piece of slick plastic, or write between actual, physical margins, or receive a book from someone you love who’s written a message to you in the cover. We’re clearly moving to a place where paper and e-books will have to share space (but not literally!) and be selected based on personal preference, and little else.

But does having a digital copy of a song on one’s laptop, as opposed to owning a CD, really represent such a monumental shift? True, the physical waste is eliminated. But the desire to amass tens of thousands of iTunes songs, read dozens of daily newspapers and blogs, and take 454 pictures of oneself in the name of narcissim alone, remains. The means to consume and the cost of consumption will survive regardless of whether their physical counterparts are eliminated, contributing to the same levels of distraction and potentially wasted investment that life in the digital age encourages, even exacerbates.

It is possible to choose to live a simpler life, without giving up the warmth of a home or getting rid of physical objects with sentimental value (seriously, you can pry my box of old pinewood derby cars and painted seashells and 4th-grade camp letters from my cold, dead, materialistic hands). Nor do you have to chase the concept of minimalism to its logical conclusion, which is living in a cave lit only by a fire and the cold light of a Kindle. Ever since I graduated from college, I’ve been doing these things, most consciously because I needed to economize and eliminate clutter:

1. Buy books used. This way you cut down on paper waste and still get to hold Vonnegut (or whatever your literature of choice is) in your hand. Library sales are my favorite, because you can score recent-edition hardbacks for less than a dollar. Used bookstores are obviously in the same vein, though often not priced as swoon-inducingly.

1. a) Buying used also applies to everything else in the universe, except underwear.

2. When your closet starts looking like you’re a hoarder who’s compartmentalized all your issues into stockpiling bleached T-shirts and stretched-out camisoles, go in and start tossing stuff. It feels pretty amazing to finally donate that boxy sweater you bought on sale and have never quite been able to convince yourself is actually flattering, not to mention letting go of years-long searches for socks that must have dematerialized off your feet or gotten vacuumed up.

3. Accept anything neighbors or family or friends offer you. Best-case scenario: you get a beautiful, re-finished dining room table. Worst-case scenario: You get a creepy china doll collection that’s good for nothing but leaving on friends’ doorsteps on Halloween. Mediocre-case scenario: You get something you’re not in love with, but it’s functional or in good enough shape that you can give it to someone with different taste.

4. Make your own decorations. I don’t do this very often, but I would seriously mural the hell out of this house if I could draw a straight line. And I’ve inherited paintings family members made, which is a cool and meaningful way to combat blank wall syndrome.

5. Get married! People will give you tons of gift cards, leaving you no option but to buy tons of stuff! This actually isn’t a real suggestion at all. If you thought it was, you’re probably the type of person who expects presents on their half-birthday and registered for 25 different places when you graduated “¦ from high school. In other words, you are the opposite of minimalist.

Basically, nobody enjoys getting trapped in a cycle of unnecessary procurement, but life is too short not to be able to enjoy a game of Cranium, make a cup of coffee (machine, pot or French press), or throw some decorative pillows over your ugly, thrifted couch.

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6 Comments The New American “Cult of Less”

  1. Avatar of agnesgrepagnesgrep

    The reason these sorts of articles, including this one, gets eyerolls from me is that for me and many others this lifestyle isn’t a choice. So a lot of the suggestions come off as patronizing and I hate to use the word but privileged. It’s the lentils joke in a different package.

  2. Avatar of OrangeblossomsOrangeblossoms

    “The means to consume and the cost of consumption will survive regardless of whether their physical counterparts are eliminated, contributing to the same levels of distraction and potentially wasted investment that life in the digital age encourages, even exacerbates.”

    I really like that you addressed this issue. I’ve been having little debates with friends about this “cult of less” mentality. Coming from an artistic/crafty lifestyle (work and hobby) makes becoming an ultra minimalist very difficult. Lots of the items I own are art supplies, job specific tools or research books and materials. Many of my friends who are big into material minimalism own mostly tech stuff and are locked into their gadgets 24/7; conversely, I with my random clutter own very little technology and work mostly with my hands.

    Who lives the simpler lifestyle? I honestly don’t know. And I don’t think one lifestyle choice is better or worse, but I find the difference in ideologies fascinating.

  3. Avatar of doomcupcakedoomcupcake

    Mr. Cupcake and I have fallen into a bit of minimalism simply because of our buying resolutions: buy used whenever possible, if we have to buy new then buy American (which is damn near impossible these days). It’s cut back dramatically on bringing new stuff into the house and has forced us to get more creative about fulfilling those needs and also to question whether they’re needs or wants in the first place.

    Oh, we still buy stuff (i.e., I just bought a vintage cast iron Dutch oven off eBay) and would never consider getting rid of our books, but it’s not such a bad idea to evaluate habits of consumption from time to time, and purge the extra.

  4. Avatar of modernlovermodernlover

    I follow a pretty strict “one in, one out” rule. I get rather overwhelmed when I have too much in my house & this is the easiest way for me to personally not accumulate clutter. So this means every time I buy something new, I have to recycle or give away or throw out something old. And it goes for everything: buy new toothpaste, throw old tube out. Buy 3 new pairs of tights, get rid of three that have baggy knees, holes in the toes, or a stretched waistband. I’ve been doing it for so long now it feels like second nature & I hardly have to think about it. I don’t always throw out the same thing (ie. lipstick for lipstick), but I do always get rid of something. Unfortunately I live with my boyfriend who is pretty much the exact opposite of me in this way! He’s the worst packrat I’ve ever met, plus his art is created from found and recycled objects so he keeps everything. I recently bought a new backpack and donated my old one and he couldn’t get over it. “But what if I wanted to use it as a spare!?”

    1. Avatar of Scarlett WaldorfScarlett Waldorf

      I try very hard to do the “one in one out” rule especially pertaining to clothing purchases. I’m not very diligent with it though. I’ve found it helps for me to keep a bag in my closet to put clothes in that I want to donate. That way when I find stuff I don’t/never wear I can put it in the bag right away. Once the bag is full I offer the goods to my friends first and take the leftover’s to the salvation army. I also do found object artwork and it is a very hoarder -inducing art form one I am reminded of every month when I pay my $75 storage fee grrr.

      1. Avatar of modernlovermodernlover

        I keep a donation bag in my dressing room too. I’m always surprised how quickly it fills up! I find it interesting how I’ve never once dipped back into my donation bag thinking, “Oh where is that ___? I want to wear it again.” Proof I didn’t need to keep hanging onto it!

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