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An example of extreme minimalism?

Posted by on Thursday 26 January 2012 in anti-consumerism, decluttering | 12 comments

Last week, my t’other half John sent me a link to a quite old article by a guy who has pared down his possessions to just “15 things”.

(John came across the article on a geeky news-sharing site and the discussion on there is more interesting than the comments on the blog itself – albeit a lot more longwinded/bitchy now than when I first looked at it last week.)

There are a few people pointing out that he’s not got 15 things – one thing is a “toiletry kit” and he also says he has “couple things not on the list – like socks and underwear – that [he] can easily replace and could not resell for any value” but the exact number is unimportant really because the main point is that, as he says, he’s gone from an overconsumer to a extreme minimalist, who spends his days “traveling, living a pretty simple life”.

What stood out from his list of things (as it stood in May last year) is how nearly everything is listed by brand: from his “Arc’teryx Miura 30 backpack” and “NAU shirt” to his “iPhone 3GS” and “Macbook Air”. Perhaps he’s making a point about having few good quality items (I don’t know if that backpack and shirt are good quality but the backpack costs £120 and the cotton shirts £75+) and just because you’re minimalist doesn’t mean you have to be frugal, but it smacks to me of brand fetishism. (He posted an update last week after the new round of attention and now has 39 things – his phone has been upgraded, we know the make of his new laptop bag and the £75+ shirt is no more.)

Other people on geeky discussion board point out that by while he doesn’t own as much stuff – like pans & cutlery, furniture or bedsheets – as most of us do, he’s using his money and/or goodwill to temporarily rent those things (at restaurants or hotels) – or outsourcing the renting/ownership of those things to friends he’s staying with. A few years ago, a friend of ours was living in a fully furnished rented flat – which included everything from his bed to the cutlery in the kitchen drawers: he didn’t technically own that stuff but he was able to make full use of it, much like this guy making full use of his friends’ sofas and household appliances. I’m also reminded about our friend of a friend who throws his change in the bin — he also used to buy CDs, rip them to his laptop then throw them in the bin too: he still “owned” the music just not the physical medium.

There are obviously lots of definition arguments too about what is minimalism & what is a simple life and I guess I do have to give the guy some props for actually changing his life around, but it seems to me that his life still seems as defined by “stuff” as it was back in the day. It also reminds me of what I’ve said before about people going extreme to compensate for previous behaviour – the hair shirt to atone for your sins – which I personally don’t think is a good idea.

Oh I didn’t mean to spend so much time waffling and being negative! I just wanted to introduce the article to you guys, to see what you thought about it. I know a lot of people who read this blog are frugal, just-in-case hoarders but also have a lot of stuff to allow off-grid/”self-sufficient” activities (even just less extreme stuff like making our own food from scratch), so in many ways, we’re the opposite of Mr 15 Things while still living “pretty simple lives” — and that’s why I’m especially interested in what you have to say!

Have you heard about this guy or anyone else living an “extreme minimalist” lifestyle? What do you think about it? Do you think they serve as inspiring examples for the rest of us clutterers?


Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Chiot's Run

    Interesting, I’ve met people like this and it always kinda cracks me up. People that promote one of their activities as being so good, yet when you really look at it they’re worse than most. For him I guess not having a few things is a good thing, but I’m guessing he’s not sitting around his house all day, growing a garden out back, squirreling away for winter. He’s jet setting around the world talking about how much better he is because he doesn’t have stuff. I’m guessing he wouldn’t survive long staying in one place without being able to rely on others to supply him with the things he doesn’t “need”.

    We each have to find what works for us.
    I don’t have a cell phone, I do have a macbook.
    I don’t have a toiletry kit, I use the same soap for everything.
    I don’t jet set around the world, I’d rather stay home & read a free book from the library.
    I don’t go out to eat as I like to know exactly what’s going into my body.
    I don’t go to the grocery store, I go to my backyard.

    Minimalism is not for me, but ironically I probably use less than this guy.

