For 53 minutes, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus argue that the stuff we own—the stuff we impulsively purchase with one-click on Amazon, hoard in our closets, and decorate our lives with—are contributing to our unhappiness. “We can’t consume more than the planet can replenish,” says Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, who appears throughout the documentary. While it’s true that we’re running out of space, is the accumulation of stuff making us truly unhappy? Millburn and Nicodemus believe so; their popular blog claims that they, “help over 20 million people live meaningful lives with less.” The film is their latest pitch, with a title inspired by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who famously said, “less is more.”
The longtime friends want you to know that Americans spend neatly $1.2 trillion per year on nonessential stuff. They want you to know that we’re part of a generation of “well-organized hoarders” with credit card debt that averages at about $16,000 per household. Emotional buying is a coping mechanism for our collective depression. The pandemic has forced all of us to confront the clutter that’s bringing us down (if we assume that clutter is, in fact, causing us to be unhappy). Out “shit,” as Millburn argues, is inescapable. We’re also spending more time at home, nesting, in many cases, so we’re zooming in on all the junk we’ve accumulated via Amazon’s one-click purchasing buzz. We can no longer ignore our tangled, consumerist web of stuff. The Washington Post described this as the “great decluttering” period, as all of us, regardless of our socioeconomic statuses or mental health, have begun to confront the fact that the average American household owns 300,000 things, most of which, as Millburn and Nicodemus argue are useless. According to Goodwill, donations over the last year have risen, as more and more Americans want to minimize the clutter in their homes that now appear in Zoom calls. Thrift stores are now overflowing with donations. Let the great decluttering begin.
Minimalism isn’t exactly about eliminating things from your life—or living like an IKEA advert—but filling your life with things that provide genuine purpose, as opposed to sentiment or branding or emotional coping. This is more of an Eastern view of “stuff,” as opposed to a Western view that puts utilitarianism in a subordinate position to accumulation and greed; what Dave Ramsey describes in the doc as “stuffitis,” a derivative of a delusional state of servitude where most Americans work for 47 hours per week in what is the most advertised-to culture in history. Ramsey, a personal finance expert, says that we are now worshipping at the “altar of stuff”; we’re working ourselves to death in order to have the latest “shit.”
“This film is about starting over,” says Nicodemus. The pandemic seems to be forcing us all to start over; so, in many ways, The Minimalists captures the current mood, as opposed to reintroducing its audience to the minimalist trend being advocated by professional organizers, mindfulness coaches, and mental health experts that believe decluttering is giving us more control during a period of chaos and emotional paralysis. The film provides a blueprint for macheting through the Amazonification of our lives.
But can decluttering the junk in our lives actually produce happiness and mindfulness? Can freeing ourselves of things we do not need result in empowerment? The film cannot provide a compelling answer to this without feeling like prepackaged self-help; it is more motivational speaker course than scientific journey—though it does provide a nice introduction on the perils of consumerism. The doc ends by challenging its audience to take a 30-day challenge where you are asked to eliminate one material possession every single day. The Minimalists: Less is Now is now streaming on Netflix.
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