Is Minimalism Really Sustainable?

It’s easy to live with very few things if you can buy whatever you want.

Empty Room.
Can stuff really be dispensed with so easily?

Photo by iStockphoto/Thinkstock

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master” begins Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” which goes on to demonstrate just how hard the art of losing is to master. Phrases repeat, so every time you think an idea is gone, it resurfaces. The writer comes off as someone so boxed in by hoarded memories that she’d need an intervention to clear them all out.

She should probably call Graham Hill.

In a recent essay in the New York Times Sunday Review, the founder of—and master of the art of losing—describes his transformation from ardent consumer to modern Spartan. It’s a kind of riches-to-rags tale, with a dose of enlightenment thrown in. After he sold his Internet company for millions in the late 1990s, Hill reports, he went on a shopping binge, purchasing homes, cars, gadgets—even hiring a personal shopper named Seven. But his avid materialism failed to flower into happiness. After touring for a time through Barcelona, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, and Toronto with “Olga, an Andorran beauty,” he downsized to a 420-square-foot studio. Now, “I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall,” he writes. “I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes.” (It is not difficult to imagine Hill eating a lot of salads.) “I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.” In sum: “My space is small. My life is big.”

Your tone is smug, a reader might be tempted to add. After the article ran, Slate’s email network lit up with irritation. People applauded the message, especially the commitment to living lightly on the land—but wished all manner of woes (nonorganic lettuces? Irradiated GMOs? Unseasonably warm winters?) upon the messenger. And it wasn’t just the hipper-than-thou details that grated, but the sense that Hill was writing from a socioeconomic blind spot. Didn’t he realize that minimalism might prove, well, expensive? Owning the one übergadget that obviates the need for everything else in your pockets is a luxury. So is dumping out the contents of your junk drawers because, should the need arise for X, you can always go out and buy it. You don’t need duct tape handy if a repairman can finesse that temperamental door hinge for you. A clear-eyed Tumblr post by Charlie Lloyd put it best: “Poor people don’t have clutter because they’re too dumb to see the virtue of living simply; they have it to reduce risk.” 

At the same time, though, Hill has a point. There are plenty of people who amass belongings not because they have to, but because they want to. (The snob effect in economics is an extreme example: It describes situations in which people desire expensive goods because of their higher price tags.) There are those who live in McMansions, cram their garages with unused electronics, glut their closets with clothes. Such conspicuous consumption—and its accompanying waste—not only seems obnoxious, but it can imply unmet psychic needs. In his article, Hill cites studies linking “the consumer mindset” with “negative affect and social disengagement.” (Hill’s quibbles with the consumer mindset do not mean he eschews stuff per se. He promotes, even fetishizes, gadgets and furniture—a portable induction cook top, a “high end futon”—in his lifestyle blog And his ceramic Greek cup business churns out exactly the kind of charming tchotchkes that would likely end up on the trash piles of other would-be minimalists.)

The crusade against excess gets at the suspicion, present everywhere from The Great Gatsby to the movie Wall Street, that most purchases are just “fragments shored up against [our] ruins,” petitions to a void that won’t be filled. As a movement, minimalism has roots in the spiritual asceticism of Zen, Jain, and early Christian philosophies, in Gandhi and John the Baptist, as well as in Greek Epicureanism, which promoted a doctrine of simple living. It’s been practiced by luminaries from Tolstoy to Henry David Thoreau to Gary Snyder. In 1936, the American scholar Richard Gregg coined the term “voluntary simplicity” to describe a lifestyle purged of the inessential. His ideas gained new life in 2007, when the San Francisco entrepreneur Dave Bruno launched the 100 Thing Challenge. Bruno pledged to reduce his earthly possessions to just 100 items. As he blogged about his quest for freedom from consumerism, others took note. A campaign was born. Today, minimalism continues to gain traction, especially in green culture and online, where a circle of blogs and discussion forums spreads the gospel “Own less. Live more.”

Hill’s essay is not the first simple-living manifesto to appear in the New York Times. In 2006, the paper ran a story on Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, the founder of Apartment Therapy, who at the time lived with his wife, Kate, and their infant daughter, Ursula, in “a 265-square-foot, one-bedroom rental on Bedford Street in the West Village.” The decision to renovate the tiny space during Kate’s pregnancy, rather than move someplace larger, “was influenced by Mr. Gillingham-Ryan’s role as founder and guiding spirit” of Apartment Therapy. That site “favors modernist rooms with an inviting but decidedly simple look … efficient rooms in which acquisition is carefully considered, and splurges are held in abeyance,” the article said. To remain comfortable in their squeezed digs, the couple exchanged a full-size refrigerator for an under-the-counter model and allowed in the living room a “single piece of upholstered furniture”—a rocking chair. They shared one closet. “It helps to keep your life well-edited,” Kate Gillingham-Ryan told the paper, using language eerily predictive of Hill’s.

