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Minimalism: Benefiting the Planet and Mind

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

Jonny Rogers explores how intentional and simple living can improve our mental health and reduce excess waste and energy.

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Photo by Phil Desforges


The thought of selling even a fraction of what you own might well be a terrifying one. However, the goal of minimalist living is not to give up absolutely everything, but rather to purchase and keep only what is absolutely necessary, or at least work towards achieving this.


There is, of course, nothing new about minimalism; simple living has been at the centre of countless religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions throughout human history. As the 17th-century polymath Blaise Pascal put it, “all of human unhappiness comes from one single thing: not knowing how to remain at rest in a room”.


And yet, simple living has gained a new meaning for an age in which superfluous possessions are not only increasingly accessible, but also increasingly harmful to both our wellbeing and our environment.



Minimalism and Happiness

At one level, it makes sense that we should always be generating new desires. Since human bodies require a variety of resources and nutrients to remain healthy, it is ultimately good that we desire different kinds of food at different times. However, I am often drawn towards what advertising companies and food engineers have calculated will appear most attractive, which only sometimes corresponds to what I actually need.


I think something very similar is going on with non-consumable goods such as furniture, clothing and novelty items. Entire industries exist simply to calculate how to make us buy certain products, which in many instances does not correspond to what people need to flourish. Furthermore, the abundance of material possessions – large houses, expensive cars, fashion, technology, rare collectibles and so forth – is often presented as the pinnacle of success and fulfilment.


According to research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, however, individuals who engage in a low-consumption lifestyle tend to have higher levels of life satisfaction. Additionally, those who intentionally minimise working hours and levels of consumption have been found to have more time to invest in meaningful activities and relationships.


In one sense, the connection between simple living and happiness should be intuitive – owning and wanting less naturally means that you have less you have to worry about, organise and maintain. We would do well to learn from infants, who often delight more in a puddle or cardboard box than even the most luxurious toy.





Minimalism and the Environment

Another benefit of purchasing fewer possessions is that less materials, packaging and energy will need to be wasted. According to some estimates, there will be over 12,000 million metric tons of plastic waste in landfill sites or natural environments by 2050; although much of this will be unavoidable without institutional change, disposable products and needless wrapping are also a large part of the problem. Around 80 billion new pieces of clothing are sold each year alone – 400% more than even 20 years ago - and a large proportion of plastic waste is composed of microplastics produced in the textile industry.


In addition, a study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology concluded that household consumption is responsible for 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 50-80% of land, material and water usage. Further research found that 86% of every house’s environmental impact is associated with its energy use, including heating, lighting and electronic appliances. As such, many advocates for a minimalist lifestyle have opted to live in smaller houses or apartments, with some choosing to go entirely ‘off the grid’ with private solar or wind-powered energy.


Political efforts to respond to climate change often depend on setting national targets to reduce waste and emissions. However, frequently purchasing either foreign products or goods which depend on foreign resources makes buyers complicit in other nations’ emissions. As Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institution for Science explains:


“Today, developed countries have to report their CO2 emissions, but we consume a lot of stuff that is produced in China and other developing countries. Their CO2 emissions are helping support my consumption.”


Working Towards a Minimalist Lifestyle


Minimalism might well vary greatly for different people, or even the same people over time. Nevertheless, we would be wise to adjust our habits and patterns of consumption around the interests of our wellbeing and environment, rather than passively accepting what adverts, films and celebrities are telling us we ought to desire.


Some aspects of society are shifting towards a ‘sharing economy’ whereby services and resources are used by multiple people for limited periods of time. Organisations such as Uber, Airbnb and Whirli, for example, allow people to use vehicles, accommodation and toys for only as long as necessary. Placing greater value in shared goods might be one way to minimise how many possessions you own and give a purpose to the things you no longer need, while also reducing how much ends up in landfill.


Whilst many are compelled by the idea of living in a white-walled hut with hand-crafted Scandinavian furniture, minimalism is more than a preference for certain styles of interior decoration. Rather, it is a disposition to resist the culture than constantly expects us to keep accumulating needless things and focus more on appreciating what one really needs.


 

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