I’ve just begun tracking a curious emerging trend in personal development, what I’m calling The New Minimalism or Neo-minimalism (which may or may not have anything to do with Neo-minimalism as a movement in art). Leo Babauta, A-list blogger of Zen Habits fame, blogs almost exclusively on minimalism nowadays—both on Zen Habits and a blog so minimalist it cut out some of the vowels. Since he’s such a prominent evangelist for Neo-minimalism, I’ll start with a look at his writing in this article.
What is this New Minimalism? A page called “less” on mnmlist summarizes the lifestyle philosophy:
Stop buying unnecessary things.
Toss half your stuff, learn contentedness.
Reduce half again.
List 4 essential things in your life,
stop doing non-essential things.
Do these essentials first each day, clear distractions
focus on each moment.
Let go of attachment to doing, having more.
Fall in love with less.
At first glance, who wouldn’t agree with this minimalist manifesto? Buying unnecessary things certainly is wasteful. Learning to be content and mindful and free of attachment—isn’t this what the Buddha taught? So is Babauta advocating joining a Burmese monastery, or becoming a forest-dwelling yogi in order to study the nature of one’s mind in seclusion?
From the FAQ on mnmlist Babauta writes that one adopts minimalism in order to “Clear away the noise so we can concentrate on inner peace, on spirituality (if we wish), on our thinking. As a result, there is more happiness, peace, and joy, because we’ve made room for these things.” So far this minimalist philosophy could have been the words of the Thai monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who is famous for encouraging Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to adopt non-violence as a tactic for his activism.
A minimalist 3-car garage
Looking a little deeper there are some curious things about this New Minimalism. A Google search brings up this article from Zen Habits—also written by Babauta—entitled A Guide to Creating a Minimalist Home. The picture accompanying the article looks straight out of Dwell magazine. A linked website describes this “minimalist” home:
The Orr House is an addition and remodel to a 5,080 square foot 1970’s stucco clad two-story home, built on a steep down-slope lot in semi-rural Saratoga, California.
Bathed in natural light from a skylight above, a new atrium brings natural light to the entry, the living room, a lower level tatami room and home office, and dramatically illuminates the stairs to the lower level and a beautiful mahogany bridge that spans the two-story space. The kitchen/dining area and the living area all share a beautiful new stone terrace, edged with cantilevered reflecting pool that extends the vistas to the horizon while minimizing views of the driveway below.
One of the most successful aspects of this project is the sensitive combining of the new and old to create a new design that is fresh, unique, beautiful to look at and beautiful to live in.
The contradictions are glaring. Babauta advocates for ridding one’s self of possessions in order to be free of debt among other things at the same time praising a 5,080 sq ft California mansion for its simplicity. On a blog post entitled consumerism vs. minimalism (lowercase letters are more minimalist), Babauta writes:
There is in most of us an underlying desire to buy cool stuff.
It stems from fears and insecurities, I think, but it is exploited by corporations and advertising. Advertising is designed to get us to desire more, to want to buy, and because it works so well, we end up buying way, way more than we need.
Minimalism is the exact counter to this phenomenon, and for some of us, it’s the answer.
The minimalist lets go of desires, slowly, so that she buys less and spends less, gets into less debt (or none at all), and as a result, needs to earn less and work less.
A quick search of homes in Saratoga, California over 5000 square feet shows prices of around $4 million. Your monthly mortgage payment for your minimalist home would run you upwards of $25,000, unless of course you could pay in cash, thus remaining debt-free. But the cool stuff is worth the price, right?
Is Neo-minimalism Just a Marketing Demographic?
Neo-minimalism isn’t exactly the Tightwad Gazette, and I’m not sure that purchasing a 5,000 square foot mansion is “a way to escape the excesses of the world around us — the excesses of consumerism, material possessions, clutter, having too much to do, too much debt, too many distractions, too much noise” as Babauta advocates. Perhaps this Neo-minimalism is just another consumer marketing demographic, an aesthetic popular amongst middle- and upper-class technophiles and hipsters. But then why the air of a political or moral movement to this lifestyle choice?
