On Minimalism by Ivy Helman


untitledOne of the concerns of ecofeminism is the modern materialistic mindset of capitalism. Materialism in capitalism instills not just owning many possessions, but it also inculcates the “need” to own the newest innovation. In addition, materialism advocates a throw-it-away mentality. In other words, it is often cheaper to buy a new shirt or computer than to have them repaired. Similarly, it is not enough to have a cell phone. Rather, one must have the newest and best one! The environment pays the price.

One attempt to deny the hold of materialism is minimalism. The minimalist movement seems to run the spectrum. From the ideals of less is more, there seems to be some competition between mindful consumerism and extreme self-denial. Mindful consumerism suggests that minimalism is a journey of recycling, reusing and repairing combined with well-researched, well-considered, as-ethically-produced-as-possible purchases when necessary. Extreme self-denial advocates owning almost no material possessions. While I strive toward mindful consumerism, I have serious concerns about extreme minimalism.

Extreme minimalism seems to be an elitist club’s competition over who can own the least. In the extreme minimalist community that one encounters online, many own almost nothing, but the few possessions, they do own, are often top-of-the-line. For example, their one pair of shoes might be Xero Shoes. One pair of these Xeros range in price from 40 to 90 dollars. In addition, many have a Macbook Air, the newest video camera out there, a smartphone and a beautiful name-brand backpack. Most follow strict organic and raw vegan diets and live in warm climates which makes year-round access to fresh produce easier and eliminates the need for seasonal clothing, bedding and the like. Furthermore extreme minimalists are often young, healthy, able-bodied and have no dependents. I often wonder what friends or family of extreme minimalists do during visits when they’d like a drink of water and there are no cups or need to sit in a chair because they struggle with mobility and there are none.

This type of minimalism requires a certain amount of money, ability, health as well as an appropriate location. This isn’t minimalism. This is privilege.

Perhaps an example will help. The other day I was watching a youtube video in which an extreme minimalist was debating about getting rid of one of his two pairs of gifted jeans considering the second pair unnecessary. Really? Clearly, that minimalist lives in the type of economic security that if he really needed another pair, he could easily buy or be gifted one. Most people do not have that luxury.

Privilege like this is often disguised as chosen, righteous anti-materialism, but, in reality, it is dripping with self-denial, self-control and “self-sacrifice.” It is patriarchal and has little to do with environmental consciousness and more to do with self-help, competition and bragging rights.

Nonetheless, I think there is something to be said for aspects of anti-materialism in one’s life, especially among the privileged. As I said before, I advocate mindful consumerism. Yet, it requires more than just mindful consumerism to fix capitalism and its materialism because sometimes no matter how hard one tries to live up the ideals of recycle, reuse, repair, and ethical purchasing, it doesn’t always work. This is the case when items are cheaper to buy new than to fix. It is also true when the most ethically-made products are also the most expensive or when recycling requires a car-trip to the junkyard which happens to only be open the same hours as your work schedule. Did I mention that you don’t own a car and neither do any of your neighbors? Opting out of the system is not enough and giving in is also not the answer. Rather, the system itself has to change.

Chris Crittenden suggests incorporating aspects of Buddhist practice into society can help to change capitalism (in an article in The Journal of Business Ethics from March 2000 entitled, “Ecofeminism Meets Business: A Comparison of Ecofeminist, Corporate, and Free Market Ideologies”). Drawing on the writings of Stephen Gould and E. F. Schumacher that combine business ethics and Buddhism, Crittenden suggests that Buddhism aligns with ecofeminism. “Some of the goals of this inward-turning [Buddhist mindfulness and meditation] are the development of empathy, a compassionate attitude toward all sentient beings, and an ability to ‘recognize and understand suffering in all its aspects and dimensions, both obvious and subtle.” (See Gould, “Buddhist perspective on business ethics,” 63) These goals cohere with ecofeminist efforts to expand awareness, transfigure self-consciousness and instigate virtuous caring relations between persons, communities, and ecosystems. Buddhism also ‘focuses on the interdependence and interconnectedness of all people and of all things,’ again, linking with ecofeminist doctrine (Gould, 67),” (61). Crittenden is suggesting that mindfulness practice will help people to be aware of how their actions impact others as well as the planet. For him, mindfulness leads to a kind of capitalism that aligns with eco-feminism, eco-feminist capitalism (60).

Crittenden’s advocacy of the need to cultivate certain values in order to change the system is a step in the right direction. However, the idea that capitalism can be ecofeminist is not convincing. That is, unless it is one step toward walking away from capitalism altogether.

