Minimalism, Millennials and the Environment

Minimalism, Millennials and the Environment

After graduating from Creighton in May with a degree in sociology, Marika Svolos found her dream job making $125 per month.

“I’m not worried about making money,” says Svolos, who works as a volunteer at Jerusalem Farm, a Catholic community in Kansas City, Missouri, dedicated to prayer, community, service and simplicity.

She shares a home — a converted convent — with nine other adults and two children near Kansas City’s downtown loop. The nonprofit farm has a garden, fruit trees, chickens, honeybees and a large compost pile. The community hosts spiritual retreats, provides home repair to low-income residents and offers weekly curbside composting to its neighbors.

Svolos serves as house manager. She gets groceries for the community, which includes accepting some recently expired items from the store so they won’t go to waste; she does canning; she helps cook and clean; she meets with those on retreat. It’s a simple life. And she loves it.

“My life is full of joy and grace,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to live any other way.”

But she does not consider herself a minimalist.

“I don’t think of my lifestyle as minimalist, even though it is very simple,” Svolos explains. “What I’m doing is not about trying to have the minimum; it’s about becoming aware of the abundance that’s all around us.”

Labeling issues and a lack of solid data make it difficult to determine the growth of the current minimalism movement. Studies have shown that millennials, the oldest of whom are now in their mid-30s, aren’t buying houses like their parents did at that age.

But those studies, and others that show millennials as cautious consumers, don’t necessarily mean this generation has made a decision to embrace minimalism as a lifestyle, says Ryan Wishart, PhD, assistant professor of sociology. At least not voluntarily.

Dubbed the “children of the Great Recession,” the generation has faced stagnant wages, a difficult job market and high student loan debt.

“When you’re saddled with student loan debt, and you don’t have a lot of disposable income and you have uncertainty about your economic future,” Wishart says, “it makes you think harder about what you really want to spend your money on.”

Wishart says America’s work and consumer cultures have taken a toll on the environment — an important issue for a major segment of minimalists, as well as millennials.

“Societies that work longer hours tend to engage in consumption patterns that have a higher ecological footprint,” says Wishart, referencing the work of Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor, an expert in consumption and sustainability. “It’s not just that you consume more. You consume differently.”

As an example, Wishart says Americans pressed for vacation time might be more likely to hop on a plane and take the family to Disneyland, instead of taking a more leisurely, less fuel-intensive trip.

And, even if minimalism takes greater hold among Americans, Wishart isn’t sure if it will make much difference environmentally.

“Consumption is increasing among the rich,” Wishart says. “Even if we got the majority of the middle-class, working-class people to adopt a minimalist lifestyle, the consumption patterns of the richest 10 percent are enough, by themselves, to drive us over the cliff.

“The flip side, and the good news, is we don’t have to get everyone to become minimalists if we significantly tackle that inequality and profligacy at the top.”