The Problem with the Simple Living Movement

The high priests and priestesses of minimalism don’t know it, but they have a problem. They’re seriously disliked by the majority of people who are struggling to get by. Ordinary people deeply resent the “voluntary” nature of most high-profile minimalists who write about the joys of downsizing on their numerous blogs, or for the New York Times, or Sunset Magazine.

Take for example how Graham Hill starts his New York Times essay titled “Living With Less. A Lot Less.” 

I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.

I have come a long way from the life I had in the late ’90s, when, flush with cash from an Internet start-up sale, I had a giant house crammed with stuff — electronics and cars and appliances and gadgets.

Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me. My circumstances are unusual (not everyone gets an Internet windfall before turning 30), but my relationship with material things isn’t.

Half way into Hill’s story, I started to guess at the vibe of the 329 comments already posted. As David Brooks can confirm, New York Times readers are an unhappy bunch. Hill probably wanted praise, but I’ve seen this car crash enough times to know how it transpires. A lot of readers tore into him. Like Michelle from Chicago:

There is a big difference between choosing minimalism and minimalism being a harsh aspect of daily life. At any moment, Mr. Hill could choose to buy more things. If one of his 6 dress shirts rips, he can simply buy a new one. It’s a far cry from a minimum wage worker who has this lifestyle by default, because there isn’t money to rent a larger apartment or money to replace a torn shirt.

The sad fact of the matter is the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is so great the “have nots” are unable to give any credit to the “haves” for living below their considerable means. I believe Hill and others like him deserve credit for their thoughtful and principled simplicity, but it’s naive for him, for me, for anyone to expect those trying to live month-to-month to cheer well-to-do minimalists for critiquing conspicuous consumption.

I was mindful of this dynamic when commenting on a blog recently. I was responding to a post about the recent highs in the stock market. I wrote that many people are starting to invest in stocks which means it might be a good time to take some profits. And then consciously added, “for those fortunate enough to have them.” If I hadn’t added that phrase, my comment would’ve prompted other replies of the “who has profits these days” variety.

Where does this leave Hill, myself, and many other minimalists who recommend voluntary simplicity? Can it be done without offending? Probably not. Which makes me think maybe we should stop writing about it altogether. Maybe we should just live it and wait to see if anyone asks, “What gives? Why do you live the way you do? Why such a small apartment? Why so few possessions? Why don’t you ever check bags when flying?”

Someone now leave the obvious comment. Nevermind, I’ll do it myself. “What the hell Ron, why do you assume people can afford to fly?”