Does Minimalism Help You Live More Ethically?
Our relationship to material objects has changed drastically over the past century, in line with dramatic shifts in industry and production. It is interesting that these changes were accompanied by the concept of minimalism from the start. The increasing complexity and detachment from origins developed with an almost complementary reaction against it. In the mid 20th century, minimalism was first seen in art and music before being taken up by architects and interior designers.
In the past few years minimalism has developed into a fairly mainstream lifestyle choice or 'philosophy'. In this form it remains focused on our relationship to material objects, but this has been expanded to cover all aspects of being and interacting with the world. It's not just an aesthetic, but an all-encompassing mindset. As such, it contains a lot of overlap with the ideas of slow, simple living. And while it shares its name with the artistic movements of the 20th century, it is also inspired by the expressions of extreme simplification that can be seen throughout history accompanying spiritual and philosophical practices. Purging oneself of material possessions and eliminating attachment to the material world to reach a higher state are nothing new.
Definitions of this contemporary form of minimalism vary, but the basic idea is about stripping away excess to focus on what is most important to the individual. I think it's important to emphasise the emphasis on the individual - minimalism contains no consistent set of values beyond its preference of the 'essential' over the 'superfluous'. This stripping away may feel virtuous, but does it really help you to live more ethically?
What's sure is that it does make minimalism a great a tool for self care. Eliminating the material and non-material excess from life will likely leave you feeling substantially better. This is the aspect of minimalism that is most often promoted. Which is great, because self care is important. Looking after ourselves could even be described as our first responsibility in life.
This self care side of minimalism can be seen in many of the definitions suggested by its prominent exponents. In their What is Minimalism?, The Minimalists write: "Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important — so you can find happiness, fulfilment, and freedom." For Leo Babauta, answering his minimalist FAQs, it's a way "to make room for that which gives us the most joy."
As a tool for self care, minimalism aims to help us find a more healthy balance and relationship to the material world. But it does not define the kind of materialism that minimalists should embrace: once again, that is up to the individual. A complete rejection of the material world? An obsession with less that is just a negative copy of the obsession with more? Or a deep respect and reverence for the meaningful, beautiful, functional objects we chose to include in our lives and the people and resources who brought them to us?
In its elimination of excess, it's clear that on top of being a self care tool minimalism can also be a powerful tool for more ethical living. Just consuming less is good for the planet and, in so far as it helps to protect the planet we all depend on for life, it is good for other people. But this is not automatically the case. Consuming less of the same does not improve life for workers facing injustices.
Still, minimalism goes further than promoting 'less' and also encourages you to consume more intentionally. And it doesn't just encourage this. By freeing up time, space (mental and physical) and money, it actually helps you to be more mindful about what you consume. For those of us whose intentions are to show respect, kindness and compassion to the world and other people, it can help us get there. But minimalism doesn't have these intentions at its heart. It is a neutral tool, and it is up to us to infuse it with our values and beliefs. It is up to us to shape it with our ethical vision.
Minimalism is as ethical as you make it.
I'd love to hear how minimalism helps you to live more ethically (or not!). Leave a comment below!