Yesterday, the NYT published a fingerwaggy little piece talking about how much more ethical and fulfilled we'll all be once we learn that the real secret to life is living with less. Or at least, that was supposed to be the takeaway message.
What I got out of it was that life is pretty freakin' sweet when you have the kind of privilege that can let you diddybop around the globe without having to fret about student loan payments, or employment prospects upon your return, or whether a hospital bill will bankrupt you. You can afford to live lightly because you never have to think about the just-in-case.
When you do not have to worry about money, you do not have to worry about stocking up during sales in order to make the grocery budget last all month; you don't have to keep Rubbermaid tubs of hand-me-down clothes for the kids; you don't have to hold on to things that you hope you can fix in lieu of paying for replacements you can't afford.
(I'm not going to pretend that rampant consumerism isn't a thing, but I do think that proponents of minimalism tend not to distinguish between stockpiling out of need versus buying out of boredom. And if you're going to ascribe moral values to consumption, then you need to start examining everyone else's motives for not acting as you think they should.)
Anyway, it is amusing when people get showy about minimalism. This guy is only demonstrating one facet of the entire "LOOK AT ME, CONSUMING SO MUCH LESS THAN YOU" genre, which is apparently going to be to the 20-teens what "LOOK AT ME, STUNT-LIVING SOME EXPERIMENT FOR A YEAR" did to the Aughties.
There's the people who are living in a Zero-Waste home, where the mom ensures that vendors decant all her food, including cheese and meat, into the kind of glass jars that run $9 apiece. There are the people who are living an "unplugged" life with stoves that cost $2000 and claiming that their time is better spent washing dishes by hand and grinding their own flour by hand.
I've long thought that the new form of conspicuous consumption is sinking time into your lifestyle tics, because it displays the kind of control over your own professional and personal spheres that is often not available to people outside the "knowledge worker" employment class. This more or less confirms it: It takes time to be committed to curated minimalism, or black belt-level zero waste, or deliberate unplugging. Wealth/lifestyle consultant Richard Baker once wrote that a hallmark of wealth was having the ability to "edit" one's lifestyle. He continued:
Having a life style requires discipline. Time, attention, and often money, are scarce resources. The beauty of a life style is that it provides guidance regarding what to do or not do, what’s worth having (to you) or not having.
And that brings us to the Diderot Effect, so named for the essay, "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown," in which Denis Diderot wrote of the cascading effect of consumerization after swapping out his old robe for a new one:
Evil instinct of the convenient! Delicate and ruinous tact, sublime taste that changes, moves, builds and overturns; that empties the coffers of the fathers; that leaves daughters without a dowry, the sons without an education; that makes so many beautiful things and great evils. You who substituted in my house the fatal and precious desk for the wooden table: it is you who ruins nations.
To be frank, I see the Diderot effect at work in the house with the horror of microwave ovens, and I see in the house with the countless glass jars. And I see it at work in the house with none of those things, where instead the occupant ceaselessly whittles away at their things, sinking time into their curation and letting himself be defined by what he refuses to own. His taste has indeed changed, moved, built and overturned. The only difference is that he doesn't have much dusting to do in the aftermath.