Cutthroat Downsizing

There’s a new contest in town for those into the extreme sport of minimalism. It’s called the 100 Thing Challenge. Its creator David Bruno describes it this way:

The goal of the 100 Thing Challenge is to break free from the confining habits of American-style consumerism. A lot of people around the world feel “stuck in stuff.” They feel like their closets and garages are too full of things that don’t really make their lives much better. But how to get unstuck?

According to Bruno, we could all stand to take a good hard look at all the stuff we swear we have to have. What we stand to gain might just be our lives.

Troy pointed me to a cool piece in the NYTimes called “But Will it Make You Happy?” Its author, Stephanie Rosenbloom, describes a woman—Ms. Strobel—who took Bruno’s challenge and ended up trading her acquisitive self for a 400-square-foot studio shared with her husband, more time to travel and an enhanced sense of well being. Rosenbloom points out that, even though Strobel took on Bruno’s challenge before the economy went sour, her story is compelling precisely because of renewed interest in voluntary simplicity, thanks to “recession anxiety.”

If there’s a plus side to recession it’s that it thrusts upon its sufferers a chance to think again about what’s important and what isn’t. It ends up being a good time to realign purchases with values. It’s a good time to start walking the walk, as they say.

And boy are some struttin’ their bad Spartan selves.

You may remember the famous downsizing couple Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, authors of Your Money or Your Life. In 1992, their book offered practical advice for shunning the Joneses and choosing a life spare on clutter but rich in meaning. Their book was one of many that appealed to environmentalists, spiritualists, the too-ambitious and anyone else fed up with the work-buy treadmill. When I first encountered it as a righteously poor college student, it appealed to me specifically because it offered a kind of realist’s guide to hippie living. If the Long Islander in me was too soft to survive off the grid, at least I could imagine a life that didn’t entail grinding out hours at a desk just so I could afford a bigger TV.

Oh, but there were others! Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity (1981). E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1973). And Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American (1998). For a time, I was teaching composition with Affluenza (2001). You can probably name ten more.

All of these books offer something we still seem to be looking for—a way to see ourselves as something other than, something better than, mere consumers. Our gardens, our friendships, our favorite hikes… we want assurance that these are as valuable as our stemless drinkware and mobile navigation systems. There is something radical about the ideas in these books, and yet they espouse values we seem already to hold, if we can only just put philosophy to practice.

Today, there is a new generation of downsizers, and they’re raising the bar. If voluntary simplicity were a competitive sport, we’d be smashing our own recent records (not that we wouldn’t be embarrassing ourselves in the global arena). For every Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, there is now a locavore, a freegan and a No Impact Man. I remember reading about a guy who took a picture of every single piece of trash he produced. You can imagine the effect that had on his willingness to buy stuff.

What used to be the 100-mile diet is now often a backyard veggie garden and a local CSA membership. What was once the ethic of waste not, want not is now a willingness to dumpster-dive for one’s dinner.

And now an ambitious Portland couple can live in a 400-sq.-ft. studio.

It’s hard to be anything other than pleased with developments like these. If a few radicals are challenging the definition of “enough,” then won’t the public retain at least a small measure of their cheery austerity?

It seems to me that the promise and the danger are one: If we love to be entertained by stories about brave people who refuse to be mere consumers, what does that make us? Are we merely consumers of naïve fringe narrative? Or could we be the people who uncooled consumption?

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2 Responses to Cutthroat Downsizing

  1. Jessie carty says:

    You ask some really good questions here! And well written 🙂 I have a guest room closet I need to clean out but I feel bad about throwing things away 😦

  2. Pingback: 100 Thing Challenge « .the idiom.

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