A new movement toward minimalism — in which people get rid of almost all their stuff — has the potential to be green and economical. It could also be really annoying.
Last week Stephanie Rosenbloom of the Times profiled a couple who got rid of their cars, many of their clothes, and their television in an effort to live on much less money. Then the BBC talked to Kelly Sutton, who basically owns only a bunch of technology and a mattress, and Chris Yurista (pictured), who couch-surfs "with a backpack full of designer clothing, a laptop, an external hard drive, a small piano keyboard and a bicycle - an armful of goods that totals over $3,000 (£1,890) in value." And now BoingBoing has an essay by Sutton explaining the pros and cons of his lifestyle. Sutton says, "The greatest thing gained from Cult of Less has been an unprecedented amount of physical freedom," and,
I experience very few downsides with my current situation. There have been times where I've been unable to fix something right that second, but those happenings are rare. A quick trip to a hardware or grocery store usually solves the problem. Rather than preemptively stocking a toolbox without tools I might use, what I have in my apartment for minor repairs is lean but effective.
As someone who's moved eleven times in the past nine years, each time with more books than the time before, I've definitely considered getting rid of all my possessions. As Rosenbloom points out, the practice may have psychological benefits: "New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses." And though Sutton admits to burning up some carbon by shipping his possessions to buyers around the world, purchasing less stuff that one must then throw away is certainly good for the environment. Certainly there's something the average consumer could learn from the "Cult of Less."
However, extreme minimalism has the potential to be pretty annoying. Sutton acknowledges, for instance, that his approach won't work in communities where you need a car. More upsettingly, Chris Yurista's less-is-more approach appears to rely on other people having more — his friends have to maintain apartments so he has a place to sleep. If minimalists are truly self-sufficient, it's hard to argue with their choices, but if their ideological purity depends on others' lack thereof, it's a little suspect.
Like the locavore movement, extreme minimalism will be most palatable and instructive when it's practiced personally, not evangelically. Just as not everybody can raise their own chickens in the backyard, not everybody can get by without, say, cookware — and if the Cult of Less recognizes that (as Sutton seems to), then we're cool. But if extreme minimalists start trying to define what's a necessity for other people, they'll face a backlash the way locavores did. Put simply, I'm willing to learn from Sutton's example and think about ways I could pare down my life — but I'm not getting rid of my toolbox.
Image via BBC.