My first winter living in Winnipeg was the city's coldest since 1898. I spent three months of it holed up in a small bachelor suite without any heat, hot water, light or internet. Books were read by literal candlelight. Laundry was washed in the bathtub using a homemade soap mix of borax, bar soap and washing soda, later to be dried on towels that were draped on the floor. I wore two sweaters and sometimes a puffy down jacket to stay warm; luckily, my place was on the middle floor and featured few windows, meaning temperatures didn't drop too low. This austerity was entirely by choice. The thermostat was fully functional, as were the laundry facilities in the basement. I could have flipped on the lights at any point. Rather, those lonely, cold months were all an attempt to dramatically cut my consumption of material possessions, energy and information. It was a kind of lifestyle that viewed sacrifice and voluntary simplicity and even boredom as the only possible responses to the terrifying realities of climate change and ecocide and economic inequality and the entertainment culture that was distracting us from it all. It was also a deeply religious response, despite me having mostly ditched the faith a few years prior. "There's a really strong Christian aspect to anti-consumerism and simple living: that man is fallen, that we are too worldly, too materialist and need to return to some Eden to re-establish grace," notes Leigh Phillips, author of Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry And Stuff, in an interview with VICE. This is a serious problem. Look, I don't care if you're religious: you do you. The issue for me is that this ancient ascetic ethos—the notion that we have to consume far less in order to refine our souls and save the world—continues to grow in cultural clout. And it's anti-poor and reactionary bullshit. Bemoaning people who live paycheque-to-paycheque—which, according to a 2016 study, is 48 per cent of all working Canadians—to be more disciplined and attentive lets the very rich and powerful in society off the hook. It blames the masses for "living beyond their means" when it's a select few—like, literally a few—who are hoarding the money and control and obstructing society from rapidly transitioning to a just and sustainable future. Yet glowing examples of asceticism-as-solution are just everywhere. There's the painfully bougie and oft-ridiculed magazine Kinfolk, birthed out of a Brigham Young University dorm room and featuring the cringey tagline "in praise of slowness." Or the so-called Minimalists, a pair of white dudes who travel the world to proclaim the joys of simplicity, and just happen to be close friends with evangelical legend Rob Bell.
(Usually left unacknowledged by such folks is that "slow" and "simple" stuff tends to be considerably more expensive and time-consuming than buying shit at, say, Walmart or Tim Hortons. Both of the Minimalists previously had six-figure jobs; the founder of Kinfolk worked at Goldman Sachs.) It also doesn't seem like much of a coincidence that a key figure in David Foster Wallace's final novel, A Pale King—which was obsessed with grand notions of sacrifice and civic virtue and paying attention, a foil of sorts to Wallace's indictment of entertainment in Infinite Jest—was a Jesuit priest who taught the incredibly dull discipline of tax accounting. Nor that the even less tolerable Father John Misty had Macaulay Culkin "crucified" by Ronald McDonald clowns in a recent music video for "Total Entertainment Forever," ending up as some hamfisted, No Logo-inspired mess about corporations and technology and sacrilege that only a guy who ranted at a festival crowd for 20 minutes about the banality of entertainment before storming off stage would ever feel comfortable delivering. Sure, some such trends aren't explicitly religious. There's the somehow still-running Adbusters, the "tiny home" movement, third-wave coffee shops and endless books about the smartphone-induced permadeath of real-world discourse and silence. Or the socially acceptable practice to shame people who shop on Black Friday, despite the fact it might be the one time in the year they can afford to indulge in something nice for themselves or their kids. All of these reflect the same skepticism of possessions and pleasure and even modernity, viewing them as a degradation of morals and virtue. Joona Salminen, an expert in early Christian asceticism at Finland's University of Helsinki, said in an interview with VICE that starting in the fourth century, people striving for religious perfection tended to leave the city for the monastery in the desert. There was a clear demarcation: the urban centres housed food, wealth, possessions, family, parties and sex, whereas the Desert Fathers (as they were known) prioritized citizenship of heaven via fasting, celibacy and manual labour. By far the wildest story from this era