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The New Minimalism: Is Having Less the New More?

The New Minimalism: Is Having Less the New More?
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photo credit: Mike Moore and the potluck community

By Dorothy Potter Snyder

Human beings gobble up over 20% of the planet Earth’s bio-productivity and by all scientific accounts we are driving the planet to ecological collapse. Worse, our ever-increasing consumption hasn’t made us any happier. We work more and make less, and most of us are carrying a heavy debt load. A growing number of people are making a conscious decision to pare down their stuff, open up space and time in their lives, and live more. These are the New Minimalists.

A Long History, A New Evolution

The term “minimalism” first emerged in the 60’s and 70’s to describe the artistic, literary, technological and architectural schools of the same name. Those artists, architects and engineers stressed utility and simplicity, the idea that “less is more” (Mies van der Rohe) and “less but better” (Dieter Rams). They built on the non-conformist and “back-to-nature” ideas of the transcendentalists of the 30’s like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller.

Now, a growing number of people are interweaving the minimalist ideas of the past into a new economic, ecologic and technologic reality: these new minimalists favor utility over form, a spare aesthetic, a nonconformist stance toward consumerism and a search for an authentic identity through a “right” relationship with nature.  This latest iteration of the search for simplicity arose in the late 80’s and early 90’s, a period that was marked by ecological watersheds like the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (’86), the Exxon Valdez oil spill (’89) and the establishment of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (‘88). The back-to-nature and anti-establishment culture of the hippie movement of the ‘60’s was reborn, but now it attracted scientists, engineers, and ordinary people who networked via the Internet to develop practical ways to address ecological degradation and their own dissatisfaction with the consumer-driven life.

The new minimalists range from de-clutterers and capsule wardrobe designers, to people making more radical shifts, like charting their daily carbon footprints, practicing veganism or living in tiny houses. All are heartfelt in their desire to design individual lifestyles that address massive global problems. Most want to share their ideas freely with others. The new minimalist’s work of art is not a poem, painting or building: it is his or her own sustainable, happy life.

People Who Walk the Talk

Natasha and Luca of MoveMe Yoga in Brisbane, Australia weren’t aware there was a term for what they felt inspired to do naturally: “I wanted to live self-contained, like a snail,” says Natasha.  “Luca and I simply started living intuitively and choosing between yes or no, good or bad, need or no-need. The first time we heard the word minimalism was from one of our yoga students four years after we’d started changing our lives.” Natasha and Luca moved from a two-bedroom apartment to a converted garage, look cute in their pared-down wardrobes of mostly second-hand clothes, and can be seen on their YouTube channel happily foraging for mangoes in their suburban neighborhood. The couple became vegan after reading the United Nations report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” (2006) which reported animal agriculture as the largest producer of greenhouse gasses.

Dave Bruno, author of The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul, said at a Ted Talk at Claremont College “simplicity is the actionable idea that’ll meet the challenges of our lives and our world.” But for programmer, content writer and digital nomad Frank Jones of Raleigh, North Carolina, “just counting things [like Bruno] isn’t very practical.” Jones wanted a personal economy that would liberate him to become a digital nomad and retire early.  “One of the first things I came across [on the Internet],” says Jones, “was the idea of living with a smaller number of things…but my minimalism is about being intentional about how I spend my money: instead of buying a new pair of boots every couple of years, I buy a quality pair so that I buy it once and never have to buy it again.” Jones is also working on convincing his wife that moving into a travel trailer on a piece of lakeside land they own will enhance their quality of life and fast-track their early retirement.

Online minimalism can sometimes appear to be more about fashion than fundamental change, but it would be an error to belittle the “pop” part of the movement as being less authentic than that of mavericks who get along on $5,000 a year or become carbon-counting locavores like Radical Simplicity author Jim Merkel, Director of the Global Living Project. There’s a broad spectrum of lifestyles within the new minimalist movement that range from the more rough and wooly, like Moonlight Chronicles author Dan Price who lives in a “hobbit hole” that cost him $75 to build, to much more mainstream people who simply alter their relationship with “stuff”. All share a distaste for consumerism, and whether they’re part of a decluttering group or compressing their lives into a smaller space, the new minimalists want to maximize their resources, avoid debt and clutter, improve their health, and live more authentic and satisfying lives.

Changing Life Midstream

The fastest growing age groups among minimalists are those of us who are over 50. Economic instability, wage stagnation and midlife reassessment are inspiring 50-somethings to look for new ways to live “the cocktail hour of life” inexpensively, joyfully and creatively. Intentional communities featuring tiny houses and common property like kitchens, orchards and workshops, are becoming an attractive alternative to the corporate-run retirement community.

At a recent meeting of the Triangle Tiny House Meetup, Mike Moore talked about moving from a 450 to a 300 square foot tiny house in one such intentional community in Rougemont, NC. His new, tinier house features universal design to accommodate him as he ages in a place, surrounded by the people he’s called neighbors for 25 years. In his tie-dye shirt, Mike spoke knowledgeably about alternative financing and sustainable building materials, offering his own deep experience to facilitate others’ transition to the intentional community path.

Is the New Minimalism for You?

There are many movements within the new minimalist movement, and each one deserves its own discussion.  But what if you want to start by just tackling your relationship with “stuff”? How can you start down your own minimalist path?

5 Minimalist Experiments To Try

Moving into a tiny house or trading in your car for a bicycle may feel too radical, but there are plenty of less dramatic things you can do to simplify your relationship with stuff and get in better touch with yourself and the planet:

  • .Get Rid of 1 Thing a Day for 30 Days Even the least radical person can do this. Look into your “junk drawer”. Peruse the linen closet. Check out that box of cables in your office. Chances are that when the 30 days are over, you’ll hardly notice the difference and will want to keep going. If it’s too hard to do alone, start an online group and invite friends to join you on your quest.
  • Practice the 6-month Rule. If you haven’t used something in 6 months, get rid of it. Needless to say, out of season clothing or sports equipment may be exempt from this purging. But think about it: how much stuff do you own that you haven’t used or even touched in years? How much psychological and physical space might open up if you just sold it or gave it away? How often do you justify keeping stuff by saying, “just in case”?
  • Stop practicing “retail therapy”. When you feel inspired to buy something to make yourself feel better, stop. Talk to a friend or your partner, and try to find out what’s really bothering you before you hand over your cash for that quick fix.
  • Be Open With Friends and Family. Natasha and Luca suggest telling your family and friends that you don’t want things as gifts anymore: “Of course they will insist on buying you something for your birthday,” says Natasha, “so suggest theatre or movie tickets, or a gift certificate to your favorite health food store. Encourage people around you to give ‘doing gifts’ rather than perpetuating pointless accumulation.”
  • Keep a Happiness Journal. Write for 15 minutes a day about what really makes you feel that life is worth living to reconnect with your authentic joy. If your answer is “new shoes”, think again. Researchers tell us that once we get the stuff we desire, our happiness curve drops off quickly making us want to buy more stuff to feel (briefly) good again. Positive Psychology professor, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar‘s perennially over-enrolled course at Harvard indicates that closely examining your own joy may be the surest route to lasting happiness – and a simpler, more creative life.
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