Trained to cope with scarcity, we have struggled with abundance.
In 1991, the average American bought 34 items of clothing each year. By 2007, they were buying 67 items every year. It means Americans buy a new piece of clothing every four to five days.
Minimalism is not defined by what is not there but by the rightness of what is and the richness of what is experienced.
I often think that there are two macro-trends that have shaped the contours of my life: globalization and the rise of the Internet. Without those two sweeping trends I wouldn’t have the same job, friends, fiancee, lifestyle, intellectual interests. The life I live today simply wasn’t possible 20 years ago. Of course, that is true for us all. But in my case I think the difference is amplified.
James Wallman’s book, Stuffocation, has convinced me that there is a third macro trend that has also defined much of my life, but with more subtlety than globalization or the Internet — and that is post-materialism.
Like most of my generation, I grew up surrounded by shit. As my family climbed the household income ladder from lower-middle class to middle class to upper-middle class, we collected more and more material objects that no one wanted and no one used. There were bags of clothes from discount stores like TJ Maxx, cheap electronics that were thrown out after a couple months, dollar books from Barnes and Noble that nobody read.
It led to a personal rebellion against stuff that, for me, is encapsulated in a single memory from college when I was working in a San Diego coffee shop. It was early 2003, I was just about to graduate from college, and I have a vivid memory of a twentysomething sitting at a table with his 12-inch PowerBook G4, a Canon EOS digital camera, and his latte. The laptop, camera and lens cost more than $3,500 — about three months of work for me at the time. There was no way I could afford it, but I vividly remember thinking that I wouldn’t spend my money on anything else until I was able to purchase a good laptop and digital camera. I didn’t want any other objects in my life. I only wanted to live as many experiences as possible and then document them through my writing and photography.
Indeed, that is more or less what I did from 2003 until around 2010. All of my belongings fit into a single suitcase. Two pairs of pants, four or five shirts, one pair of shoes and one pair of running shoes. I had achieved the ideal of post-materialism. My life was based on experiences and social connections, not material objects.
Wallman’s book is part prophecy and part preaching. Not only does he think we will increasingly trade in 20th century materialism for 21st century “experiatialism;” he argues (with admittedly scant evidence) that we’ll be happier as a result. The book introduced me to an online community and genre of blogs I had never heard of: the new minimalists. Just as active as other niche corners of the internet, like the GTD productivity freaks, you can find these new minimalists on blogs like Becoming Minimalist, Slow Your Home, Zen Habits, Unclutter, and, sure enough, The Minimalists. Once I started to dig deeper I also found, inevitably, a New York Times Sunday Review op-ed by Treehugger.com founder Graham Hill on minimalism. Of course, there was also a Slate.com critique calling Hill’s essay elitist.
There is perhaps irony that there is so much online noise about minimalism, but for Wallman, it’s also evidence of a sea change in social norms. Instead of showing off their latest shiny gadgets, these new minimalists are competing with one another to see who can own less.
Wallman is sympathetic to the biological and structural obstacles that stand in the way of our aspiration toward minimalism. “The idea that we are making decisions in an age of abundance using mental tools honed in an age of scarcity might seem obvious,” he admits, but it is our greatest psychological hurdle to resisting the temptation to consume and hoard. Even if we are able to transcend our inherent biological impulses, our capitalist system depends on consumerism. For Wallman:
Materialism, and the consumer culture and capitalist system it underpinned, was the right idea for the right time. It meant that the masses, for the first time in human history, lived in abundance rather than scarcity. It gave us washing machines, TVs, and indoor toilets. It delivered clean water, the welfare state, and health care that has improved the length and quality of our lives.
Indeed, the consumerist society is one of Niall Ferguson’s six factors to explain “the rise of the West.” Notes Wallman: “In the sixty years since the Civil War’s end, the population had increased by a factor of three, from 35 to 114 million. Over the same period, output had risen between twelve and fourteen times.”
The culmination of 150 years of mass-manufacturing is portrayed in the 2007 viral online video, The Story of Stuff:
Even more poignant is the Life at Home in the 21st Century, a 2001 – 2005 study by UCLA’s Center on the Everyday Lives of Families to understand how 32 middle-class families handle “material culture.” Clutter led to spikes in stress hormones, lower productivity, conflicts between spouses and their children. Yet, despite the clear connection between stuff and stress, the families continued their weekend trips to bulk stores to buy more than they could ever consume.
Wallman finds some evidence that finally we have reached peak consumption in rich countries:
We may have reached the apex of our (over)consumption on clothes as well. After decades of going up, perhaps we have reached “peak clothes”. In 2007, the average American bought almost twice as many items of clothing each year compared to 1991. But by 2012, the number they were buying had stopped rising, and had even fallen slightly, from 67 to 64 items.
With the rise of the “sharing economy” today’s youth are growing up subscribed to Netflix, Spotify, and Zipcar rather than purchasing DVDs, CDs and a new car. Social media incentivize us to show off our experiences much more than our latest shopping spree.
I came away from Stuffocation a convert. I’ve made various changes in my own life to aspire to greater minimalism, and to prioritize experiences over material objects. But I was left with a couple questions that were also raised at Wallman’s lecture at the Royal Society of Arts. Stuffocation points to community events and performance art as examples of the “new experience economy,” but it seems like a more realistic scenario is comprised of video games and virtual reality. One member of the RSA audience mentioned that he invited his son on a rafting trip down the Zambezi River. “That’s OK dad; I can just watch videos on YouTube,” was his son’s response. My other doubt is whether the experience economy can replace all those jobs being left behind by the decline of the manufacturing economy. Wallman addresses this concern by citing similar alarmist concerns by the Luddites at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Sure, the textile artisans lost their jobs. But the Industrial Revolution ended up creating more middle class jobs than could ever be imagined at the time.
Surely the future will also reward certain types of workers, but it takes a leap of faith to imagine an experience economy job market as vibrant as that of the manufacturing economy.