Two Minimalists and the Localist Walk into a Bar …

minimalist shirt

If you haven’t been tempted by minimalism yet, you probably know somebody who has been. Maybe they read The Minimalists blog, a collection of thoughts on living with less by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus. Maybe they read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Maybe they’re obsessed with tiny houses, or they ditched their car, or got rid of their apartment and moved into a van. Honestly, minimalism is an easy idea to mock. We can laugh at inconvenience of having to borrow stuff from the neighbors, or at a dining room that’s so sparse it holds only a table and chair. But the more we learn about the culture of consumerism and how it effects us psychologically, that having more doesn’t breed contentment, but instead makes us want even more, the less ridiculous these extreme ideas seem.

I met the Minimalists, Joshua and Ryan, when they came to the bookstore I co-founded, Church Street Coffee & Books, for a signing. So when a friend told me about the Minimalists’ documentary (streaming pretty much everywhere), I watched it, mostly out of curiosity. I enjoyed the documentary a lot more than I thought I would. It didn’t make me feel guilty, but it delivered a real message about what happens to our world and to our personal psyches when we accumulate huge amounts of stuff. Ryan and Joshua are in the documentary, but it’s not just about them — the roster of experts and minimalists in the movie is impressive. And although Church Street isn’t in the film, our signing was just as packed as the ones that made the cut, proving that a whole lot of people are interested in this minimalist idea, even here in Birmingham, Alabama.

I don’t think minimalism in the style of Ryan and Joshua would work for me, but trying my best to be a localist, and to put as much money as possible into businesses and people I believe in, does work for me. Being a localist actually made me a bit of a minimalist: I put thought into everything I bought and every place I bought it from, so I did way less frivolous spending. (My guess that it also works the other way around, and that being a minimalist turns you into a localist because the few items you do buy will be high-quality — the kind of thing local shops specialize in.)

There are a ton of parallels between minimalism and localism. Both are rebellions against consumerist culture. We’re both put off by mindless consumerism, we both seek personal freedom from the controlling nature of possessions, and we both want to limit the damage we do to our communities and our environment by buying too many things that we don’t need. Both practices focus on quality over quantity when it comes to the goods and services that we buy and own. And both life choices tend to result in cultivation of character and of community, leading to deeper friendships, stronger family ties and better citizens.

Our world is so connected now that we have access, not only to an abundance of things, but also to an abundance of information — that can be good, but it can also be overwhelming, and it can make us think we that we don’t have an impact. If we can’t change anything, it’s very tempting to numb our feelings of inadequacy by racking up a bunch of discount Amazon purchases.

We often feel powerless, but that’s not reality. The truth is, we can make a difference, and minimalism (or tiny houses or localism or whatever) can help us get there. I’m not saying we should all be minimalists, or even localists. I am trying to say I think we should all do SOMETHING to make our lives and our worlds more meaningful and less fettered by unlimited stuff. Because it’s been proven over and over that letting go of material possessions actually makes us happier. And because we have way more power to change the world — from how our political system works to how much our neighbor gets paid to how workers are treated in a factory across the world — than we think we do.

With me, it started with boycotting Amazon and Walmart. To a minimalist, it usually starts by dragging trash bags full of stuff to Goodwill. I don’t think the point is what you call yourself or where you begin. I think the point is to begin at all.

Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist, a book about shopping local. She lives and shops in Birmingham, Alabama. She’s experimenting a lot with Facebook Live these days, so find her there to watch and comment.

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