The privilege and limits of minimalism, and what really makes a difference

“Get rid of stuff you don’t need”, “throw out extra sheets”, “I threw out 90% of my stuff and you should too,” some people are saying on social networks, as though there were a black hole in the sky where stuff goes, and no environmental consequences to landfill.

As though, for some, destressing were as simple as a decluttered home, and is unimpacted by living in an economic system predicated on wrapping every banana in plastic, on consumer life styles built on disposability and short term use and not fixing anything and excavating beaches and mountain sides to make cement and metals and water-guzzling swimming pools for the rich.

As though the Global North weren’t systematically sending its recycling and rubbish to poor countries that don’t have the facilities to re-recycle and so rivers and streets fill with the crap the rich don’t want.

Of course, a lot of that rubbish is industrial waste, or at least comes from well-meaning recyclers, and of course minimalism is not the cause of the world’s problems, and of course it can be positive, in an individual, privileged way.

Personal life style choices such as minimalism, buying from less-harmful brands, living in tiny homes, back yard composting, or organic shopping are mostly reasonable, caring things to do (the ridiculous commercial opportunism around “organic” labelling aside), so long as there’s clarity on how limited they are, and so long as they aren’t understood to be enough, in terms of one’s responsibility towards humanity and the planet.

The limits

  • Minimalism can challenge consumerism, but only in a limited way that empowers people wealthy enough to be able to decide to consume less.
  • Globally, a majority of people can’t afford the basic things and services they need, such as water access, nutritional food, or dignified housing with proper sewage. They already live in “tiny houses” that are not as pretty as the Youtube videos because they are in informal slums, or they are already minimalist because they aren’t paid enough to accumulate goods – yet such forced minimalism and tiny homes are not benefiting them or decreasing their stress or “making them rich” (in the financial or spiritual sense) as this video advocates.
  • When promoted as a key sustainability action, minimalism can detract from the companies that are overproducing and environmentally destructive.
  • The waste, pollution and water scarcity created by over production of unnecessary things is prevented by those things not being produced in the first place, not by recycling. The onus of responsibility of course is on the companies. They are the ones mining gold and destroying pristine forests and ecosystems and Indigenous communities in the process, just so some people can have status-defining jewellery. But it’s on us not to accept that.
  • Most of the things that are stressful in life are not individual. Individual stress exists, of course. A sudden death in the family, a break up, moving, or a rare illness. But inflation, mass firings, climate change, conflict, gender violence, discrimination, lack of access to health care, having no job security are things that we have to work out together and can’t be properly addressed with individual lifestyle or sustainability habits.


A truly purposeful, intentional life involves belonging to small communities and the global one. It isn’t limited to one’s home – it goes beyond borders. To live a life that isn’t about consuming and accumulation, we need cities, countries, distribution and trade systems that aren’t built around shopping.

Imagine living in a world where you don’t have to buy food just to spend time with a friend, where instead of the private individualism of cars and parking lot towers, there are more parks, cultural events, workshops, debates, choirs, violin competitions, strolls and hikes, or drawing classes. How can people conceive of a decluttered mind and empty spaces when right outside there are roaring traffic jams, school shootings, and homeless refugees?

The norm, beyond owning just two sets of sheets, should be to care for others and to speak out when that isn’t happening.

But instead, our strange and beautiful little world is run by elites who make decisions based on maximising profits. So train lines are torn up to make way for cars, malls of overpriced brands are built instead of shelters and community gardens.

That’s what needs to change. Inequality needs to change. Imagine how relaxing and freeing life would become without millions of people dying because they don’t have enough food to eat, despite more than enough being produced?

I know. That wont happen tomorrow. But isn’t that one of the principals of minimalism? Understanding that quick and easy gratification isn’t where its at, and that true meaning and satisfaction comes from working towards a wonderful future?

Featured image: “People get annoyed without junk food in their bellies” and “Buy buy buy” says this mural painted on a local vegetable market in Puebla. Photo: Tamara Pearson

Cardboard recycling here in Puebla, Mexico, is not a public service. Individuals will collect cardboard in order to sell it, but usually just from businesses who have bundles like these. Photo: Tamara Pearson

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