Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Minimalism and Interdependence


My wife and I have been decluttering and streamlining our possessions a lot. We're interested in minimalism, but I would say we still own a fairly normal number of items. I don't know how many offhand, I'll tell you that much. We have a kitchen full of pots and pans, closets full of clothes, computers, furniture, a junk drawer... We keep thinking we have it down to just the right number of things, and then we find more and more stuff to get rid of.


When you delve into the Internet rabbit holes of decluttering and minimalism, you can only go so long before you encounter a person whose current or target lifestyle is to live out of a single backpack. A part of me loves that idea, because whenever I travel and I live out of a suitcase, I feel very connected to all of my things and I feel like it's amount of stuff I can kind of keep organized in my mind. It doesn't feel out of control or forgettable like a lot of the contents of my home. But at the same time, living out of one backpack is totally unfathomable. How would such a person cook, or wear clothes? I handle more than I could fit in a backpack on a daily basis. I use large items such as a bed and a fridge.


I don't remember which "I live out of a single backpack" account I read, but the gist of it was that the fellow in question travels a lot and crashes with friends or rents furnished apartments. In other words, he basically rents or borrows things like furniture and pots and pans.


When I read this my first reaction was, "That's cheating! It doesn't count as owning nothing if you rent everything. You don't call yourself homeless if you live in an apartment."


I guess I was disappointed. I assumed the backpack guys had figured out some magic way to get everything they needed out of life from a couple of T-shirts and a MacBook Air. Instead, it turned out that they depend on other people to have established homes so that they can stay in them. It's not self-sufficient.


Then again, is anyone self-sufficient? I'm certainly not. I have no illusions about that. I neither am, nor want to be, a farmer who grows my own food, weaves my own clothes and composts my own waste. I choose to live in a city precisely because I don't want to be self-sufficient. I want to do things that I'm good at in exchange for other people doing thing that they're good at. I want to rely on complex systems like governments and markets to take care of things like putting a lot of food in a place where I can buy it, running pipes to my house to provide hot and cold water, and coming by each week to pick up my trash. I don't even drive a car; I rely on public transit. I get my livelihood from working with software and data, which is pretty far removed from anything tangible; it depends on a huge network of organization and specialization.


Taken in that big-picture way, I see less and less of a difference between me and One Backpack Guy. Both of us are interested in streamlining our personal living situations and eliminating what we consider to be unnecessary complexity. Neither of us feels any compunction about relying on the larger network of society to provide certain services for us that we do not wish to take care of ourselves, and neither of us feels that it's charity or mooching as long as we are able to pay for them with the money we get from contributing our time back to society in the form of paid work.


It looks like this is another case where the line between "normal way to live" and "weird way to live" is arbitrary. That means there is quite a lot of scope for adapting my life to whatever extremely specific level of stuff-ownership makes me feel the best. I have a feeling I'll stop quite a bit before I get to one backpack. But it's up to me to decide where to draw the line.

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