There is a movement right now that is beginning to gain traction. The main point of this movement is to reject the social norm that having more material goods makes one better. The movement is called the minimalist movement. Followers of this movement commit to living without spending frivolously on consumer goods and investing in quality not quantity of the goods they buy. This sociological norm that the movement is out to reject came about in 1950’s America and was perpetuated by advertising and the ability to borrow money or buy on credit. This over consumption that has plagued America for so long that it causing Americans to carry way more debt than they need to. Some may say that this is a financial issue and that Americans need to learn to budget their money more effectively. I would argue that this is a sociological problem. The social norms of this country have changed. No longer is having and using only what one needs the norm. The new social norm is to consume and dispose of more than one would need. Waste and excess have been the norm for modern Americans for too long and if the minimal living movement does not get more to reject the norms of overspending soon the American people will continue to carry more and more debt and consume even more than ever. I will argue that the origin of these consumerist sociological norms can be traced back to the great depression and were perpetuated by the automobile markets of the 1950’s.
In order to truly understand the minimalist movement one must understand the sociological norms that the movement is trying to reject. The origin of the consumerist market and norms of overconsumption can be traced, ironically enough, to the great depression. This may seem like and odd place of origin for consumerism due to the scarcity of money and employment at this time. The lack of capital amongst the American people fostered a minimalist lifestyle not by choice, but by necessity. Once these people of the depression came into money in post war America they had a great urge to spend and they possessed the capital to spend it. During the great depression thriftiness was the sociological norm. People did not have the wealth to spend frivolously and had to fix what they did have. Unemployment was at an all-time high and most households could only afford the bare necessities. This put a great emphasis on material belongings as a sign of prosperity and wealth in their culture. Those who had the most were the most prosperous. If we fast forward to the 1950’s this concept of material based social status was still the norm. The only difference in the eras was that the consumer possessed the capital and means to consume.
The 1950’s were a great time for this nation. The war had just ended and the American people possessed a buying power that they had not possessed in a long time. There was great availability for people, veterans especially, to get low interest rates on car loans and mortgages. The first credit card was released in 1950 introducing people to the concept of buy now pay later. This concept detracted from the importance of saving money, sending Americans into a buying frenzy. The frenzy was no more evident in any market than that of the automobile. In 1950 car culture really took hold in the US. Cars were made better and faster and due to advancements in manufacturing and the aforementioned low interest rates, they were more affordable than ever. The introduction of the interstate system and drive in movies made the automobile an integral part of the American culture. Cars were bought in record numbers. Families began to buy more than one car per household. The sociological norm of having the best car was deeply engrained in the culture of the 1950’s.
The manufacturers of cars then took notice of this and were very careful to make subtle changes to model years in order to profit off of the need for a new vehicle as seen in the figure above. The sociological norm and social pressure to have the newest car fueled the urge to buy a new car. The fact that it was obvious that one’s car was not new set it in stone. This type of planned stylistic obsolescence is still present in the manufacturing of cars today. If Americans today are going to break the cycle of overconsumption we are going to have to reject the sociological norm that newer things are better.
Now that the norms that the movement is trying to reject are clear we must ask ourselves, when did the minimalist movement come to be? The origin of overconsumption began in the 1950’s, however it took the oil crisis of the 1970’s to begin the minimalist movement. The movement was not in its full form, but the main concept and mindset came to be in the 70’s. In 1970 oil was scarce in the US. Owning multiple cars that were big, high performance muscle cars could be a great financial burden as seen in Figure 2. The price of oil skyrocketed in 1973 thus sparking a mass movement to spend less.
There were many campaigns to get the American people to cut back. This was the first time that the norm of excess was challenged, By the American government no less. The American people began to associate cutting back with being patriotic. Slogans like “Don’t be Fuelish” really drove home the fact that one would be hurting the country and acting foolishly if they did not cut back at least a little bit. Auto manufacturers for the first time began to market cars with fuel economy as a selling point. They began advertising economy cars as being the hip thing. These social pressures from the American government and auto manufacturers cause the minimalist movement to be born. The minimalists of this era drove smaller economy cars and were committed to living with no more than they should. These early minimalists came from all walks of life from hippies living in communes sharing everything and consuming next to nothing or a suburban man who sold his V8 muscle car for a more economical model. This type of thinking and type of cutting back is what founded the movement and really got the ball rolling.
The modern day minimalist movement takes many forms and does not only pertain to the automobile markets. There are those who take the movement to the maximum and refuse to own cars or make any impact on the environment at all. The minimalist movement does not revolve around these extremists entirely; it instead encourages people to accept a reasonable amount of minimalism. The central idea is to reject the sociological norm that has been perpetuated for decades that more is better and that those who possess more are somehow better off than those with less. People who follow the minimalist movement invest in quality not quantity and try to buy local or domestically made goods when possible. If a minimalist needs a truck for their job they are going to buy a truck. Simply going without is not the name of the minimalist’s game. They would however buy a used model that would still get the job done but cost them less. This type of need conscious spending saves the minimalist money in the long run and cuts down on the amount of debt they carry.
This movement is pivotal to the future of the American people because of the great strain that our overconsumption has put on the environment. The sociological norm that more is better has caused mass production of cheaply made plastic goods and over packaging to run rampant. These goods are often made overseas to cheapen the cost of mass production. These goods take lots of fossil fuels to be shipped to their point of sale. The packaging from over packaged goods fills our landfills at a record rate and the synthetics used to make these goods do not decompose for thousands of years. The figure below shows that the amount of fossil fuels burned has increased over the years at quite a steep rate. This is owed to the growth of the global economy and the fossil fuels burned to move goods from their point of manufacture to the point of sale.
Those who chose to live minimally contribute to this problem less than the average consumer. This is the overall point of the minimalist movement. It does not call for all people to give up all of their possessions and live in a cave. It simply asks everyone to cut back a little bit on their spending and buy only what they need. When it comes time to buy something buy quality not quantity and buy domestically made goods or locally made goods if at all possible. It’s not calling for a drastic lifestyle change from the nation. Conversely the movement will have a drastic impact if most Americans commit to consuming and owning less material goods.
The conclusion of this argument is one that is simple in concept. In order to assure the future for the environment and the financial wellbeing of this country, Americans must reject the sociological norm that material possessions are related to social status. We don’t have to give up too much, but it would do a world of good for all of us to cut back a little.
Sources and interesting links for anyone who would like to learn more:
Minimalism in general:
Finding a reasonable amount of minimalism:
The 1950’s auto market in america:
The environmental impact of overconsumptiion: