The direct correlation between sustainability and minimalism is pretty clear ― if we consume less stuff, we can sustain more resources and lessen the negative impact on our environment.
Americans are fantastic consumers, and it’s in our nature as humans to covet what we see. Advertisements are inescapable in our digital world. We’re now bombarded around the clock. And social media isn’t helping either, as we’re constantly comparing, judging, and coveting the lives and stuff our “friends” have.
It begs the question, how much is too much? And more importantly, what is the true cost of this stuff we can’t seem to get enough of? As most Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, living a more minimalist lifestyle can help decrease economic hardship.
That new, expensive dining room table your neighbor just purchased to replace another (that did its job just fine and didn’t deserve to be fired) may not have come directly from Borneo — but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t contribute to the pillaging of their forests and the displacement of native people indirectly. After all, that wood has to come from somewhere.
The problem is that it’s not about the table’s functionality. We could use four cinder blocks and a piece of plywood as a table. The problem is that we (privileged) humans use things, like that shiny new table, to temporarily fill holes in ourselves that can’t be filled in the long term. It’s like eating Chinese food and being hungry 30 minutes later. That table isn’t going to satisfy for long. Round and round we go.
This is why living minimally has less to do with sustainability and more to do with the roots of consumerism, the nature of a real community, and building social connections that can help close the inequality gap, and thus reduce our innate desire for stuff.
Minimalism as a Social Justice Issue
While privileged humans purchase and consume to quench their unsatiated hunger, the less fortunate are the ones getting hurt in the process. It’s always the poor who are most vulnerable. It’s always the most vulnerable who are most harmed by materialism and consumerism.
The native people losing their forest in Borneo have no voice. They have no power because money is the true source of power, and they’re on the wrong end of the consumerism paradigm. But according to Juliet Schor, professor of Sociology at Boston College, this issue is more complex than materialism vs. minimalism.
“The cycle of acquisition and discard is getting faster and faster,” says Schor. And the reason behind it, or what’s really driving consumerism, is inequality.
There is always going to be someone who is wealthier, who is happier, and who has more than we do. And according to Schor, we’re using our purchasing powers to close these gaps and feel like we belong.
Schor says that Americans are wired for consumerism, thanks in part to our immigrant beginnings and racial inequality. However, anyone who has ever been abroad, particularly cities like Seoul, Korea, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, knows very well that consumerism isn’t just an American disease.
However, Schor is spot-on when it comes to humans passing the buck on the issue of consumerism by speaking in generalities ― WE are too materialistic as a society. WE need to consume less. “It’s the other person’s disease,” says Schor. Not our own.
Schor uses the example of neighbors sharing one lawn mower, rather than each having his own. It’s less about the impact of fewer lawn mowers being produced and more about building deeper social connections. Connections that can close this inequality gap and eventually reduce our desire for more stuff.
The deeper sociological issue revolves around finding true sources of happiness. According to Schor, this can and should be done through community-building. And as our desire for more stuff subsides, we’ll naturally become more minimalistic and more sustainable.
Consumption as a Personal Problem
According to Michael Norton, an associate professor at Harvard, one big reason for income and social inequality is that most people live in a bubble and are unable to see just how wide the inequality gap has become.
Since the majority of people only associate with others that are like themselves ― economically, racially, ethnically ― Norton recommends getting out of our comfort zones and creating relationships with others that span those divides.
At a minimum, doing this should result in creating more empathy and adding some much-needed perspective.
In 2001 I spent several months in India as part of a longer backpacking trip around the world. I’ll never forget how I found it odd that an Indian acquaintance, who served as my guide on occasion, always wore the same pair of pants. It didn’t dawn on me until later that he probably couldn’t afford a second pair. It also didn’t occur to me until much later how he didn’t really need more than one pair of pants. And how, for the most part, we wear clothes to look good for others, rather than out of necessity.
Having profound experiences like this, that take you from your comfort zone and place you into worlds much different from your own, is exactly what I needed and what Norton is talking about. It’s one thing to read about or talk about how others around the world live with less. It’s another thing entirely to see it and live it with them.
Happiness isn’t dependent on things. People who choose to live with less will often say how much happier and unencumbered they feel as a result. In the movie Fight Club, Brad Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden, says, “The things you own, end up owning you.”
It’s an amazing gift to truly see the difference between necessity and luxury. If you go down the rabbit hole deep enough, nearly everything becomes luxury. There isn’t much that we truly need. And when our desire for things lessens, we’re often able to find truer sources of happiness.
On a personal scale, this can produce magnificent changes within. On a societal scale, we reduce the cyclical and destructive game of seeing more and wanting more, which is always more destructive to those on the wrong side of the inequality gap — whether it results in losing a forest you called home for hundreds of years or losing even an ounce of self-worth because you cannot afford the things you see and want.
If you can get used to the idea of wearing the same pair of pants every day, you shouldn’t have any trouble bearing the idea of a community lawnmower. And from there, who knows what else you’ll be capable of?
Becoming more sustainable has never been easier than it is today, thanks in large part to technological advances in sustainable energy sources. But until we take more personal responsibility for the inequality issues that plague our world, and evolve to live more minimalist lives as a result, our desire for stuff will continue to oppose our sustainability efforts. Not to mention the immense harm it contributes to others, whether we choose to recognize it or not.