Maximalizing Minimalism – Fashion Pretending to be Ideology

Maximalizing Minimalism

I consider myself rich. That’s because I define being rich as having more money than you need. “Minimalism” is a good way to sum up my life. Or so I thought.

My Life in “Minimalism”

Let me tell you something about my life. In 2008, I got endocarditis. I avoided going to the doctor for so long that when I showed up in the ER, my blood pressure was 60/40. It was bad. The truth is, I have no memory of the two weeks after I walked into the ER. Also, I remember walking through the doors that lead from the waiting room to the medical section, and then… nothing. The doctor told my family that I had a 50-50 chance of surviving.

Going to Live With Dad

But survive I did. I was in the hospital for roughly six months. But in the meantime, I had lost my job and my apartment. My weight had gone down to 99 pounds (due to the bad food, not the disease). I had no money. And my father was nice enough to let me live with him. He had a finished attic with a small bathroom, a microwave, and an electric hot plate. This was mostly thanks to my father’s girlfriend, who hated me and didn’t want to see me very much.

Stuck With Dad

A couple years later, the girlfriend died and my father requested that I live downstairs. He is now 85, but even at the time, he depended upon his younger girlfriend a lot. So I took over for him. When I wasn’t working, I did the cooking and cleaning and drove him places when he was ill. I still do much of that. I cook dinner every night and I very often drive him to hospitals — in particular, the San Francisco VA. But it’s okay. He was there for me when I needed him. I do, however, have some resentment because I would like to move far up on the California coast.

But when I refer to my life as minimalism, I’m talking about the fact that I live in a 10-foot square room, I use the kitchen and bathroom, and that’s it. There is a television, but I don’t use it. That’s his domain.

We Are Being Forced to Maximize

I’ve been somewhat aware that there was a thing called minimalism. But to me, it’s always been about reducing the cost of housing. If San Francisco would allow apartment buildings to be built with 100 square foot units, that would be great for me and other single people. Maybe, it would even work well for well-suited couples. It would not work for families that have children. But I find it unfortunate that there is only one city in the US that allows this (Seattle allows sizes down to 90 square feet).

There Are Few Small Spaces to Rent or Buy

I don’t understand this. First, even though Seattle allows tiny apartments when I lived there, I didn’t find that many when I lived there — or any that were vacant. It may just be that there aren’t that many people like me.

But I suspect that it has more to do with builders knowing that building a lot of tiny apartments cut down on the sells of their larger apartments. And so, when they do build tiny apartments, they don’t sell or rent them at reasonable prices.

Not in My Front Yard!

There is also the NIMFY aspect of it. My father was a carpenter and building contractor when he was still working. And when we talk about the high cost of houses and apartments, I always bring up building tiny apartments and building small houses on small lots, he’s almost apoplectic.

In my hometown, the minimum lot size is roughly an eighth of an acre or 6,000 square feet. That’s not surprising when most houses around here are 2,000 square feet or more. But a 500 square foot house could fit very well on 0.03 (1/29th) acres. Of course, you would have difficulty find a contractor willing to put a 500 square foot house on a 6,000 square foot lot. But if the law was changed, you could quadruple the number of houses and cut the cost by a factor of 4.

People Don’t Want Larger Houses

Don’t tell me people want larger houses. Read this: New US Homes Today Are 1,000 Square Feet Larger Than in 1973 and Living Space per Person Has Nearly Doubled.

And it didn’t start in 1973. House sizes have been getting bigger since the 1950s. In the 1940s, new houses were in the 700-800 square foot range — plenty of room for a family with 2-3 children. In the 1950s things really started taking off. And by 2014, the average new house was 2,657 square feet.

In 1944, the average new house was 837 square feet. The increase in house size has been quite linear. So it is pretty accurate to say that the American house has increased by 26 square feet per year. That means that every four years, the American house has ground by the size of my living area. And as we’ll see, almost none of extra space is used.

