Selfish minimalism

I saw an article the other day about a man who had chosen to get rid of all of his possessions except for a fair amount of computer equipment, a couch, and a few odds and ends.  (I’m not linking to the article because I want this post to be about a hypothetical extreme minimalist rather than the specifics of one person’s story that I know almost nothing about.) For a moment such a lack of possessions seems like a virtuous lack of attachment to material goods. But on second thought it seems incredibly selfish.

This man owns only what he personally wants. He has nothing for the benefit of anyone else. He cannot offer anyone a place to sleep, or even a place to sit down. He has nothing to loan to a neighbor. Not only does he have nothing to meet anyone else’s material needs, he is probably a burden on others. I imagine he is able to do without some things because plans to borrow from neighbors or relatives when necessary. Such extreme minimalism would be an interesting exercise, but a sad way to live.

I’m not saying that minimalists are selfish. Minimalism is entirely subjective: each person defines what his or her minimum is. Some take others into consideration when deciding what their minimum should be and some do not. Some even become minimalists in order to have more margin to serve others.

Minimalism becomes ugly when it turns into a more-minimal-than-thou contest.

“Read my blog. I only have 47 things!”

“Buy my book. I have only 39 things!”

“I’ll see your 39 and lower you five!”

In a contest to live with the fewest possessions, one way to get ahead is to jettison anything that only benefits someone else.

Update: See my follow up post clarifying my ideas of minimalism.

Related post:

Poverty versus squalor

21 thoughts on “Selfish minimalism

  1. I believe I saw them same article. Although he had very little stuff, he still had to depend on the goodwill of friends to find a place to sleep at night. That does seem to be “cheating” in that he is really trying to find a balance between what friends will provide for him (shelter, washing facilities?) versus the stuff he wants to have absolute control over (his electronics, bike, …). Didn’t see anything about what he does for clothes or laundry.

  2. “This man owns only what he personally wants. He has nothing for the benefit of anyone else. He cannot offer anyone a place to sleep, or even a place to sit down. He has nothing to loan to a neighbor. Not only does he have nothing to meet anyone else’s material needs, he is probably a burden on others.”
    And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. (Luke 9:58)

    ” I imagine he is able to do without some things because plans to borrow from neighbors or relatives when necessary. Such extreme minimalism would be an interesting exercise, but a sad way to live….
    “In a contest to live with the fewest possessions, one way to get ahead is to jettison anything that only benefits someone else.
    And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. (1 Timothy 6:8)

    This is definitely not why Mr. Sutton did what he did. This does not defend him. Yet there remains a case for minimalism outside of mere selfishness: a case made by two of the most extreme minimalists to have ever lived.

  3. I have never understood the allure of extreme minimalism or the “location independence” memes. Certainly most of us have too much stuff, but these bloggers aren’t talking about that.

    The lone person, usually without a family, with few possessions and without a stable home, wandering around the country or the world has always struck me as a sad picture. If that’s what makes you happy, then by all means do it, but it was never anything I aspired to but rather something I would try to avoid.

    I appreciate my roots and my stable, comfortable home and my family. For my son, I’m glad that I have toys with which he can play and learn and build and a garden where my toddler learns where food comes from and my kitchen and all its accoutrements where I cook him healthy homemade meals and our backyard pool where he lets loose, when he is shy in the community pool. These are the things that make life worth living to me.

  4. I don’t want to come across negative about minimalists in general. I read several people who call themselves minimalists and appreciate what they have to say.

    But I don’t like the name. “Minimal” literally means an extreme. I appreciate moderate minimalists, though strictly speaking that’s a contradiction. A more accurate but unwieldy name might be “people who are keenly aware of the indirect costs of owning stuff.”

  5. We are here on earth to help others. What the others are here for, I have no idea…
    W.H. Aulden
    maybe he is one of the “others” Aulden spoke of

    Pat

  6. This is of course assuming that the minimalists are also freeloaders without conscience that prompts them to reciprocate somehow. Instead of making a nuisance of themselves by regularly borrowing stuff, they could rent the things they need occasionally, or buy them and then sell them on ebay or give them away after it looks like that they won’t be using them again in the immediate future. They could also pay back their friends by helping them clean or cook or buying them lunch when they can’t lend them stuff.

    Most of the superfluous stuff people have probably doesn’t do much good to other people either.

