The word “minimal” means “the smallest amount necessary.” It’s strange how simple this word feels. Yet perhaps we can take inspiration from this root meaning.  

Minimalism: • a focus on bare essentials; causing minimal waste or harm

With this definition, minimalism can be experienced as an artistic paradigm, with life itself as the primary medium of artistic expression. We find it in the perfection of a seed, the solitude of a desert landscape, an ice crystal, bamboo, e = mc², a haiku. 

Along with minimalism in nature, or visual art or architectural design, we can cultivate its expression in our own lives. In our closets and our clothes, yes, but also in our carbon footprints on the earth. We can make choices to consume fewer scarce resources, generate less pollution, and avoid needless harm to animals and our planet. Many of these choices happen in the quiet of our personal lives, yet when taken together at a collective scale, we see the outlines of a larger social movement. Recent decades have seen a dramatic rise in ecological activism, veganism, animal rights, zero-waste, sustainability and voluntary simplicity; in the hope of finding a unifying term for these movements, I will refer to the sum total of these trends as the “minimalist movement.” The potential effects of this movement are profound. From San Francisco to Stockholm to Seoul, our modern societies have held firm to the learned belief that attainment of the “good life” requires economic growth, which in turn demands ever increasing consumption. Yet, as we engage more deeply in minimal living, our choices directly contradict this belief in ways that are difficult to ignore. 

In one sense, none of this is new. The historical roots of minimal living are probably as ancient as human culture itself. People from every century have arrived at the principles of non-harm, or ahiṃsā, to use the Sanskrit term, which forms the basis of many of the spiritual and religious teachings that have carried forward through time. There is a consistency to the emergence of a minimalist way of thinking and living; in different languages, cultures, and religions, the premise that all living beings have the spark of divine spiritual energy culminates in the teaching that to hurt another is to hurt oneself.  The Bhagavad Gita states: “One is dearest to God who has no enemies among the living beings, who is nonviolent to all creatures.” Ahiṃsā is at the heart of veganism, and served also as the inspiration for the nonviolent strategies of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are known as the three ahimsā-based religions and accordingly, vegetarian traditions exist in all three. Minimalist principles are woven into the core philosophy of life that ahiṃsā traditions revolve around, extending even to creative expression. Zen Buddhists practice mindfulness and cultivate arts such as haiku, brush paintings, and zen gardens, which offer an aesthetic experience of form within emptiness. What Buddhists call “the Middle Way” is a prescription for simple living that stands between material indulgence and extreme asceticism. Along with the virtues of ahiṃsā, Gautama Buddha taught that attachment to objects within the material world is a root cause of suffering.

Similar sentiments echo through many more of the world’s religions and wisdom traditions. Alongside “Know Thyself”, the precept “Nothing in Excess” was chiselled into the temple of Apollo at Delphi. For thousands of years, people who abstained from meat were known as Pythagoreans, after the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who founded his famous community in Southern Italy around 530 BC. In 12th-century Italy, Francesco Bernardone and Clare Offreduccio, taking to heart Jesus’ teachings of modesty and compassion, renounced their families’ wealth, and devoted their lives to serving the poor. When asked whom he would choose as a wife, Francis allegedly replied, “La povertà,”– poverty. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Russian Doukhobors, Friesland Mennonites, English Quakers, and German Amish rejected materialist society to establish self-sufficient, pacifist communities based on simple living. In the 19th century, as America was emerging as the birthplace of modern consumerism, Henry David Thoreau retired to a cabin on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts and wrote what many consider to be a masterpiece on minimal living. Thoreau was a friend and protégé of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s Transcendentalist philosophy later influenced John Muir, whose writings and achievements in establishing national parks have also made indelible marks on our collective consciousness. As we look back through history, we can pay further homage to the cultural heritage of Socrates, the Stoics, Lao Tzu, Jesus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, the Bohemians, and the Sufis, along with others far too numerous to mention. Past and present, facets of minimalist living have been honored by a remarkably diverse spread of people.

Our contemporary minimalist movement started with Mohandas Gandhi, who advocated for simple living and nonviolent activism more effectively than anyone else in human history. The honorific Mahātmā (Sanskrit: “great-souled”, “venerable”), was first applied to him in 1914 in South Africa, and is now used throughout the world. Another key influence was social philosopher Richard B. Gregg, who in 1936 published “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity.” in which he coined the term ‘Voluntary Simplicity’, which posited that extravagant consumerism degraded the Earth and was socially unethical. He argued that non-material pursuits, such as  contemplation, study, friends, and loving relationships, offered a level of joy and serenity that material things could not provide. Decades later, Duane Elgin reinforced this core message in his own work titled Voluntary Simplicity, where he modernized the phrase to mean “a manner of living that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich.” In 1944, the modern movement took another interesting turn when a group of six vegetarians in England, led by a Yorkshire-born woodworker named Donald Watson, coined the term “vegan,” and organized the world’s first Vegan Society. Others had refrained from eating and using animal products before the term was coined, but giving the action a name helped it to spread. Veganism has since emerged as the fastest growing lifestyle movement in the world.  