This Isn’t About Having More Money — There Are Lost of Things to Buy

This isn’t because people had more money. Remember: wages for most people have stagnated since the mid-1970s. It’s because builders pushed for bigger houses. This included lobbying to make lot sizes bigger. And so now we are stuck with these huge houses that we don’t use. The following image is cropped from: Think You Need a 2000 Sqft House to Be Comfortable? Think Again! The red dots show where people spend time. If it doesn’t have many (or any) red dots, the space simply isn’t used.

You Don't Use Much of Your House

I tell you this so you understand that getting bigger and bigger houses is not a rational thing to do.

Minimalism as a Lifestyle

So I was on Netflix, looking for a nature or archeology documentary, and I came up Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. At first, it was okay. It had people talking about clutter and how it was ruining their lives. And I’m totally onboard with that. It seems to me that people get meaning from life through the things they own. I don’t think that works. But frankly, I wouldn’t really know. The only “stuff” I’ve ever cared about are books. And it’s not the books but the ideas in the books that give me joy.

Now I’ll admit, my thing is collecting knowledge. Acquiring it makes me happy. And I think there are a lot of different ways to find happiness. But I do think owning things is so trivial that it is unlikely to give you joy. But it’s hard for me to say because I’ve never had the urge. Regardless, listening to people talk about how simplifying their lives made them happier was something that I was open to hearing.

The New Conspicuous Consumption

But then I noticed something. (Well, many things, but I’ll start with this.) Minimalism is a lifestyle for them. I didn’t see them replacing their clutter with anything edifying. In fact, they seemed to be as consumer-oriented as ever. It was just that instead of getting 10 cheap shirts, they were getting one really expensive shirt. And this was the way it was top to bottom.

There was a woman who lived in a tiny house but right next to it was a horse stable. I don’t know if that’s where she works or she owns it. But everything about her screened, “Look at me!” This was conspicuous consumption — just a different kind than we are used to.

Minimalism for the Rich

Another thing I noticed was that all the people were pretty well to do. As I said: I consider myself rich. Yet everyone I saw seemed to make a lot more money than I do. There was one guy who bought a small New York apartment. That alone means he has at least several thousand dollars to plop down. And then he redid it in an amazing way. The bed folded into the wall. And most interestingly, he had a wall that somehow appears for when he has guests. It was clear that he put at least $100,000 in making his minimalism dream come true.

And this was true of everyone. They weren’t practicing minimalism because they had to; they were practicing minimalism because they could — because they had the money to do it.

And Along Comes a Website

And then came the website. You knew there had to be one, right? There had to be the gurus telling these frankly silly people how to live their lives and how they were so virtuous for doing it.

In fact, the entire film seems to be an advertisement for the website: The Minimalists. Its Alexa rating has been shrinking since the film came out. The creators of the website — Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus — are so thin-skinned that they wrote an article, “Dear Critics.” It says, “It’s okay to accept trusted feedback, but ignore criticism, because it isn’t about you anyway — it’s about the insecure critic.” That’s almost the entire article. They have absolutely no defense of themselves or of the Minimalism movement. There can’t be a valid criticism. To criticize them is to show that you are an unhappy person who just doesn’t “get it.”

Minimalism as a Cult

This sounds just like what cult leaders say to their followers. It disturbs me more than anything else. (In their defense, they wrote an article attacking the tendency on the web for people to get outraged about everything. But even it is just a pretext to defending themselves from criticism. And the criticism they don’t like is pathetic; they don’t even mention the real criticism of Minimalism. But the rest I accept: fucking let it go! Life’s too short to get angry about stupid stuff — especially the occasional slip of the tongue.)

They also created a podcast on criticism. What I listened to of it wasn’t bad. But again, they never deal with the real issue that Minimalism is just a new fad for the wealthy.

The Real Minimalism Is Practiced by the Poor

This is what this entire article comes down to. Minimalism should be a social critique. It should primarily be about economic inequality. It shouldn’t be a fashion statement.

Reuse Don’t Recycle

I believe I bought exactly two pieces of clothing last year. Ninety-five percent of my clothing has been given to me. Whereas most of those in the Minimalism movement would buy $200 sweaters made out of recycled fibers, I just wear the clothes that would have been destroyed.