    PS – I do love a good NAU shirt, wearing one of their wool sweatshirts now :)

  2. Candi @ minhus

    Much of the fuss of these kinds of articles seem to be from people who see that by highlighting someone who chooses to live differently than the majority, that somehow this person is saying the majority is wrong. We (which includes me btw) need to stop our obsessive need to classify everything as right or wrong, good or bad, etc.

    If extreme minimalism works for this guy, then great. At this point in my life I prefer to have a cosy landing spot and things that make me happy, but to live in a home stuffed full of things would be stressful. Someday I may want to take another approach.

    I think it’s good to see examples of people who live differently than we do. It’s good to question our own norms, even if doing so only leads to the conclusion that we prefer what we’ve been doing all along.

  3. Rachel

    I had a look at the article before reading your comments, and I was struck by the brand names, too. I then searched around his website for something telling me what the point of his minimalism is, and either he has a really badly organised site, or he doesn’t actually have a point. As far as I can tell, he got rid of all his stuff for the sake of travelling light, and has found that life is simpler when he’s not thinking about stuff all the time.

    The point about him not needing household stuff because he uses other people’s is a good one. I’ve thought that about Buddhist monks, too. They live with no possessions because society values them enough to support them. This guy exchanges work/friendship/money for the things he needs in the same way as those of us with fully equipped houses do.

    I think the concepts of minimalism, frugality, anti-consumerism and greenness (i.e. low impact living) living tend to get mixed up, when they’re not actually the same thing. When you say, “minimalist” to me, the first thing that comes to mind is an image of a large, white, uncluttered apartment. This is an (expensive) aesthetic style that has nothing to do with any of the other things I mentioned. The guy in the article does seem to have made a move away from consumerism, in that he no longer considers buying things all the time. That must reduce his impact somewhat, though he doesn’t seem to aspire to a low-impact lifestyle.

    Personally I’m a bit suspicious of minimalism. I think that once it goes beyond, “Stop buying stuff all the time!” it doesn’t have much to offer in terms of anti-consumerism, frugality, or greenness. On the other hand, each to his own. If people find a minimalist lifestyle suits them, that’s fine. I just don’t find it terribly relevant to anything I’m interested in.

    • Taphophile

      Well put, Rachel.

      We have made the choice to buy things that are an investment/enhancement to our lives. So a canoe bought at the tip shop is an investment in lower-impact entertainment and exercise as well as improving our ability to fish for our own food. Similarly, the jam kettle I bought yesterday at the same tip shop is an investment in more efficient preserving. It’s still acquisitive but it’s a thoughtful, aware consumerism.

  4. Mo

    All I can say is thank goodness my grandparents and parents weren’t minimalists! I still use my Nana’s Cake and Loaf Tins, for example.

  5. louisa

    As always guys, thanks so much for such thoughtful comments – a lot to ponder!

    Chiot’s Run: Glad to hear NAU shirts are good and not just expensive! I think I’ll add “we each have to find what works for us” onto my list of things to sew onto samplers that I’ll sew one day – I feel like I’ve been saying it a lot recently, although possibly not enough given Candi’s comment!

    Candi @ minhus : you’re so right! I am trying very hard to accept that people, even people who superficially seem to share a lot of the same ideas, are always going to find different ways to go about things but I often slide into judgement — I must work on that! In fact, I’m going to set myself a task in response to this – to come up with five positive lessons to take from this guy’s experience. Thanks for commenting and reminding me about that!

    Rachel: Another great, well put comment :) I very much agree about those concepts getting incorrectly mixed up – that’s how I picture minimalism too. I was reading the article with a lot of baggage about how having just a few things meant rejecting all elements of consumerism (such as brand/gadget worship) but perhaps he just wants 15 things and doesn’t give two-hoots about any of that.

    Taphophile: yes, another thing I often overlook – that not all consumerism/acquisition is bad! Well done for your jam kettle score btw, I saw it on your blog yesterday and was rather jealous :)

    Mo: oh me too! While I’ve been thinking about these comments, I’ve been staring into space but when I focused I realised I was looking at my grandma & grandad’s 50 year old woollen blanket and the 35 year old crockery I “acquired” from my mum & dad’s dresser a few years ago.

