One 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.