there is, as I’ve mentioned before, a very cool web meme regarding simple lifestyles and self-employment.  It’s called, variously, minimalism, freedom, etc.  Please visit , or for popular examples.  I read these blogs and enjoy the writers’ opinions.

however, the entire notion is premised around 1. laptop computers and/or 2. smartphones. (and obviously, software + the internet.) Additionally, travel is usually popular with these writers, which requires, in most cases, the airline industry. plus, the credit card industry.

none of which developed in a vacuum. and corporations/ industry aren’t the enemy, they’re the enablers of the freedom opportunities.

additionally, most of the writers earn money by writing about freedom + travel through minimalist lifestyles.  So it’s a little solipsistic.

I’m interested in the economic sustainability of the proposition, not the environmental sustainability. We don’t have laptop computers outside of a consumer culture.  We wouldn’t have the economy to support the development of consumer laptops without people buying tons of stuff all the time.  Additionally, apple, microsoft, google usw. are huge corporations.  Whether we’re talking computers or search algorithms running on acres of servers, these things didn’t emerge from a culture of minimalism.  Companies like these will not and cannot support the development of amazing technology without lots of money flowing in the economy, available to buy technologies.  There’s an economic reason that google didn’t emerge from an agrarian economy.

minimalism is an awesome lifestyle choice on an individual level.  It truly does make you feel freer.  But, if EVERYONE chooses minimalism, we don’t have laptops or the internet anymore, because no one is creating and maintaining the physical infrastructures required for international trade.  thus, minimalism is a nice personal project, but not an economically sustainable model, unless you are willing to give up technology.  Just read about China in this weekend’s new york times magazine.  How do you turn a billion savers and minimalists into consumers?  It’s a multi trillion dollar question, I suppose, and a necessary component of continuing to grow your economy out of the agrarian age, if you are China.

Personally, I’m a big fan of minimalism and buying less.  I mostly buy food and travel, and I definitely have a fair amount of technology, but don’t buy the latest gadgets. In my family, we avoid gift giving, apart from consumables.  A little more minimalism would do a lot for everyone, but it will also probably mean we have fewer and more expensive laptop computers, smartphones, and shipping charges.

I’m in favor of viewing lifestyle philosophies within their economic construct.

Posted by:Brook DeLorme

6 replies on “sustainability models

  1. This is VERY interesting. Some societies DO attempt a minimalistic culture. The Amish are one successful example, that is made possible by very hard work by all involved, and a high level of personal and community autonomy.

    The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia would be an unsuccessful example.

    1. both agrarian examples, true! and highly idealistic, at least in philosophy.

      I tend to think that idealism falls apart when applied to larger societies. Amish are, of course, small in numbers. Idealism in the communism sense has never worked in large populations….

      thanks for writing :)

  2. Would be nice to see a movement in this direction as in general peeps simply have too much stuff. Fact is how much do we really need? However, if too great a % of population become minimalist = economic depression. As for corporations…Well they allow for economies of scale thus making a country competitive in the global market.

  3. Brook,
    I agree with many of your observations, I read the same blogs, and have pondered the same questions. I guess I’m not inherently anti-corporate (or if I am, I’m a hypocrite) because while 90% of the time I’ll choose “local” “handmade” “sustainalbe” etc., I have owned a bunch of Apples over the years, and some nice cameras, etc. When I fly, I (for safety reasons you are well familiar with), I choose major airlines. And while I’ve never set foot in a Walmart (and hope to die first), I have spent thousands of dollars on Amazon (making me partly to blame for the dearth of bookstores in my beloved Cambridge). I don’t know why I’ll happily spend $100 vs. $20 on a shirt (to support some cool, independent designer like you) but I can’t bring myself to spend $24.99 vs. $14.99 on a book (to keep my local bookstore in business). I really think it has to do with the ways I economize big, occasional purchases (where I put a lot of thought into them, so all the factors I care about come into play) vs. every day purchases where I make the decision based only on one (cheapest in case of books, healthiest in case of food, etc.).