  6. PipneyJane

    These articles pop up a couple of times a year. (The last one I read was on the Beeb and might be about the same bloke. Naturally, I can’t find it now.) What always strikes me when I read them is that the people who’ve deliberately downsized so far that they can claim they’re “living in cyberspace” or deliberately don’t have a home of their own are frequently just parasites, living off the generosity and goodwill of their friends. They have jobs and reasonably good incomes, but they rely on their friends to put them up for a few nights or to give them somewhere to spend their down-time. They are not paying their own way.

  7. Hazel

    I had mixed feelings reading about this man too.

    Part of me thinks, well good for him, if it makes him happy, but part of me agrees with PipneyJane. If his few possessions included a tent, or at least a pan and plate,something to show some independence, I think I’d have a bit more respect.
    As it is, he just seems to be very good at cadging favours from mates. I’d help any of our friends and family who needed a bed for whatever reason, but faced with a professional couch surfer I think I would feel that I was being taken advantage of. I work, pay the mortgage, own the stuff so you can come and use it and claim some sort of moral high ground? Hmmm. (And writing about his lifestyle does seem to be his choice, so I feel I can say that!)

    I can appreciate the difficulty in separating minimalism from a green or frugal lifestyle. Or even an anti-consumerist lifestyle. People like Tammy Strobel or Bea at the zero waste home have social or environmental agendas, but as Rachel said, they’re not necessarily connected and I can see that a minimalist may not have a problem with eating a takeaway every night or flying from home to home.

    I wondered too why he felt the need to note his jeans were made by Patagonia. But then I fail to see why you need to be able to say you have 15, 39 or 99 possessions. Intentional, reduced consumerism, yes. Arbitrarily numbered and recorded? Don’t think I’m cut out to be a minimalist!

  8. Rachel

    I just came across a list of quotes on “living small”. This one jumped out at me:
    “The intention of voluntary simplicity is not to dogmatically live with less. It’s a more demanding intention of living with balance. This is a middle way that moves between the extremes of poverty and indulgence.” -Duane Elgin

    I studied Aristotle at university, and he believed that the key to the “good life” is to find the middle way in everything, so this really rang true. It illuminates what’s wrong with the idea that having only 15 possessions is some kind of ideal to aspire to.

    • louisa

      Great quote, Rachel – it rings true here as well. Less is not always more, but more is not always more either.

      PipneyJan and Hazel – I’ve been thinking about it more and I don’t believe everyone needs to have every thing – that we should share a lot more and that includes housing. But my willingness to share would very much depend on the person – I have some friends that would come on this professional couch surfer basis and their company & contribution to the household would make us love them even more, and ask them to return the next week. I have other friends who in that position would just take, and I’d really resent that. Many this guy is in the first category — yes, he’s outsourcing accumulation/ownership of stuff to others but maybe he’s making up for it in other way.

      Thanks too for the links, Hazel, I hadn’t found either of those sites before but am following now :)

      • Hazel

        You may have a point. I may not have had a cup of coffee when I wrote that ;-)

        Bea has had a lot of criticism for her minimalist life style, and though it’s not one that I would particularly aspire to (for a start a whole white house looks a lot better in Californian light than the light I currently have in N Oxfordshire), I don’t feel she’s telling anyone how to live, just explaining what works for her and I find it fascinating. And I agree with what she’s trying to achieve (ie zero waste), even if we approach it in different ways.
        Rowdy Kittens I dip in and out of, but again interesting. Glad you like them!

  9. Jan #2

    Perhaps we should rebrand it as how many consumer items do you worship and why. For me it’s my Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe or GFB SFA as the devout refer to it on the interweb ,and my Handol Wood Stove, which they don’t appear to sell any more. Apart from that I have nothing personally that I wouldn’t trade for another similar item of some other brand.

    The 15 items smacks a little of Mother hen baking the bread. Its all fun and games with his macbook and iphone up until dinner time.

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