The philosopher Socrates, often credited as the founding father of Western philosophy, once said: 

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

Socrates, Ancient Greece

And today his message rings loud and clear in a time when consumerist culture has taken over our experience of life on Earth to the considerable detriment of the natural environment. 

So what is our capacity to enjoy less? Can we do without? Why are we always on the hunt for new things, items to treasure and things to possess, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, constantly trying to get our hands on our own little versions of ‘my precious’.

It’s all in our genes.

How society evolved into an endless shopping frenzy (and how capitalism adapted to our hunter-gather instincts)

The problem is that shopping is one of the most natural things in the world. Or rather that the shopping environment has, over decades of endless research under the guise of marketing, evolved to perfectly respond to our natural desires to hunt and gather. Greed is good and this mantra has been instilled into western society through consecutive, capitalist focussed governments over recent decades. 

Daniel Kruger from the research faculty at the University of Michigan School of Public Health has studied this. He found:

“evidence that the kind of skills, abilities and behaviors that are important for hunting and gathering in current foraging societies emerge predictably in our modern consumer environment,” 

Daniel Kruger, University of Michigan

And this human nature at the core of our being has been manipulated by corporations, and governments, the world over to drive the endless pursuit of profits, growth and an ever-increasing, but inevitably unsustainable, GDP.

The current point in our development and history as we transition, as a species, over the centuries and millennia is outlined by Lambert Strether at nakedcapitalism.com. He identifies the various stages in this development: 

With the industrial revolution now having merged into the digital revolution there is a good case to be made to suggest that we have reached an inflexion point in the history of work as important as the agricultural revolution. Most of us in the world’s richest countries enjoy lives of unparalleled material abundance. We are now so well fed by the one percent of us who still work in agriculture that we throw roughly as much food into landfill every year as we consume. And with most of the rest of us working in the ever more amorphous services sector much of the work we do is aimed at keeping wheels of commerce rolling rather than ensuring that our essential needs are met.

Lambert Strether, nakedcapitalism.com

But whilst the idealised natural environment is perhaps tainted with the brush, or shovel, of human created market forces, we must remember we are not completely at the mercy of our most basic instincts and unbridled desires. We are conscious, rational, evolved individuals and with focus and discipline we can alter our behaviours, we can change our mindsets and we can restrain the corporate driven behaviours that have a hugely damaging impact on the natural world at a global scale. This is the point at which the growing, life-changing trend in minimalism can miraculously shake up your life.

Less buying more living

At the heart of the minimalist movement is a desire to embrace experiences over possessions. A key aspect of those experiences include embracing the natural world. 

Whilst the pursuit of stuff is, in many ways, an entirely natural response, the desire to experience some of the fundamental aspects of the natural world is also at the core of what makes us human.

Sunsets in the early morning, running through an avenue of trees, wind rustling the leaves, open swimming in the sea, climbing a majestic mountain and exploring beautiful new landscapes around the world are all experiences that many of us long to embrace but cannot find the time or space to do so. Instead shopping, theatre, cinema and sporting events are more accessible. Society has created a machine in which we vicariously experience the thrills of life from a seated position. 

The first step to changing this is to literally stop buying stuff and manufactured experiences we don’t really need.

The minimalist movement around the world has been embraced by the millennial generation. This is down to a whole host of reasons. There is now a greater debt and financial burden for young people than there ever has been in modern history, and facing the growing nightmare of global warming, younger people are becoming more aware about the damage that a consumerist lifestyle if inflicting on the environment. It’s more likely that younger people will want to explore the natural environment, to prioritise experiences over possessions and to seek a different lifestyle to that of their baby boomer parents.

The industry of fast fashion has had disastrous consequences for the natural world and many young people now understand the devastating effect that the fashion industry has on the environment. It’s not just fashion; there are serious questions about whether or not the 21st century capitalist lifestyles that most people in the western world enjoy are sustainable at all in the face of a growing climate crisis.  In fact it can be argued that sustainable development is yet just one more way to destroy the planet.

So whilst at an individual level it may seem impossible to even begin to think about recalibrating capitalism as a system to live by, and in fact we should not hide the fact that capitalism has lifted billions out of poverty, we can also recognise the damage this system has had on the environment. To list this we can immediately begin to make decisions by reducing our engagement with a system that barks “buy buy buy!” in the endless and relentless pursuit of profit, in order to limit our impacts our purchases have on the natural environment. 

What are the impacts of buying stuff on the environment?

When we click buy on amazon or any other online platform we initiate a whole series of actions that have some degree of environmental cost; here’s just some of the main impacts in buying, say, a pair of jeans:

  • Serving up the amazon website to our device, i.e. the energy that it takes to show the amazon site on your device eats up a huge amount of energy, turning the internet into a dirty carbon monster. It might not be significant for just one person, but extrapolated out across the globe it’s huge. Very often the energy used to power this connection comes from the use of fossil fuel energy plants which, in turn, emit vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere
  • The creation of any manufactored product uses vast amount of energy and resources. Just one pair of jeans uses up to 1468 gallons, yes 1468 gallons of water to produce
  • Oil is used to create petrol which power the trucks that transport the products to the warehouse and then the postal delivery services that transport it to you. This spews out vast amounts of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere
  • Washing your delivered jeans creates further emissions as using a washing machines is one the most energy intensive appliances in your home
  • Throwing out the jeans, once tired and worn, creates landfill and further pollutes the environment

This is just a few of the myriad ways in which a modern consumerist lifestyle pumps pollution into the natural world. All of these things can be prevented from happening by simply not engaging in the process in the first place. A couple of pairs of quality jeans are better that 20 pairs of cheap jeans for your style, your pocket and the environment.