  7. Risto: I’m not saying that my hypothetical extreme minimalist is “without conscience.” He may be more naive than heartless. He may intend to pay for his services, such as having restaurants prepare his meals. But there’s no way to rent everything you need. It’s possible to imagine that this hypothetical person is resourceful and a blessing to those around him. But it’s easier for me to imagine that he’s a nuisance.

    I’m not defending hoarding. I just spent a good portion of my vacation purging stuff from my house. But I think radical minimalism is thoughtless, literally thoughtless in the sense of not giving others a thought.

  8. “I saw an article the other day about a man who had chosen to get rid of all of his possessions except for a fair amount of computer equipment, a couch, and a few odds and ends.  For a moment such a lack of possessions seems like a virtuous lack of attachment to material goods. But on second thought it seems incredibly selfish.”

    Well said, if this sucker can’t appreciate his freedom to be a well behaved guinea-pig, as most of us are, of on borrowed money, of mass marketing consumption that is leading this country closer to its ruin, financially (think subprime) and environmentally (think oil spill), then he is a suspect. Let’s see :

    “Not only does he have nothing to meet anyone else’s material needs, he is probably a burden on others”

    There! You have it.

    By the way, are his neighbors, that he allegedly depends on, paying back their mortgage as best they can, or are they members of the cynical lot (to be found in the upper echelons of society as a recent NYT article has it), that have calculated it would be better to default and therefore offload their problem to society?

  9. Hi everyone,

    I enjoyed reading this post! Interesting point of view, John and actually – yes – I think we read the same article. I wouldn’t have taken into consideration this point of view, maybe because I am influenced by some of my recent readings.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Amber’s reply. The sense of security and of building your own universe through material things (that hold multiple social, cultural and personal meanings) is absolutely essential and I am sure the lack of it was only bearably throughout time if it were replaced by a surreal or transcending experience associated to this minimalist lifestyle.

    I believe though that people will gradually develop more sophisticated, efficient and profitable service-based systems – such as people will only have to “rent” things, as well as heat, energy and transportation. they will own less but get more.

    Interesting reading I would recommend: Green Capitalism, by Paul Hawken.

    Kate.

  10. Ownership, like money, is a social convention. Social conventions can change, evolve and adapt.

    The next logical step would be to earn nothing, on top of owning nothing.

    How could this work? Well. I help you out. In return you feed me. I help out this other guy and he gives me a place to stay. Sounds pretty radical, but it has been going on for centuries. Maybe with technology, we could make it work pretty well for a lot of people without too much inconvenience.

    Sounds radical?

    Maybe your employer is giving you access to a computer with an Internet connection. Maybe they don’t check what you are doing with it, as long it is not surfing porn.

    Maybe your employer provides free coffee. Some employers provide free housing.

  11. You forget the other benefits a minimalist brings. He boosts economic efficiency – by not consuming or going into debt, he is effectively making everyone else’s money more valuable; if he invests his savings, he is even more obviously making everyone better off.

    > He cannot offer anyone a place to sleep, or even a place to sit down.

    What’s wrong with the floor? Many nations throughout history and even now are perfectly happy sitting on the floor.

    As a minimalist, he can offer even more places to sleep than you can, because he has less stuff and hence more space! If he needs bedding for his friends, he can afford it because he didn’t already spend the money on TVs or fancy wine racks or something.

    > Not only does he have nothing to meet anyone else’s material needs, he is probably a burden on others. I imagine he is able to do without some things because plans to borrow from neighbors or relatives when necessary

    If you are willing to imagine anything, you can prove anything.

  12. I saw the same article, but I didn’t see it as him being a burden on society (although you have certainly made me consider that).
    What struck me was something I have long lamented. The lack of bookshelves and record collections to browse.

    Once upon a time, when one was invited to the home of someone one did not know well, one browsed the bookshelves and record collections while the host was cooking. In that way, one learned one’s host’s tastes, and a return invitation allowed the other to learn your tastes in music and reading.

    And in writing this post I realised that is the reason for facebook.
    I got to know people because we interacted enough that one was prepared to invite the other home, where he/she would be able to browse the bookshelves and record/CD collections.
    Now, people do not have bookshelves and CD collections. People learn through facebook and similar sites who they like, and then they invite those people to their house. Does anyone still have a home?

  13. Are you really attempting to accuse a minimalist for not being able to provide something for you?

    And yet you call him selfish?

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