I recently read this article about poverty appropriation, and it brought up a lot of feelings in me about the rise of trendy simplicity. I grew up fairly poor. Not super poor, probably on the richer end of poor, always hovering just around the poverty line. We also lived in fairly wealthy neighborhoods. My mom worked her ass off (often in multiple jobs) to keep us living in those parts of town, even though we could have likely afforded much more in other parts of town, because the schools were better in the wealthier ends of town, and probably because of some sort of internalized classism my mom felt. Because of this, I always felt I was in some uncomfortable middle area between the middle and lower classes. I was definitely dramatically poor at home, and did not fit in with peers, but in other parts of my city, I felt like the bougiest poser on earth. To this day, I have weird class issues, many of which have only been exacerbated by having married into a more middle class family.
Much like the author of this article, I find myself uncomfortable with and troubled by the trendiness of simple living and minimalism. Check out my post on the KonMari method of housekeeping to get an idea of just how much these trends can irk me. On the other hand, a strong impulse to keep up with the Joneses (likely fostered in me after a childhood of being the poor kid in a rich neighborhood), compels me to be interested in that lifestyle. Here’s a rich hipster thing I can actually afford! But these personal conflictions pale in comparison to my moral conflictions on this issue.
Working class environmentalism
I am an environmentalist. Not one of those “Won’t somebody please think of the polar bears?!” environmentalists, but rather one of those “Stop fucking pushing the consequences of your shitty resource use onto poor people!” environmentalists. I understand that when companies come into communities and extract resources or manufacture goods to be sold to people who have more disposable income than foresight, that they externalize the cost of production by having poor people pick up the clean-up tab, and I’m fucking sick of it. Poor people contribute the least to environmental issues; we contribute the least to pollution, the least to resource depletion, and the least to climate change, and yet we are disproportionately more impacted by the consequences of these issues. It is poor children getting lead poisoning from drinking water from polluted rivers, it is the poor getting left behind when extreme weather events roll in, it is poor, indigenous people having their land literally eminent domained away to be strip mined and ran through with pipelines, and it is the poorest people in the world who’s entire homelands are being completely wiped off the maps due to rising sea levels.
Given my feelings on environmental issues, I have a hard time entirely demonizing anything that makes it trendy for middle and upper class people to consume less. As annoying as it is for me to see a bunch of economically privileged people wax poetic about how spiritual and meaningful it is to live minimally and opt out of consumer culture, I have to admit it’s probably a good thing. Making this shit trendy might be the only way to get these hipsters to start living within their ecological means. It’s been a long time coming.
Middle and upper class consumerism
Lets be real here: the middle and upper classes have a consumption problem. Excessive resource extraction, low wage, polluting manufacturing, and externalized costs of production are all symptoms of excessive consumption. Further, the middle class especially expects to be able to consume at particular prices, specifically, prices dramatically lower than the true cost of production, which pretty much necessitates externalizing the cost of production. You can’t have cheap electronics and make reasonable restitution for all the shit that was destroyed in the process of producing it (and that’s not even taking into account paying everyone it took to get it to you a fair wage). Even if we made up the difference by cutting into the massive profits that end up as bonuses for already obscenely wealthy CEO’s (which should still be our first course of action), the fact of the matter is that there are some things no amount of money can ever make restitution for. How much money do we give the indigenous people of Alberta after we strip away their traditional hunting grounds? How much will it cost to replace the entire nation of Tuvalu? What’s the appropriate price for a child who has died of poor air quality related illness in China?
So yeah, middle and upper class people probably do need to cut back. But that’s a tough cookie to sell to people without some personal incentive.
What’s in it for them?
Quite a bit, actually, and this is probably where the frustrating part comes in. Research has shown that more consumption doesn’t make middle and upper class people happier. This is important, because if we convince middle and upper class people that buying all that cheap shit loaded with the ethical burden of externalized costs of production isn’t actually making them happier, then maybe we can start to redirect their energies to something more beneficial to the world. How do you convince a bunch of people who are conditioned to shop as a hobby and compete to see who has the most stuff to consume less? Educate them to the fact that buying stuff isn’t actually making them happier. It’s not. In fact, consuming all that stuff actually makes the lives of middle and upper class people less happy. Its driving them to work more, its cluttering their homes, and it’s distracting them from things that research shows actually do make us happy, like personal development, relationships with others, positive self image/worth, and community ties.
Unfortunately, once we’ve educated them to the fact that consumerism isn’t what’s going to make you happy, you plant the idea that happiness, not material posessions, should be our end goal, and therefore is something to accumulate and horde. As American consumers, we are trained from day one in a very competitive sort of keeping up with the Joneses, we are conditioned to be motivated by comparrison and accumulation, and that’s a hard habit to break free of. That’s when the movement becomes trendy. People can compete over how authentically they follow the trend. That way, middle and upper class minimalists still have a way to compare themselves against their neighbors. To be fair, not everyone who gets involved in these philosophies do this, but we’ve all ran into those who do, and those people are the worst. They’re the ones who are most likely to smugly richsplain to the poor how much better off they are being poor, paternalistically pushing some romanticized stereotype on “simpler folk”, engaging in poverty porn/tourism, and competitively talking to poorer people about how much more frugal and minimalistic they are than actual poor people.
