• Thu. May 30th, 2024

The Minimalists: Less is Now

ByZac Draysey

Jan 20, 2021

⭐ ⭐

2 stars

The world we live in is characterised largely by the immense accumulation of things. It has never been easier to buy consumer goods; sites like amazon allow us to have whatever we want sent directly to us, sometimes in a matter of hours. The rising minimalist movement has tried to push back against this tide of consumerism. They argue that we should buy and keep only the things we really need, in order to live a more meaningful life.

The Minimalists: Less is Now follows two such minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, and illustrates their arguments for the benefits of a minimalist lifestyle. Yet minimalism is often criticised for being too apolitical. It finds the explanation of the problem of consumerism, and its solution, in individual choices, not in wider social structures.

While at first this seems like only an oversight, it actually makes the message of people like Millburn and Nicodemus actively harmful.

This documentary makes an argument that is as simple as it is flawed. It claims that in the modern world, people consume too much. We buy things we do not need to fill an absence of meaning in our lives. This does not make us happier and can only lead to debt and distraction from what is really important.

The core argument is developed through the personal accounts of Millburn and Nicodemus. Both grew up poor and strived to earn a lot of money as adults, both ended up in high salaried corporate jobs which did not fulfil them in the way they expected and both turned to minimalism in order to move beyond this materialistic lifestyle.

The film ends with a call to action; we are supposed to follow in the footsteps of the minimalists and try cutting out extraneous consumption from our lives. This, they say, will lead to a ‘simple life’ of greater peace and stability.

The fundamental problem is that, if undertaken on a wider scale, the things they advocate would be potentially ruinous.

We can understand this problem through ‘The Paradox of Thrift’, outlined by economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes argued that if people in general became thriftier, by saving more and consuming less, the knock-on effect would be economic decline which, paradoxically, would lead to people being materially worse off than they were before.

For example, if we all became minimalists and cut out large amounts of our spending, all the businesses that produced the frivolous goods we used to consume would lose their revenue. This would force them to lay off staff, or go out of business altogether, increasing poverty and unemployment in turn. It seems, therefore, that consumerism is not a contingent fact of our economies but their lifeblood.

This does not mean that the basic claim of the film is not correct. In fact, it does seem right to say that people consume too much, and that this does not actually increase their wellbeing.

Yet by ignoring these systematic considerations, Millburn and Nicodemus clumsily sidestep the difficult political consequence of their worldview, which is that for minimalism to work, we would have to fundamentally reorganise how we produce and distribute resources.

The Minimalists: Less Is More asks huge questions and yet inadvertently pins the blame on individual consumers, many of whom are trapped by circumstances they cannot easily overcome. The film is much less concerned with the economics and inadvertently radical politics of their argument than it is with patronising moralism and facile sentimentalism.

This egregious shortcoming seriously harms the entire argument. Worse, it inspires resentment instead of a revolutionary appraoch to how we interact with the world around us in the way that the creators wish.

Ironically, minimalism has itself become an empty commodity; Millburn and Nicodemus have published four books which will inevitably become the kind of inane clutter that they ostensibly seek to reduce. This documentary is a great waste; what could have been an interesting study of the role of consumption in our lives, and an effort to discover the antidote for its ills, rarely steps beneath the surface.

Image: Rory Gardiner via Marius Photography