The soul-cleansing potential of 21st-century minimalism
By Maureen Tant
Until about 2008, there was a popular idea in the United States dictating hard work (or any work) should be handsomely rewarded.
For a while, those rewards were pretty great—big houses, nice cars, and confidence that the country was strong.
That philosophy of excess didn’t work out. In the early stages of the recession, consumers began to wean themselves off gas, and the Environmental Protection Agency noted reduced energy usage among the general population (likely due to sudden cost-awareness).
The United States is still adjusting to a persistent taste for conspicuous consumerism in face of this awareness, but for a discriminating minority, this has been an opportunity to re-prioritize. Instead of trying to repair stasis, they aim to whittle their property to only the most essential or efficient possessions—to clean up rather than spread out. “The pendulum is swinging,” said software engineer Kelly Sutton.
Sutton is the founder of Cult of Less. He is what the BBC called a “21st-century minimalist,” meaning that though he participates in society, he separates himself from its more odious consumption practices.
When Sutton began his project on cultofless.com, his goal was to reduce his life to two suitcases and two boxes, a goal he has since achieved by selling or giving away all but the essentials: a Macbook, a Kindle, two chairs, a few books, a few outfits, and on. You can read the full list of everything Sutton owns, plus what he’s given away, on his website.
“I’ve successfully whittled down my belongings to about two suitcases and two small-ish boxes. It’s made travelling and moving a cinch. It’s nice to know that everything I own is currently sitting in my closet and on a few shelves in my room. Not in public storage. Not at my parents’ house,” he wrote on the Cult of Less blog (cultofless.tumblr.com).
That phrase—“it’s nice to know…”—implies a peace of mind that might seem suspicious. Because we can live virtually, we have no need for physical photographs, music (in the form of CDs, etc.), or DVDs. This is cost-effective in the short term, but long-term immersion in digital media has also been associated with depression, anxiety, and general maladjustment in teenagers, according to the University of Delaware’s 2002 study, as well as a number of studies on youth culture and the internet.
Everyone knows the Internet is brilliant, convenient and environmentally-friendly, but if we don’t discipline ourselves, it can create stress, too.
Sutton hasn’t found his lifestyle more stressful than a conventional one, however. In fact, he sees it as an opportunity to reduce stress.
“It would be very difficult to keep 50,000 letters. 50,000 e-mails are manageable, and you can search them for a single phrase instead of trying to remember which of the 50,000 letters has your information.”
If a person did have 50,000 physical letters, though, they wouldn’t have to deal with temptations as dynamic as Twitter and Facebook. As a response to this idea, Sutton quoted Internet expert Clay Shirky, “There is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure.”
Out of context, this comment might appear to be referencing human error, but in the complete interview, Shirky refers to the disorganized nature of the Internet. “If you took the contents of an average Barnes and Noble, and you dumped it into the streets and said to someone, ‘You know what’s in there? There’s some works of Auden in there, there’s some Plato in there. Wade on in and you’ll find what you like.’ And if you wade on in, you know what you’d get? You’d get Chicken Soup for the Soul. Or, you’d get Love’s Tender Fear. You’d get all this junk. The reason we think that there’s not an information overload problem in a Barnes and Noble or a library is that we’re actually used to the cataloging system.
“On the Web, we’re just not used to the filters yet, and so it seems like, ‘Oh, there’s so much more information.’ But, in fact, from the 1500s on, that’s been the normal case.
“So, the real question is, how do we design filters that let us find our way through this particular abundance of information?”
It may be simplest to think of Cult of Less as one such filter. “Living more with less” is the website’s tagline. A healthier approach to spending more time online might be focusing on living more rather than making your internet usage an exercise in resistance.
In essence, extending Sutton’s minimalist practices to virtual interaction is a possible solution. This means not only do your possessions reflect the objects most essential in creating happiness, but every action is meant to contribute to a simpler, more vibrant existence.
Looking at 21st-century minimalism as a vehicle for inner peace is more in tune with what Sutton had in mind when he started the project. He wasn’t aiming for sustainability, at least not at first.
In the description for his website, Sutton wrote, “While I don’t consider myself to be some sort of ascetic or societal recluse, I’ve found that more stuff equates to more stress. Each thing I own came with a small expectation of responsibility. I look into my closet and feel guilt. I glance into my desk drawers and see my neglect. When was the last time I wore this? Have I ever even used that?”
Jake Brenner, professor of environmental studies and sciences at Ithaca College, noted a positive aspect of this project is it isn’t merely a performance of extremes, which tend to achieve the opposite of the desired effect. “There are more ways to make a difference than living on Walden Pond,” he said, meaning Sutton’s approach is a middle ground between typical consumerism and cutting oneself off completely.
Brenner was somewhat wary of the guilt aspect of Sutton’s motivation, however. Sutton’s response to guilt is easy to misinterpret as regret, or even hope in preventing the rest of the world from repeating the West’s history. “We don’t have the right to say developing countries can’t have what we have, and they shouldn’t feel guilty about trying to achieve that,” Brenner said.
While Sutton’s method of simplification is ideal for people looking for a purpose or at least trying to make every movement purposeful, we shouldn’t project it so far. It’s best to take these things lightly—Sutton recommends adapting it to fit your living situation and schedule. (“Definitely try it your senior year,” was his advice to college kids considering a Cult of Less-esque lifestyle.)
Living with less could be a step toward inner peace and a purer, cleaner existence, but it should be an individual one. If reducing your belongings represents an act of environmentalism, aim for equanimity rather than judgment.
Maureen Tant is a freshman Cinema and Photography major who thinks she can live more with more just fine. Email her at email@example.com