But can stuff really be dispensed with so easily? Especially as you acquire a spouse and/or children, is minimalism (to borrow another of the movement’s favorite words) sustainable?

It depends. Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan is now divorced and shares custody of Ursula. After the 265-square-footer, he lived in a 480-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment, but it grew too small, so he recently moved to “a two-bedroom a little farther away.” In June, in an article titled “Tree by Tree, Yurt by Yurt” and subtitled “In East Hampton, the founder of Apartment Therapy learns from his design mistakes,” he shows reporter Elaine Louie around his family’s 18-acre property. He’s helped decorate a barn, six yurts, and a two-story house. Louie summarizes Gillingham-Ryan’s new aesthetic: “More important than perfection … is a home that feels expansive and approachable. And luxurious … it creates a feeling of abundance.” What about minimalism, its streamlined, utilitarian elegance? Well, Gillingham-Ryan told Louie, “people love restaurants because the kitchens are practical and simple.” But even better is the “sense of plenty: lots of wine, lots of candles.”  

Or take Everett Bogue, another seeming apostate from the minimalist church. According to his e-book, “The Art of Being Minimalist,” which is no longer available online, Bogue had an epiphany in 2009 that led him to quit his New York job, sell his possessions, and wander around the world. Yet after three years of living out of one bag (and feverishly blogging about his experiences), Bogue had had enough. “Fuck Minimalism,” he wrote in a valedictory post on his blog, Beyond the Stars. (The blog has since been deleted.) “Minimalism was cool for a while. Now, it’s simply the echo of a revolution that once was.” Though a lively chorus of minimalist writers begged to differ, many granted that their practice of the art was less extreme than Bogue’s. “The next time someone tells you to throw everything away, laugh,” instructed one such blogger. “You know the wisdom of moderation.”

Moderation is a watchword for Dave Bruno, inventor of the 100 Thing Challenge. These days, Bruno lives in California with his wife, three children, and “about 130 to 140 personal items,” he says. He’s no longer practicing the challenge, but its lessons remain: He finds himself less reliant on shopping to relieve stress. He takes walks, gardens, spends time with his family. Bruno prefers the term simple living to minimalism, because he thinks you can own a fair number of items and still adhere to the philosophy—as might an artist with an extensive supply of paints. For him, simple living is about “refusing the consumer culture that tells us we won’t be happy or satisfied unless we continually get stuff.”

Though Bruno’s wife and kids didn’t participate in the challenge and do not consider themselves minimalists, he says it wasn’t too difficult for him to pare down his routine. (He acknowledges that objects shared among family members, like a kitchen table, don’t count toward his total number of possessions.) He is determined to live “a normal life, with a normal job and a normal suburban house. If you shadowed me for a day, there’s nothing about my existence that would seem super minimalist,” he explains. Does he ever relapse? Not often, but “last Christmas, I bought supplies to do lino-cuts, which are like wood carvings made of linoleum,” he admits. “I fell into the idea that if I buy the stuff, I’ll do the thing that I want to do.”

Stuff, it turns out, is pretty easy to defend. It can be useful. It can be evocative. It can embody, as one colleague phrased it, “memories and pacts and connections.” Ancient gods and goddesses had accoutrements that symbolized their power: Mercury carried a wand. Poseidon bore a trident. Demeter hauled around wreaths and fruit. “No ideas but in things,” insisted William Carlos Williams, voicing the mantra of the Imagists (not to mention Snooki and the Kardashians).

As for Bishop’s poem, “One Art” is a villanelle, the poetic form most suited to addicts because of the way its repeated lines enact a relapse. It’s the poetic form most suited to hoarders because it never lets anything go. There are exceptions like Dave Bruno, but for most of us, the things we try to lose keep returning to haunt us.

All of which is to say: Graham Hill, I’ve got my fingers crossed for you. I hope you can lead “a bigger, better, richer life with less.” But if you can’t, and you wind up backsliding into clutter along with the rest of us, that’s no disaster.