If the queue is anything to go by, Sydney is craving Minimalism. Or The Minimalists at least, who’ve amassed a digital following of over 3 million in a handful of years.
It’s a pleasant spring evening as we head to the largest lecture theatre on the university campus that the duo could muster. Ten minutes before the start of their talk, the room has filled up and the line of those now waiting for the second sitting snakes around the corner.
By the time we file in an hour and a half later the headcount for the evening tips over a thousand. Ryan and Joshua move into gear to tell their story for the second time that night. Sydney is the 97th city on their 100-city tour of free talks around the world. They’re tired but still generous.
The audience is predominantly twenty-somethings with a smattering of over 50’s. Ryan begins his story of life in the nine to five grind, an apartment full of stuff and discontent in his heart. Before he turned 30 he’d packed up his life and given most of it away, heading off with his minimalist friend Joshua to write a book in a cabin in Montana.
Joshua takes the mic and reads from chapter three (why? Because chapter two will make him cry, it’s about the month that his mother died and his marriage ended). Then it’s time for questions. Some are confused, others gush but the predominant one is unasked. As the audience streams out I hear “I need a how-to guide”, “what do they live on so they can fly around the world for a year?” and “but how do you actually do it:”
What The Minimalists are doing isn’t new; it’s only the packaging that has changed. Of greater interest to me, is not so much the message but their delivery. The Simplicity movement has been around since the 1970’s, with resurgence in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. I became a ‘convert’ back in 1998 when contemplating taking on a mortgage solo, while at the same time choosing to drop a part-time lecturing job. Decrease my income when taking on a six-figure debt – was I crazy?
It seemed to me there was no point buying bricks and mortar if the lifestyle the debt entailed was contrary to what the home represented. Owning a house would be my safe harbour in an over-stimulated world. It was a calm and nourishing environment to return to after a day caring for others. Most of all it provided some kind of freedom, where I could grow a vegetable garden without the risk of a landlord revoking my tenure before the first harvest.
The most sensible solution to working less while paying a mortgage was to prioritise how I used rest of my variable income. Simplicity, in it’s many manifestations, provided an answer. It encouraged me to think before I bought anything. To consider if I could rent or borrow rather than buy. To think about the quality and longevity of an object, to make do but not in a hair shirt kind of way.
The Simplicity movement covers a wide spectrum of ways people implement the basic philosophy. Some people carefully consider the life cycle of stuff, from the raw ingredients to final degradation from an ecological perspective. Unlike Ryan, I didn’t radically cull my stuff. Instead I’ve learned to carefully consider before acquiring any new possession (more often than not, let’s face it no one is perfect) and to more consciously dispose of those I no longer required, usually via Freecycle rather than landfill.
Many proponents of Simplicity are fans of ‘make or make do’. Far from minimalist, there are countless blogs dedicated to a kind of ‘eco hoarding’, swapping luxe stores for op shopping, while other share recipes for home bottling and patterns for knitting dishcloths. It’s a broad church.
When I took the brave step to let go of a regular stream of income, I found I worked more efficiently in my own business. There was more energy for interacting with clients when there wasn’t a pile of assignments following me around needing to be marked. No longer needing to find time to prepare four hours of lectures a week freed up a lot of space, physically, mentally and emotionally. Without having to increase my consulting hours, I was surprised to find I was earning more money but still chose to prioritise my spending.
My priorities might seem luxurious. Buying organic produce is far from frugal but one based on what I believe will benefit not only my own health but that of the planet. When I need new clothes for work I tend to choose good quality garments that can be worn for many seasons. I’ve learned more about what styles and colours suit me, to overcome sale-buyers remorse. A dress that doesn’t properly fit is still an ill-fitting dress that ultimately doesn’t get worn, regardless of it being a ‘bargain’.
I bought an espresso machine. Though I rarely have more than one coffee a day, I find the take away culture inherently wasteful, let alone paying the highly inflated price per cup. A week’s worth of beans costs about the same as one shot in a café.
Conscious consumption is different from poverty. The first is a choice, while the second is a consequence of global politics. Minimalism is essentially a privileged first world option; the underlying philosophy though is deceptively revolutionary. During the hour oration capitalism never got a mention. But if we analyse our motivation to buy, very little of the stuff that most of us accumulate comes from a place of genuine need. We’re exposed to thousands of marketing messages a day. The exact number is disputed but the US statistic ranges from 1,00- 5,000 a day, often subliminal. Even if you don’t notice the ads popping up in your Facebook feed or sponsored blog posts parodying social commentary, they still mould many of our consumer choices. A glossy magazine or its online lifestyle website equivalent creates a desire for anything from green smoothies to scatter cushions. You thought your newfound love of kale was entirely your choice? Think again (and this time just plant some silverbeet instead).
Living in one of the most expensive, and some would say superficial, cities on the planet; it’s heartening to find such a hunger for less. While The Minimalists may not have delivered the ‘how to’ guide for creating a new life, hopefully they’ve sparked thousands of conversations around the world about the possibility of creating one.