In response to increasing environmental destruction, related movements have evolved. In 1951, the Nature Conservancy was founded in the United States. Since then, it has grown  into the largest environmental nonprofit in the Americas,[5] and has protected more than 119,000,000 acres of land and thousands of miles of rivers worldwide.[4] In 1961, the World Wide Fund for Nature was started; it has since evolved into the world’s largest conservation organization, supporting over 3,000 projects in over 100 countries. The countercultures of the 60s gave rise to the first large-scale collective rebellion against consumerism and its ecologically devastating byproducts. After Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring, environmental activism emerged as a grassroots movement, which eventually led to the formation of the EPA in 1967. Minimal-impact lifestyle choices were also advocated in books such as Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé (1971), and Small Is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher (1973). Lappé argued that meat production was a root cause of world hunger and she urged vegetarianism as an ecological principle. Schumacher showed how our modern, consumer economy was unsustainable. He advocated for localization and for small technologies that could be easily maintained by users, and did not require a vast extraction industry to produce. Following these publications, Ernest Callenbach published Ecotopia, where he created a fictitious society centered on ecological values. Callenbach’s citizens were “sick of bad air, chemicalized food, and lunatic advertising.” He described his book as “a protest against materialism.”

In the early 70s, more philosophers and thinkers entered the fray. Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss introduced the concept of deep ecology in 1973.  Whereas conventional ecological activism focused on technological fixes such as increased automotive efficiency or better recycling habits, Næss emphasized the need to redesign our entire society so as to preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems. Around this same time, Australian philosopher Peter Singer published his seminal work Animal Liberation (1975). Singer asked, “if possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?” As a collective response to this question, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was formed, and began aggressively campaigning for animal rights. After much pressure from PETA, Avon, one of the world’s most prominent beauty corporations, stopped all animal testing. Other beauty brands followed suit, and General Motors stopped using live animals in crash tests. By the 1990s Mercy for Animals had also been organized, and  has since grown into the largest organization for preventing cruelty to farm animals.

In recent decades, the web has fueled an even more dramatic acceleration of discussion about all of these closely related topics, with new blogs, podcasts, and social media pages appearing every week. Documentaries such as Supersize Me (2004), An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Cowspiracy (2014), and What the Health (2017) have reached mainstream audiences, and Dr. Michael Greger’s Bestseller How Not to Die (2015), has meticulously cataloged the current health research on plant-based diets. According to Google trends, worldwide interest in veganism grew a whopping 500% between 2004 and 2019.  Indeed, this shift is evidenced in the economic success of the plant-based food industry, which saw $3.3 billion in sales in 2018 alone. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to eliminate the use of all mammals in testing the toxicity of chemicals, and California became the first state to ban the sale and manufacture of new fur products. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the clear connection between animal agriculture and viral outbreaks, interest in all of these related topics will only increase. Yet do animal rights, plant-based diets, and global pandemics relate to minimalism? Some would say no, yet the question itself invites us to interpret its meaning. 

The term ‘minimalism’ first emerged in 1967 to describe an emerging art movement characterized by extreme simplicity of form. In recent years, the idea that “less is more” has found philosophical resonance in the way we create architecture, interior spaces, home decor, furniture, fashion, photography, food, and personal lifestyles. Marie Kondo’s 2011 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up transformed decluttering into a new global habit. The book was translated into over 35 languages, and gave rise to a hugely popular Netflix series of the same name. Across social media, #minimalist and #minimalism hashtags have been used over a hundred million times; a search on Amazon shows thousands of books on the topic. Followers can watch minimalism-focused videos, TED talks, or documentaries, and conversations about minimalist lifestyles are now everyday events. It’s an encouraging trend, yet one cannot fail to notice that most of these conversations tend to shy away from ethical or ecological issues. Yet, why?

If we return to our definition, a focus on bare essentials; causing minimal waste or harm, this principle of causing minimal waste or harm has far reaching implications. For example, let’s consider food waste. When we toss out a piece of meat or fruit, the CO2 impact isn’t just from decomposition, it’s from the entire supply chain: freezers and fluorescent lights in the grocery stores, product packaging, fossil fuels burned by trucks hauling shipments, water used on crops, and most of all, from the deforestation for ranches and farmland. In low-income economies, relatively little is wasted at the household level, but in high-income economies over one third of all food produced is thrown out by consumers! According to the climate change mitigation initiative Project Drawdown, solving this problem would eliminate eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. These statistics are almost staggering, given the severity of climate change, and the simplicity of eating our food. 

Perhaps we can begin to imagine our minimalist lifestyles in a more impactful way. In parallel with our decluttering, we can stop wasting so much food. Along with our silent meditation practice, we can quietly cease our consumption of animal products. We can become poets and activists in the same breath. Without question, these kinds of lifestyle adjustments align with the core principles of minimalism. Changes to our core habits always touch our fears, yet they need not detract from our personal comfort or happiness; on the contrary, by connecting us to the welfare of other living beings and helping to safeguard our biosphere, they strengthen and enhance our lives. More urgently than ever before, we have planetary scale challenges to address: pandemics, climate change, factory farming, biodiversity loss. For all of us living in modern societies, minimalism can be an effective strategy to address these challenges, and live a more meaningful and sustainable life. We can begin by asking: “How might our lives be different when we choose to love more and consume less?” It is a question worth contemplating deeply.

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