I’m 43; I’ve been practicing voluntary simplicity for over a decade and currently practice non-extreme minimalism. But I’m also a professor, which means everything is subject to critical analysis and questioning … including the things I believe in. Which leads to this post….
Is U.S.-style minimalism well-adapted to the Great Recession?
It sounds like a strange question, since many minimalists talk about the ways in which their lifestyle keeps them frugal, mobile, and adaptable. Certainly those are all desirable traits during an economic downturn. But…
Most U.S.-style minimalists keep nothing but that which they use or love, and extreme minimalists want to pare their possessions down to what can fit into the trunk of a car or a backpack. The minimalist lifestyle is predicated on avoiding the accumulation of excess; it’s a lifestyle based on just-in-time delivery rather than redundancy and stockpiling. (Note: I’m using “U.S.-style” to characterize the messages of the best-known minimalist bloggers right now, most of whom are U.S. citizens; some are “rational” and some are “extreme,” but none are survivalists.)
Survivalists and homesteaders, on the other hand, accumulate everything they might need to live off the grid and prefer plenty of backup and redundancy. Generators, food supplies, extra freezers, emergency kits, gardening/farming tools, canning/preserving equipment, camping gear, hunting supplies, homeschooling supplies — survivalists store whatever they think will get them through a long-term emergency situation in which they can no longer rely on government to provide basic services. True, extreme minimalist survivalists may need little more than a knife and their foraging skills to get by, but that’s more a case of short-term personal survival rather than long-term rebuilding-after-the-crash survival.
So, is the minimalist or the survivalist better-suited to life at a time when towns are closing down public libraries; shortening school weeks, curtailing public transportation services, reducing or outsourcing police services, and turning off streetlights? If that sounds fanciful, read Friday’s article in the New York Times, “Governments Go to Extremes as the Downturn Wears On” or the Wall Street Journal’s article “Cities Rent Police, Janitors to Save Cash. Minimalists often argue that they don’t need to own certain things (e.g., books, cars) because they can find alternatives in the public sphere … but what happens when those public services are cut back due to lack of funds?
I’ve thought about the minimalism vs. survivalism question a bit myself. When I critiqued extreme minimalism, I pointed out that emergency items like fire extinguishers, medical kits, snow chains, and earthquake survival kits were seldom listed in extreme minimalists’ possessions, yet they can make the difference between life and death when they’re needed. And I think about it whenever I hear about another public library closing down, since I visit my own library several times a week. I thought about it when I read The Things That Keep Us Here by Carla Buckley, a novel about an H1N5 pandemic and a family trapped in its suburban house as society collapses. And I thought about it again yesterday, when my grocery store’s credit/debit-processing computers went down and I had to wait for them to be fixed before I could buy food.
What if? What if the electricity were out for several days or more? Access to the web and to digital telephone services would be lost once batteries died and couldn’t be recharged; ATMs wouldn’t function; debit and credit cards wouldn’t run, schools and businesses would close, and suddenly not having a stockpile of candles or firewood, matches, canned or preserved food that can be eaten cold, and other supplies would make a big difference. What if the water supplies were cut off? What if an earthquake or flood cut off the main roads, stopping deliveries of food and other goods? Or the price of gasoline just got so high that business began to stop deliveries themselves, deciding only to pursue sales in the most profitable regions of the country? Or a serious flu outbreak hit us, the way it did in 1918, and the public infrastructure quietly collapses as a third of the population falls ill?
Miss Minimalist argued that in a serious emergency situation, she’d have to strap on a backpack and get out of Dodge. Are most minimalists in this position?
I enjoy the minimalist lifestyle, but I think the question of whether one can be a typical U.S.-style minimalist and still be prepared for an emergency — or just for further cutbacks in social services — is worth discussion. What is a minimalist’s greatest priority? Owning less … or surviving an emergency? Can we do both? How?
Photo Credit: Old Desert Farmhouse by royalshot.