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16th February 2017

The limits to minimalism

The present-day minimalist movement is making strides in the right direction, but has a number of limitations, writes Tristan Parsons

Minimalism, in the sense of restricting material consumption, has become quite a trend over the last few years. Like many lifestyle movements, it has deep roots in passionate YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, where its proponents can effectively motivate its imagery: that crystal clear photo of a clear desk, or the cleansing idea and action of tidying one’s space.

Beyond this sphere, we can see minimalism variety of other forms: modern music, architecture, and art often channel the basic notion that less is more. One particularly interesting field in which minimalism features heavily is design.

This is best exemplified by Apple’s imagery. For years (though the iPad arguably reversed this trend for a moment, before going the same way) the company held obsession over making their products smaller, whilst at the same time doing more. They continued in the minimalist spirit through their adverts: a simple, upbeat backing track, a white background, a clean thumb, and the product in the middle. And it sold.

The technology sector’s adoption of minimalism was a timely strategy, given the rise of ‘individualist environmentalism’ (turning off the lights, doing the recycling etc.) in the preceding decades. The IT sector managed to sell their energy-guzzling products (partially) on the premise that they did many things with little space.

Here, today’s minimalism comes to a dilemma. It risks failing to adequately take account for the invisible and displaced ‘consumption’ in our lives. The IT sector, again, is the best example of this. Whilst Apple proudly garnishes a white background with their sleek products, the internet that so many of its products run on, though we often ignore the physical infrastructure necessary to its running, consumes 10 per cent of the world’s electricity.

Instead, minimalism picks on easier, though often worthwhile, targets. The clutter that fills living rooms, garages, and bedrooms ought to go. So, too, should the car. Downsize the home, if possible. These are all highly visible forms of consumption. The clutter adds frustration to living in one’s house; the car’s coughing exhaust pipe is visible below the plastic sheen; and housing was the centre of the last financial crash.

These visibilities do not account for the entirety of consumption involved in owning such items. There are rare earth metal components in a phone that the user will never see and likely never get replaced; yet, the mining for such metals is a major driver for the Chinese corporate ‘occupation’ of Mongolia.

I watched one of The Minimalists’ TED talks (though, of course, they do not represent the entire movement) in which they speak highly of the initial transition to minimalism. The strategy recommended is a day-by-day questioning the sentimentality and personal need for each individual item, so that one item is thrown away per day for one month.

But, before this, one must decide to become a minimalist. This moment is potentially a moment of radical politics: a fury with the materialist, modern world, and then relief from its cultures. At such a juncture, one’s perception of possessions (or commodities) are altered. In contrast to the (usually, though not always) calculated action of purchase and product accumulation for specific needs, this radicalism might scream, I don’t need ANY of this stuff.

The items become just that: stuff. Last year, IKEA said that we had “reached peak stuff” — though that claim now appears dubious. The radical within us whines about an apparently universal consumerism, seeks to leave a culture that allegedly pressures us to buy buy buy in every movement, and imagines sped-up film of shoppers scurrying amongst the glass. The patron saints of this feeling are those who go off the grid, who refuse to play the game; they run to the hills — perhaps in angry disgust, perhaps in calm solitude.

Minimalism takes issue with culture and our impact on our planet. We can see these awkward generalisations in popular environmentalism. Bernie Sanders, in his running to be the Democratic candidate in last year’s election, and then kneeling alongside Hillary Clinton on her Presidential campaign, often preached (and continues to preach) that, with regards to climate change, “the debate is over”.

Climate change cannot merely be “accepted”. Sanders, and others, too often present climate change as a singular, unquestionable phenomenon. But is not a singular thing. The expected impacts resulting from the warming of our planet (though itself not universally equal) are intensely varied. The UK will likely suffer from more damaging winter storms, areas of the USA are set to benefit from increased crop yields, and some animal species in the Amazon will become extinct. Though, Sanders’ forcefulness is understandable given that 16 per cent of Americans are still climate change deniers.

Minimalism makes many good points, it bolsters a certain political platform, and is headed in roughly the right direction. But, its radical, generalising potential threatens widespread, ‘common man’ progress towards social and environmental goals. Though it comes at an effort, we ought to recognise the individuality of different actions and their impacts. We need a politics that sees the hills but doesn’t run for them; that knows the severity of our ecological predicament but doesn’t ridicule those who do not ‘accept’ climate change; but, rather, seeks to work with reason in the face of such challenges.

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