Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
– Leonardo da Vinci
These days, a growing cadre of North Americans are taking the Renaissance master's sentiment to heart very literally, selling their automobiles, building tiny homes, wearing the same clothes for months on end and happily giving away their clutter online. The fact that the recession has forced many people to re-evaluate their consumption patterns is nothing new, of course: What is unusual is the feverishness and openness with which some wannabe minimalists have adopted the task, using the Internet and social media to document every instance of the shedding process.
Take Victoria Vargas of Phoenix, Ariz. "Right-sizing" is how she describes her efforts to purge her 1,200-square-foot home of "stuff creep" – the objects she has accumulated despite not shopping very often – on her blog, www.smallerliving.net.
"Right-sizing is ridding your life of what you don't need, don't use, don't find beautiful," the writer and archaeologist explains, chanelling William Morris, the 19th-century designer and artist who famously advised to "have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
"It's bringing it down to the essence of what makes you happy and then jettisoning the rest because it just becomes a ball and chain."
In the coming weeks, Vargas will be ensconcing herself and her cat Cricket in her family room and renting the rest of her house out to tenants. She has crunched the numbers: She'll from then on be residing in just 42 per cent of her home. She also hopes to decrease her car use by 50 per cent this year, bicycling and taking light rail instead.
If there is a perceived zealotry in such actions, Vargas recognizes it, acknowledging that some in the "small living" movement have been taking on a "smaller than thou" tone, which she finds "hilarious."
"I don't feel that I could look at somebody else and say, 'You know, you really need to be living in 500 square feet if it's just you and your wife,' " she says.
Although he swears that he's "not a socialist," Mike Morone of Rochester, N.Y. is nonetheless more prescriptive in his push for an annual, worldwide purge of the crap in people's basements: On Sept. 25, the founder of Give Your Stuff Away Day will be encouraging all homeowners to put their excess stuff on their front curbs so that others can rifle through it and take what they need.
"When you get rid of something, you kind of free up a little portion of your psyche that was stressed over maintaining ownership of that item," says Morone, a father of three who has chucked his old wrestling trophies and given away all his books. (He now goes to the library instead.)
Morone's project is a grassroots version of the Freecycle Network, a non-profit waste-reduction program that lets its 7 million members give each other items they don't need any more, keeping them out of landfills.
Other downsizers sidestep conspicuous consumerism altogether by living in homes that simply don't fit much.
Gregory Johnson, for one, co-founded the Small House Society for those who live in 1,000 square feet and under (or want to). The Iowa City man chose the extreme end of the spectrum for himself, settling into a 70-square-foot house to reduce both his carbon footprint and his rent.
"Over the last eight years, momentum has really grown as mainstream architects are embracing smaller building and design and even specializing in these tiny homes," Johnson says, adding that technology is spurring a new generation of downsizers.
"It used to be you had to live like Thoreau: in a little, tiny cabin, [without] a lot of stuff because it just wouldn't fit in there. Now, with the iPad, iPhone and notebook computers, people are downsizing but keeping a lot of their stuff."
One of those tech-savvy downshifters is Brooklyn software engineer Kelly Sutton, who condensed his life to a laptop, iPad, Amazon Kindle, two hard drives, several articles of clothing and bed sheets. Sutton donated the rest of his belongings and documented the purge on his blog, TheCultofLess.com.
"While I don't consider myself to be some sort of ascetic or societal recluse, I've found that more stuff equates to more stress," he writes. "Each thing I own came with a small expectation of responsibility. I look into my closet and feel guilt. I glance into my desk drawers and see my neglect. When was the last time I wore this? Have I ever even used that?"
Paradoxically, some of the most ardent members of the downsizing community may be fashionistas, most vivid of them being Sheena Matheiken, a New York creative director who wore the same little black dress for 365 days as part of the Uniform Project, which raised $100,000 for charity. Earlier this month, the Uniform Project launched the Pilot Series of micro-fundraisers that will see indie rockers and fashion bloggers take up Matheiken's experiment, albeit for just one month.
"It's turned out to be a huge exercise in conscious consumerism. From a fashion perspective, it's never really been trendy to own less, but I'm a big believer in quality over quantity," says Jessica Engle, a writer and digital strategist for the project.
The women behind SixItemsOrLess.com, another online exercise in restraint, allowed themselves up to half a dozen pieces of clothing for their month-long challenge, which wrapped up in July after drawing 100 participants who detailed their experiences on the website.
"We were interested in what happens if we remove clothing decisions, energy and stress from life – how that frees up your mind otherwise," says Heidi Hackemer, who started Six Items Or Less with Tamsin Davies, her advertising colleague.
During the challenge, Hackemer discovered that few people noticed what she was doing, even when she wore the same outfit four days in a row to work. The experiment "ricocheted" and spurred a shopping diet in her life.
"Something in my head clicked that it doesn't have to be so stressful," she says.
Many of the participants in the experiment saw it as an anti-consumerist act, even though the founders held no such high-minded politics themselves.
"Tamsin and I have been quite adamant that we're not going to preach. I don't know that that's the way best way to affect behavioural change. The best way might be to put out a little challenge that people can wrap their heads around."
Their approach seems to be working: More than 1,100 people have subscribed for the next round this fall.
Still, some downsizers have picked "Twitter fights" with Hackemer for not going further: She's been told that her rules were too lax and that she should have aspired to a purge like The Great American Apparel Diet, which saw participants buy no new clothing for an entire year.
For her part, Hackemer sees little value in competitive minimalism.
"There's enough room for all of us. The most important thing is that we're getting people to think. It should not be a pissing contest."