Moreover, Buddhism is not the only religious tradition that advocates the cultivation of the principles of empathy, awareness, compassion and caring. It is also not the only tradition that understands the interconnectedness and interdependence of it all. Nonetheless, I agree with Crittenden that these ecofeminist values align with religious values. They are also fundamental to mindful consumerism and its efforts to reduce, recycle, reuse and repair. However, I can see no connection between privileged extreme minimalism and the values of empathy, awareness, compassion and caring.

Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses.  She is an Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years there as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Religious and Theological Studies Department. 

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Categories: consumerism, Ecofeminism, environment, Feminism and Religion, General, Interdependence of Life, Poverty, religion, sustainability

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9 replies

  1. life is beautiful what i say simply because all is done today et what i say is obvious that means every thing is done without all i know that’s why i say all the stuff around midnight and i go to bed tout be all right

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  2. Very sound advice ; we can live without being mad consumers or crazy life style addicts. Moderation in all things sums it up well.

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  3. It seems to me that a balance of possessing is as good as balance in anything else. Minimalism, if it’s taken to extremes (which you do not promote), seems a bit masochistic to me. You’ve got the answer: mindful consumerism. Thanks!

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  4. On minimalism, it’s almost a dictum in Zen that less is more. A wonderful Zen friend tweeted this recently: “Every single thing you experience must slip through your hands. Try not to hold on so tight that you get dragged down.”

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  5. Isn’t it amazing how we humans can make the self the center of everything! It’s the missing relational values of empathy, compassion,awareness, and caring that make radical consumerism so pathetic.

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  6. Wow! Amazing. I love your critique of privilege that is often within Instagram-worthy minimalism, yet that you still find value in the idea. Every “way” could use a little mindfulness. This is so well-written and exciting. Absolutely many spiritual traditions give helpful guidance on ethical economics/materialism. Thank you!

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  7. Interesting piece. I absolutely agree that sometimes people need more possessions due to disabilities, or to accommodate others with them, or simply to accommodate guests etc in general. And also that being extremely minimalist generally requires financial security, and living in a warm climate. Interesting reflections on the whole concept of minimalism.

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  8. I agree about the privileged, implicitly (young, single, healthy, rich) male minimalists. There’s something distinctly asinine about trumpeting your superior lifestyle while mooching a bed from your buddies. “Lucky for you,” I think, “that your buddy has condescended to own an extra coffee mug on your behalf.” Moreover, I wonder very much whether his buddy’s wife is washing his clothes, or fixing him food, or giving up her favorite evening drama because he’s sleeping in her living room. Perhaps his buddy’s wife is too modern for these activities, but in my experience, they creep up on a woman.

    Personally, I’ve been considering minimalism as revolt against the patriarchy, a revolt specific to me and my own life. I don’t want to spend one more minute buying things and washing things and vacuuming things and putting things away and creating the general impression that I have a staff of gardeners and cooks and maids and nannies, when what I actually have is a passel of poorly made appliances and a family whose housekeeping habits are just as slovenly as my own. I can’t help but think that, short of an act of arson, fewer rooms–fewer baseboards–fewer toys–fewer clothes–fewer dishes–fewer sets of sheets–are the answer to half my troubles. And while I know not everyone has the luxury of throwing good money away in the form of a little-used panini maker, I also know I own one of those and it’s taking up room in the linen closet because I couldn’t find space in my kitchen for it.

    What I want is a minimalism for women. This minimalism would prioritize the creation of a life that is the right size for one or two mere mortals to maintain. I suspect such a minimalism would actually be revolutionary. In needing less, using less, we would oppress less. In embracing sufficiency we might just make greed less socially acceptable. And, as we will certainly not want to let our partners shove all the domestic work back onto us just because there is less of it to do, we will have to force a big, salutary change on the whole economic system. Employers will have to stop believing in WIVES*, those semi-mythical beings who wrangle children and domestic details for free so that non-wives can work 60 hours a week (if you are a salaried professional) or several part-time jobs (if you are not). Instead everyone will be decently paid for working a reasonable number of hours, leaving enough free time to manage their own modest lives . . .

    *a category that is not, obviously, limited to actual wives. As far as I can tell, all employers assume you have someone in the background you can rely on to take care of your children when they get sick and can’t go to daycare, or run your elderly mother to the doctor’s–probably because she caught what they had, because she usually is that person–etc. And if you are single and childless, they assume you have no private life at all, which is possibly worse.

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