On January 1, the documentary Less Is Now was released onto Netflix by the Minimalists, two people in minimalism who have built their public identities around minimalism and giving advice about living with less. It is a follow-up to the 2015 documentary Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. The documentary is just under an hour long, consisting mostly of cut-up interviews, monologues, and conversations, with some stock footage of consumerism and minimalism breaking up the visuals, both for variety’s sake and to illustrate things that come up in discussion.
Minimalism, as a philosophy of life, is open to everyone, but it is often associated with anyone with enough economic power to access credit, Stoicism (which has been in fashion in the United States for the past decade or so), and men. This is because the loudest parts of minimalism — decluttering, the art movement (not my fave tbh), living-out-of-a-backpack entrepreneurs, and Influencer-backed brands — are showing things more accessible to the middle and upper classes, leaving many people who read news stories to wonder where they may fit in. I found it encouraging that Less Is Now integrated a lot of voices, especially women, who are the overlooked majority that is interested in living with less — it’s usually women who are tasked with household labor, so professional women are more likely to experience the strain that comes with actively caring for possessions and living spaces. They also emphasized that one might never actually be able to tell that someone is a minimalist. Minimalist homes just often look tidy, not austere. Not everyone is living in a studio or tiny house, and some minimalists even have sizable book collections and colorful art on the walls.
The film had proposed something common in minimalist communities, the 30-day decluttering challenge. I have also been watching the documentary series Our Planet. (I find nature documentaries enjoyable and thought-provoking, and I’m hoping to cultivate fresh ideas about my current speculative poetry project by getting a good grip on our own planet through stunning visuals.) Our Planet includes candid assessments of human impacts on ecosystems that are driving many animals to starvation, asphyxiation, and other catastrophic ends en masse — especially due to (1) the impact of agriculture and freshwater scarcity on herd animal populations that have relied on rivers to stay alive and (2) the mismanagement of plastic manufacture and waste, as what happens after an item is used is not usually considered important during its design and manufacture. Watching the two in tandem got me thinking about other criticisms of minimalism that center around how it relies on fixing overconsumption that has already happened. The trash bags of clutter, boxes of items for Goodwill, and so on are interventions for a post-hyperconsumerist lifestyle, not a non-hyperconsumerist lifestyle.
I remember my 20s and how one of the big decluttering projects I undertook was to get rid of things that I had owned back to my preteens. The times when I experienced regret and sorrow were not when getting rid of things I had owned at the age of thirteen, but the things I had purchased in my early adulthood while either trying to figure out where I fit in or because I had thought that a purchase would be useful when it absolutely wasn’t. (I had a lot of regrets when decluttering Threadless and ThinkGeek T-shirts that I’d bought because I thought I liked them, but I really just wanted friends and to fit into my social group, can you tell I wish I had had an intervention, lol. So many people see stuff as “merch” instead of interrogating whether they are buying something because they need it or because they feel it will give them ingroup security.) There’s a lot of sensemaking that goes into growing up, especially when one is first on one’s own, and what we’re left with after the hasty decisions isn’t often the most pleasant. (Wanting to give useful 20/20 hindsight to people is where this post on minimalist shrines came from.)
Many women in Less Is Now discussed clothes, makeup, and other items that they likely purchased because they wanted to fit in and feel distinctive or worthy. Of course, it is absolute folly to place one’s worth in external things like that — something many of us learn the hard way. But it did get me thinking about how useful it would be to target a documentary at people in the beginning stages of adulthood, with tips on how to do self-exploration and grow into the responsibility and power that they have just matured into while balancing consumption and flexibility so a KonMari declutter or 30-day minimalism overhaul is never necessary.
Overall, the documentary is a useful pitch for the aptness of a minimalist framework. It’s worth watching for anyone who feels overwhelmed by how much le has going on in ler life, especially after the harrowing year that was 2020.