Consumerism has vast impact on the environment. A study, measuring the environmental impact of household consumption found that overconsumption was responsible for up to 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And the fast-fashion trend has massively exacerbated the frenzy of capitalism. A skyrocketing, wasteful culture of wearing inexpensive items once and throwing them away means more emissions, more pollution, more stuff and more unhappiness. 

How Minimalism can transform your life and help you defeat the urge to buy

Minimalism has become so popular that it has been made into an official day of recognition. The Use Less Stuff annual day encourages people to minimise the stuff in their lives. And it can help you approach life through a new lens, encouraging you to completely redefine the way you live. 

Minimalism varies for individuals and its application depends on a number of factors, but the broad themes are universal, and we can identify some of those that emerge on our respective path’s to a simple, more enjoyable life.

Minimalism is:

  • Reducing the clutter in your life
  • Saving money! 
  • Living frugally
  • Destroying old, non-essential paperwork
  • Digitising your life
  • Spending more time with family and friends
  • Eating cleanly and simply
  • Pausing and reflecting before every purchase
  • Enjoying free time, that is the time you spend without paying for something, like exercise
  • Going on walks in nature
  • Not paying to experience life
  • Picnics!
  • Reducing your consumption of meat and other energy intensive foods
  • Wild swimming
  • Mountain climbing
  • Exploring your neighborhood
  • Working less
  • Meditating
  • Letting your ego go
  • Recognising your urges and impulses and knowing that you have the power to decide
  • Minimalism is respect for the environment.
  • Minimalism is equality.

How to be a minimalist

If you’ve made the decision to go minimal with your life then well done! Your already on the path to reducing your environmental impact on the world. But if you’ve been a bit of hoarder in the past, or if you are just a regular person who has bought a pretty standard amount of stuff over the years, and I know it does add up!, then the task may seem a little daunting. 

Don’t be put off! The first thing to do is to get inspired so that you know what the benefits can look like. A great resource is The Minimalists: Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. They have made it their life’s work to spread the message of minimalism and have produced a ground-breaking Netflix documentary exploring overconsumption in the modern world and highlighting the benefits that a minimalist lifestyle can bring.

They took their inspiring message across America, initially as a road-show and then later a documentary. You can check out the trailer below: 

And if you want to see how enjoyable and beneficial the tidying up and decluttering process can be; try Tidying Up With Mary Kondo. Decluttering your life doesn’t have to be a traumatic experience, in fact it shouldn’t. The process should be liberating, freeing and cathartic. And this is something that Marie Kondo emphasises. Check our her latest trailer here:

You’re inspired, you’re motivated and you’re ready to begin. Here’s some top tips to start the journey:

  1. Make a plan: Before you start throwing things out it may help to put pen to paper. Write down the pros and cons (but mostly the pros). How will being a minimalist improve your life and what are your goals? Would you like to spend more time outside, with friends or family? Do you want more space to practice or learn yoga or a decluttered environment to mediate? Are you sick of tidying up? Write everything down and a clear plan to achieve it.
  2. How will you declutter? It’s a good idea to have a bit of a strategy here. Simply throwing your stuff away will only go towards polluting the environment so do try to recycle as much as possible.  Do it at a pace that suits you. Maybe every Sunday, or another time that is quiet and free from distractions. Consider selling your stuff online. eBay and your unused stuff are a potential gold mine. Money that can be used towards enjoying time with family, friends and loved ones. I have made thousands of pounds on eBay, given over a period of many years, but note that not everything will sell, no matter how previous you once thought it. Have a set period of time for the sale of your items. It obviously helps if you have the original packaging and remember, if it doesn’t sell after a few weeks at most, it’s time to take it to the charity shop or recycle it. 
  3. Take your time. It’s really important that you take your time with this process. You bought everything for a reason, but now you need to hold it, rationally consider it and decide whether you really need it in your life. Be careful about throwing away personal items like written letters, old photos or home videos. They may have an emotional importance that you might like to hold on to. Memory is not a fixed record in our minds and you may wish to revisit these memories later in life. For everything else it’s fair-game. If you’ve got a pair of shoes or any other item of clothing that you’ve never even worn, it’s time to get them on eBay ore recycled. 
  4. Don’t rinse and repeat! Most importantly of all, don’t be tempted to rush out and refil all the empty space that you created in your home and wardrobe. Appreciate the extra space that you have. Check out design blogs about minimalism. Get inspired, see how they space out their rooms and copy them. I can honestly say that my apartment feels peaceful and calm now that it’s not so full of stuff. Remember why you decided to throw out all your unneeded and unused possessions and refocus your energies on the things that matter: your health, your fitness, your family and friends. 

There are dozens of tools and tips you can find online to help you minimise the stuff in your life and hopefully some of the suggestions in this post will be a good place to start. For example, in my wardrobe I have a set number of clothes hangers that never changes. I never have more clothes then I can hang in my wardrobe. And I literally try to wear my clothes and trainers until they need to be replaced. You will be massively surprised by how long good, quality clothes, that are not made in the world of fast fashion, can last. 

Ultimately adopting a minimalist approach to life is about rethinking our relationship with the world from the ground up. It’s about having an intelligent, considered approach towards the stuff that we have in our life and it’s about the choices that we can all make to live more, buy less and respect the natural world in which we live.