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.