was Simeon Stylites the Elder, who spent 37 years praying and fasting on top of a 50-foot pillar in the Syrian desert. The emphasis on strict asceticism waned over time, especially following the Protestant Reformation (which famously elevated faith over acts). But the very clear line drawn between worldly pleasures and heavenly treasures never really dissipated, carried on by the likes of Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Shane Claiborne and "plain people" like Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites. "We're not always fully aware of how the context of many important intellectual things in our Western thinking is indebted to an ascetic environment," Salminen says. It's an idea that's taken on even more prescience with the looming reality of climate change. The idea goes that there are too many people on the planet. Cities are too consumptive. We have to get back to the land, live simply so others can simply live, remember that small is beautiful. In other words, our only way of dodging catastrophic wildfires and flooding and droughts is to clamp down and stop using so much shit. Here's reality: wages for workers have stagnated for decades. Income inequality has widened. Jobs have become more precarious—especially for young people—while the cost of living skyrockets. Meanwhile, a handful of multi-billionaires have expanded their grip on the world's wealth, largely via rapacious sectors like finance, real estate and fossil fuel production; as identified by Oxfam in early 2017, a mere eight men now possess the same amount of wealth as 3.5 billion people. In the same study, it was found that Canada's two richest businessmen have the same amount of wealth as the country's 11 million poorest people. And it's not like the average worker is responsible for climate change. The world's militaries emit more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other sector. Air travel—which was controversially excluded from the Paris Agreement, along with shipping—is disproportionately used by high-income people. As calculated in a 2011 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the richest quintile of Canadians emit almost double the annual emissions than the poorest.
Sure, we can probably all cut back on eating factory-farmed meat. Some elements of our day-to-day lifestyles should probably be revamped, with high-speed rail maybe replacing cars, renewables and nuclear power displacing fossil fuels. But minimalism isn't going to get us out of this mess. As Kyle Chayka in the New York Times pointed out, the trend provides "further ways to serve our impulse to consume more, not less." Rather, we should be aiming much higher, for a far more technologically advanced and sustainable society. The anti-anti-consumerism, really.
What we need is to demand proportionate wealth and power to call the shots, to accelerate progress and development that benefits everyone, especially for oppressed groups like black, Indigenous and people of colour, migrants and LGBTQ people.
"We can have a conversation over whether the current suite of products that are made in society are the optimal suite of products," Phillips suggests. "And that's an interesting conversation. But if we're simply saying that people should consume less, then we're actively endorsing that Thatcherite, neoliberal transformation of the last 40 years where we have seen working people are consuming less." I ended up abandoning my ascetic lifestyle after moving into a house with roommates. Part of it was the awkwardness of washing one's clothes in the bathtub with other people around. A bigger factor was me simply giving up on the possibility of change: I'd spent much of those literally dark months reading books about overpopulation and the negative impacts of the internet on attention spans and memory, and had become convinced that The Masses were too dull and stupefied to change their ways. It was pompous and intellectually lazy, something I only realized after spending a long while researching writing about energy and technology issues. But the solutions are out there. They'll just require a lot of collaboration to deploy; retreating into the desert and placing the blame on working people is reactionary nonsense that only allows megalomaniacs like Trump to get away with annihilating the globe. What we need is to demand proportionate wealth and power to call the shots, to accelerate progress and development that benefits everyone, especially for oppressed groups like black, Indigenous and people of colour, migrants and LGBTQ people. To shoot high, dreaming of green affordable housing for all, and access to cheap and nutritious food, and plenty of time to fuck around on our PS4s or even have "simple" and "slow" picnics in the park with our Christian pals. Hell, even if it doesn't work, it sure sounds more fun than freezing my ass off in a tiny bachelor suite.