Trendy simplicity doesn’t work for everyone
The complicated thing is that buying stuff, or at least the ability to buy stuff, actually does make poor people happier. When you don’t often have disposable income for buying things that middle and upper class people take for granted, like new school clothes for your kids, or a prescription when you think you are sick, or snow tires for your car, pretty much everything having to do with money or consumer goods is a constant source of stress. Having enough dispoble money to be able to buy some frivolous consumer good, even temporarily, is a break from that cost source of stress. Removing stress definitely does make you happier.
You know what doesn’t make poor people happier? Having some bougie hippy telling us our lives are so quaint and idyllic, while they get to choose if and to what degree they choose to emulate it. That choice not only gets to the heart of why poverty appropriation is annoying to the poor, as the above article states, but is also probably the key to why buying things doesn’t actually make middle and upper class people happier. Middle and upper class people can always spend their disposable income if they ever really need to. They don’t have the stress of not having enough money for emergencies or wants, even if they choose to live a very minimalistic lifestyle. Buying stuff never removes any stressful burden from them, the way it does for poor people. They’re able to be happy with less because they still don’t have to worry about money.
But rich minimalism still benefits the poor
As troubling as their attitude towards living with less may be to those of us who have to live with less, the move towards minimalism still benefits the poor in a lot of ways. It reduces environmental burdens which the poor shoulder disproportionately more of, but it also strengthens the commons on which the poor depend. Middle class people who choose to forgo the big suburban properties for denser city living prioritize better parks and recreation, better libraries, better schools, and better community resources in general that they can’t provide for themselves because they’ve gone too minimalistic to be able to own and store many things privately. And when middle and upper class people prioritize something, they tend get it. Because these resources are public, poor people in the communities with minimalist middle class people benefit from the improvements to the commons just as much as the rich do. Further, it’s poor people who really need access to strong commons to get by. We need libraries because unlike rich people, we cannot always buy a book or access a computer if we need to access information. We need safe parks for our children to play in because we don’t always have yards. We need good local, public schools because we aren’t always able to transport our kids to a better but further charter school, or afford tuition at a private school. Governments don’t always listen when poor people ask for these things (or can’t afford to give them to the people because most of this stuff is paid for with property taxes, and poor people aren’t exactly paying a lot of those). Middle and upper class people are more likely to get this stuff from their government, so when they decide to live poor, even if it’s an annoying choice, it still helps poor people out.
All of this sounds great, until you start to realize that middle and upper class minimalists moving into smaller homes in denser neighborhoods to make living with less more practical are a driving factor in gentrification. This is a huge problem in Denver right now. Middle and upper class people can afford to pay more for a home in a trendy area than poor people can, and can offer landlords and owners more money than what poorer people can to get an advantage in the rental and buying markets. Eventually, this drives up cost across the board, and soon a working class neighborhood becomes much too expensive for actual working class people.
This is doubly problematic because poor people are then forced to find homes further and further from the city center, in less dense neighborhoods in the suburbs that trendy, minimalistic middle and upper class people are moving from in a sort of reverse white flight. Even if housing costs go down in suburban areas to reflect the changing class of it’s inhabitants (which may or may not happen, I’m just speculating here), the cost of living in the suburbs is still going to be higher than in an identically priced home in a more dense, urban neighborhood. Why? Access to public transportation is low and walkability is abysmal in the suburbs, necessitating car ownership and the associated high costs of car maintenance and fuel. Houses are bigger, which means they cost more to heat, cool, light, provide water to, and maintain, even if they don’t cost much to buy or rent.
The depth of my moral confliction
This is where I tend to get so conflicted. We need the rich and middle class to chill out on consumerism, its crucial to the poor’s health and well being, as well as any kind of social and economic justice for them. But the way it’s happening right now is just pushing them to different kinds of harm. Its hard for me to speculate as to what kinds of solutions there are to this, but there has to be a middle ground. There has to be a place where we can encourage and celebrate the movement of middle and upper class people to find happiness and meaning in roles outside of consumerist, but not gentrify and patronize the poor. It’s totally valid that the drive towards mindless consumerism has created a void in the lives of middle and upper class people, and they should be able to pursue what research shows will provide them with true contentment. I’m not arguing that middle and upper class people, by virtue of their class privilege, are not entitled to a sense of worth and happiness in their lives. Everyone is entitled to that. But there has to be a way for all of us to pursue it without making the lives of less privileged people harder.
I think that moves to raise the minimum wage, fund all public schools equally, ensure that every community makes a certain percentage of homes available in various price ranges to increase class diversity, strengthening the commons across the board, and rethinking city planning to allow for higher density, probably all have parts to play in reaching that middle ground, but I admit that these alone are probably not all it’s going to take. I don’t know what all the fallout of these kinds of policy changes would be, and how we can accommodate them and fund them on a large scale (although I know the resources are there to do it, so funding it is probably just a matter of priorities). But I think it’s really important that we talk about it, rather than shutting down and shaming people people who are attempting to consume less. The problem is most likely the system in which we are all working. It’s probably the system we should be attacking, not the individuals trying to do the best they can within them.
That being said, please don’t be that patronizing minimalist. I think we can all agree that that guy is just the worst.
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