    I was intrigued by one thing you said: “But, if EVERYONE chooses minimalism, we don’t have laptops or the internet anymore, because no one is creating and maintaining the physical infrastructures required for international trade.”

    I don’t know if I agree … some years ago I read a book called “Small Giants” about companies that have chosen NOT to grow. They are biggish companies, but they are aren’t going public, nor are they planning it. They are small and profitable, a kind of oxymoron in business. And by their success they are defying the rules that say “money” and “growth” go together. The book planted a seed … since then I’ve started to ponder why it is that our economy has to grow and grow but everything else in nature (carbon, nitrogen, water) exists in a kind of cycle where it moves from one form to another but the overall amount remains constant (well, except for the carbon released by fossil fuels … but that’s stuff we’ve dug up from deep in the earth … it wouldn’t have found its way into the atmosphere by natural means).

    One problem with my theory is that you can’t have a “money cycle” (where the overall amount of money in the economy remains constant) and a growing population, without making people poorer over time. So as long as the population is growing, there’s a kind or moral obligation to let the economy grow too, if we don’t want to consign millions to poverty.

    But back to the minimalists … I do think they encourage a different type of consumption (in services, not in things) and the good thing about “services” is they tend to be carbon-neutral. Travel, of course, is not, not by air anyway, so that one’s a bit of a conundrum. I guess I rationalize it by living pretty sustainably otherwise. I hate when I visit a country like Brazil because I think urban poverty is so much uglier than rural poverty, and I’d rather people growing food and making consumables (even for export) than moving to cities to make manufactured goods for export.

    Which is why I guess I have less problem eating imported cheeses (despite being a localvore) from sheep milked by hand in some rural part of Europe (keeps a centuries old tradition, way of life, economy going) than I do with buying anything from China (except all those bits and pieces of my MacBook Pro, that is).

    1. hey Elizabeth- thanks so much for writing and your thoughts :)

      I’ve just downloaded a sample of “Small Giants” to my kindle…

      Much of my views regarding technology are influenced by having worked at a ‘small’ tech company (my dad’s company, DeLorme, which produces consumer GPS devices ) I’ve watched a company that is small and unusual by tech standards from the inside out for many years. It’s unusual because it’s privately held and fairly old (33 years). It’s small, at 120 people, for a company that produces consumer hardware.

      Hardware is different from software because of the capital requirements. Consumer hardware especially, because consumers won’t place their orders and wait for delivery after you’ve manufactured the stuff! It’s that capital-intensive requirement that leads to large companies like apple dominating the market. A big company like Apple must produce, and take the risk for manufacturing, hundreds of thousands (or more) of their new devices in order to achieve the prices we like. (I don’t know anything about the inside workings of apple, but I’m using it as an example.)

      Then the thing with software: since the barriers to entry are low- a laptop, a website, etc, there is the potential for a single person, or a small group of programmers to develop something amazing. and support themselves doing it. But they can always be knocked out of the top position quickly because the barriers of entry are so low.

      Most consumer grade professional software is developed by medium to huge teams of people, programmers, artists, designers, managers, etc. It doesn’t look professional to a consumer unless it is developed by a large group…the skill sets required are so varied, it’s rare for one person to have them all.

      Your comment about the money cycle brings up something I talk a lot about with friends…the growing population. From what I’ve read, growing population is really a problem of women’s rights- not just legal rights, but cultural status. In all really westernized nations, women choose to have 2 or less children (hence the downward population trend among women/families born in europe.) It’s been evidenced in so many countries that if women have education and real choices around birth control, they don’t want to have much more than 1.5-2 children.

      I don’t know how it’s to happen, but I’d really love to see some countries with ballooning populations realize it’s not an unavoidable future….

      1. There’s this (bizarre) trend in the US toward bigger families. I don’t get it. And it’s not just a lower-class born-again Christian or Catholic thing. I know one woman – a raw vegan and very well-off – with three kids who basically freaked out at age 43 bause that wasn’t enough and just had – with help of in vitro – twins. So now she’s got five kids. And if she were the only person I knew with more than two, I’d be fine, but she’s not. I’m especially appalled to be witnessing this trend in the raw-vegan community.

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