The kinds of homes Babauta praises—“the ones with almost nothing in them except some beautiful furniture, some nice artwork, and a very few pretty decorations, are the ones that appeal to most of us”—are not praised by all of us. The very popular Unhappy Hipsters blog mocks such homes as alienating and pretentious by giving satirical captions to photos from Dwell and similar magazines:
Babauta is an Apple fanboy, and until recently was an early adopter of using Google to store his emails, documents, and other files instead of using desktop software and hard drive space. Google and Apple are both high-tech consumer companies with a minimalist style. Is there anything inherently better—aka ethical—about this minimalist aesthetic?
When Babauta went “Google free” I retweeted and added that the problems of Capitalism are not solved by changing IT providers. He replied to me wondering if I had a better solution. I admitted that this is a complex question, but that my point was that Google did not invent ad creep or privacy concerns and thus switching to other companies will not solve the problems they didn’t cause.
Let The Poor Eat Minimalism
I saved my biggest concern for last, however. In an article attempting to address the claims (like mine above) that minimalism is only for the affluent, Babauta writes…
In fact, there isn’t a requirement for minimalism. You can invent your own version, and if you’re more worried about how to survive until the next paycheck (I’ve been there), then cutting back on the unnecessary will help you get there. Look for unnecessary expenses (like eating out, going to the movies, buying junk food snacks, or renting DVDs) and eliminate them, finding ways to have fun that are free.
Eliminating unnecessary possessions also means you’ll need a smaller home, which will save on rent and heating/cooling. Buying fewer things means less debt. Spending time with loved ones or doing things you love means you spend less. All of these things are good whether you’re wealthy or not.
It’s true that the poor are often thought of as not having the luxury of even thinking about simplifying, or minimalism. They’re too worried about putting food on the table, or where the rent is coming from, or how to avoid creditors until the next paycheck. And there’s a lot of truth in that. But it doesn’t have to be true: anyone can pause, breathe, and decide to live differently.
Anyone can make the decision to do without the unnecessary, to cut off cable TV, to consider doing without a car, to only buy what’s absolutely necessary and to rethink what’s necessary. I’ve been deep in debt, and I know the feeling of drowning with no way to get out. I got out, mostly because I cut expenses to the bone while looking for ways to increase income. Minimalism helped me to get out of debt, and to get out of poverty. It’s not just for the affluent anymore.
The message here is whether you are cutting back by living in a sparse 5,000 square foot mansion or deciding between electricity or food for your children, we can all embrace minimalism. It’s not unjust for society to be structured in such a way that one person has millions or billions of times more resources than another—it’s all good as long as we are all “living simply.” I imagine a future blog posts’ suggestions for poor minimalists:
Try eating every other day, or going without running water for a few months until you can save up enough to turn your utilities back on. You’d be amazed at how long one can go without food and water and still survive—in fact, it can be a downright spiritual experience!
The poor hardly need to be told that they should cut back in order to get ahead—every month they make impossible no-win choices in an effort to merely survive. The poor in developed countries are often eating the only food that they can afford—junk food which is loaded with calories but no nutrition. Saying they should cut back on junk food is asking them to starve. Meanwhile the “bottom billion” live on less than $1/day—not because doing so is more aesthetically appealing or a hip lifestyle choice, but because of the structural inequities that force them into such abject poverty, structural inequalities that make it possible for us relatively wealthy folk to be reading blogs on laptop computers and other gadgets. Notably, I have yet to find a minimalist who advocates for increasing taxes on the 1% most wealthy. The reason may lie in the “lack of requirements” (i.e. “lack of ethics”) of minimalism as stated—telling others what to do is the ultimate taboo.
While most people who read blogs online could probably save money by cutting back, this Neo-minimalism of the rich is clearly built upon the forced “minimalism” of the destitute. But those poor people are better off “living simply,” right? Without all the stuff we have, they must live lives of peace, contentment, and beautiful minimalist aesthetics. And if the poor don’t want to be poor anymore, they should declutter and stop buying unnecessary things to save money so that they can lift themselves up by their bootstraps…so that one day they too will have a minimalist mansion, sitting on a cream-colored couch reading minimalist blogs on their iPads.
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