One of the most important things that I learned in graduate school was that recycling ends with most of the material being used, but a small part of it being turned into a toxic waste that must be carefully disposed of so as not to hurt the world’s ecosystem. Reuse whenever you can.

But when your movement is based mostly on showing off, there will be none of that.

Minimalism is a movement by and for hipsters who, above all else, want to impress other hipsters. I have my own movement, which would be best called, “I Don’t Give a Damn What You Think.” It’s kind of a hard movement to follow because it isn’t pleasant to be mistaken for a homeless person. It’s kind of easy for me, though, because I’m not very observant.

But truthfully, I’d much rather be thought a homeless person than an entitled follower of Minimalism.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “Maximalizing Minimalism – Fashion Pretending to be Ideology

  1. I designed my perfect house once-it was underground with a small bedroom, a large walk in shower with no sliding glass doors, the usual other bathroom stuff and one really long room with a gazillon bookshelves.

    I don’t have many things besides books but as you are well aware, I have thousands of those and can’t bear to part with them. One day, when I nag you into living with me so someone can make sure you are okay as you get older, I will stick a bedroom on the other end of the long room so I don’t have to deal with you in person unless I want to and you can have all the books you want. Plus I get someone to cook. :D

    • Books are such a storage issue! When I moved a year+ ago, I ended up giving away 80% of mine.

      What stings about not buying books cheap anymore is, when I’m depressed, I read slowly. So the library books are due before I can finish them. When I’m reasonably content, I read fast, but these days, I only finish about 25% of the books I check out. When you own a book, you can take all the time you want.

  2. This reminds me of the “foodie” trend. Obviously cooking from real ingredients is healthier than eating pre-made meals, and ingredients free from pesticides/antibiotics even healthier. While eating locally-grown food and avoiding factory-farmed meat has a far lower environmental footprint.

    But, generally, who is a “foodie”? A middle-to-upper class individual. Wealthy columnists will even blame poor people’s eating habits for their health (even though when poor people have enough money and time to make food at home, they do so more often than rich people, who prefer eating out). And organic ingredients are more expensive (economy of scale).

    There are commendable activists working to help poor people get better access to decent food. One thing they are trying to fix is identifying “food deserts” — urban areas with no access to a grocery store. (That’s a bigger help than planting some urban organic garden, which poor people have no time to participate in.)

    For the most part, though, “foodies” aren’t particularly interested in the nutritional challenges poor people face. (The Whole Foods CEO was a scummy Republican for years, I don’t know if he’s still there.) They’re wearing a badge of nobility by eating at “locally-sourced” chic bistros.

    It’s all the same notion — create an island of people like yourself, for whom certain “lifestyle choices” are a class identifier (being a foodie, a minimalist, going green) while ignoring underlying problems that affect those with less money.

    I searched for “Minnesota minimalism” and didn’t find much, I guess it hasn’t hit here yet (I’m sure it will). I found one guy who preaches its wonders, because “the less stuff I have weighing me down” the easier to “travel whenever and work on my projects from anywhere in the world.” Ye Gods, what an annoying ass.

  3. I miss the selection of posts at the top of the page. There is something to be said for a writer who deals with at least a decade’s worth of depression and does so in an erudite style on completely random topics. The fact that the selected post could be about absolutely anything is what makes it a pleasant place to poke around in. On any given sad stretch, I dunno if I want to read about politics, or movies, or chickens. I just want to read smart writing. I liked the random header for this reason, and I know several people who felt the same way.

    • I’m pretty sure I can bring it back with a plugin. I will do that as soon as I get my problems with the site’s theme worked out. I could easily spend 40 hours a week on this site.

      • I’m pretty sure there’s been times where 40 hours would have seemed like a light week for all the work you put in…

        Just mentioning it because it was something one of Peggy’s friends really liked. Of course, I did too, but when I feel like randomly browsing I just follow the “similar articles”.

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