06 May 2022

Week 8 Becoming a Minimalist.    5th May 2022


Focus talk: Susan Nulsen. Click here to listen.
Susan Nulsen’s Bio
Both of Susan Nulsen's parents were born in the Depression and had been brought up in country Western Australia. Her mother's parents were farmers. Her father's father had drowned when her father was a baby and her father's mother had become a hairdresser in a country town (where she had little competition) to support them both. Neither of Susan's parents families had been particularly well-off. Although the Depression hadn't hit the farmers too badly, subsequent droughts had had more of an effect . Her mother's family had been forced to move to the city where her grandfather had worked as a dustman for some time.
Susan's parents were both twenty-two when she was born. Her father had a low paid job as a car mechanic and her mother was a stay at home housewife, so money was tight. Susan is the eldest of four girls. Her next sister was less than two years younger than her but Susan was nearly seven when her second sister was born and closer to ten than nine at the birth of her youngest sister.
Struggling to Remain a Minimalist.
Hello. I hope that you won't be disappointed that I cannot tell you how to become a minimalist. I am still trying to work it out myself. In fact I will call my talk Struggling to Remain a Minimalist. I try to minimize clutter for my serenity. I try to minimize my environmental impact for the good of humanity and the planet.
You can deduce from that brief bio that I started out as minimalist by necessity rather than by any conscious choice. Fortunately my mother made how hard up we were invisible to us. She kept chickens, (or “chooks” as they were known) which consumed all our kitchen scraps. The chickens were mainly for the eggs but from time to time my father would, very reluctantly, kill one. He really disliked that job. Plucking and cleaning the bird involved heating a copper full of boiling water in the laundry which sat away from the house in the back yard. That was my mother's job and it took quite some time. You can imagine that chicken was only eaten on very special occasions. My mother also grew vegetables which she fertilized with horse manure. In the late 50's we still had hot bread delivered daily by horse and wagon. The horse knew the route and would stop or move slowly while the driver ran in and out of the houses. When the opportunity arose my mother would rush outside with a spade to collect the manure from the road. My mother was also an excellent dressmaker and I think that we were the best dressed children in the neighborhood. She cut down other people's cast-offs or she bought pieces from the remnant bin at the fabric shop. Being dressed in the height of fashion wasn't always a positive thing though. I will never forget the acute embarrassment I felt at the age of seven or eight when I came out of the changing shed at the swimming baths in my extremely modest two-piece swimsuit, which I had been very fond of up until then, only to be greeted by whistling and hooting from every boy in the school! I still feel like sinking through the floor.
Of course my mother also knitted and crocheted and cooked and much more. She made icecream from condensed milk and it took me a long time when I was older to get used to the taste of commercial icecream. Our diet was completely nutrionally balanced as I discovered at school when I was 13 and we all had to record what we ate and compare it with an ideal diet. I will just take a moment to show you some of my mother's products. Firstly here is my teddy bear who now shows signs of being well-loved. He was made of scraps from my grandmother's overcoat with brown buttons for eyes. When my husband saw him this morning, he asked whether I was intending to illustrate how I hoard things forever! Secondly here is a handerchief with a crocheted border. My mother would give us these as presents from time to time. Finally the pièce-de-résistance is the cardigan that I am wearing now. My mother knitted it from a natural-colored (undyed) mixture of mohair and merino wool that she spun herself. Although you might describe my mother as a minimalist we did not experience a very austere life-style. And her use of time was far from minimal. I think that only a stay-at-home mother could possibly have done all she did. I should say that she wasn't a perfect housekeeper. Her method of tidying up after us messy kids was to bundle everything up off the floor and shove it into a cupboard or onto a shelf.
My father had very few household chores. I can only think of mowing the lawn, which he did as infrequently as possible –he worked on the principle that if you didn't water the lawn it wouldn't grow– and chopping the wood for the fire which was the only heating we had in the house. The wood, by the way, was never bought but came from a fence that someone pulled down, or roots that had been cleared out of a paddock at someone's farm or ... However he contributed in his own way. While working full time he enrolled full time at the Perth Technical College to become an engineer. My earliest memories of him are as he was studying at our dining table. He told me stories about the genie that lived in the exotic bottle of India ink that he used for his technical drawings. One outstanding thing that he did was to build us a solar hot water system many years before they were commercially available. The backup heating was a little chip heater that needed to be lit most winter days. From when I was 14, I became the principal wood chopper.
My father was the best bargainer that I have ever known. He liked good things but could never afford to go out and buy them new. If he couldn't find a good second hand item he would manage to get the display item in a shop, or a returned item, at some huge discount. Two of my most valued possessions as I was growing up were the result of his bargaining. I had a watch with a beautiful mother-of-pearl face. Once I unwittingly said to a friend that I could look at it “for hours”. That evoked a big groan. The second item was a compact 35 mm Zeiss Ikon camera with a fold-out lens. However I was never able to take as many photos as I would have liked because film and processing were expensive. Unfortunately none of my father's daughters inherited his bargaining ability. I think we all lack his effrontery as well as his charm.
My parents' initial reasons for being minimalist were simply financial. At first they had no money but even when they could have afforded more, my father did not believe in wasting it. My sister and I used to call him “Scrooge”. Later, of course, he too realized the importance of reducing your environmental footprint.

There are many more good reasons, very good reasons, other than financial ones for becoming a minimalist, although I don't think I will ever be as good at it as my mother was. So, why do I continue to strive for minimalism?
The first time I thought about minimalism was when I learnt at school of the Christian monks' vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. I envisaged a life of contemplation in a cell with no possessions but with access to a library and everything provided for me. It seemed idyllic. I did not consider what obedience and chastity would entail or the amount of work and goods that were required to maintain that lifestyle. I found the simplicity very appealing. Thinking about it now I realize that I was, in fact, already living a lifestyle very much like that.
My horizons were broadened when I went to university in the early 70s. I became aware of how the earth's resources were strictly limited and the environment was under increasing threat as the global population grew exponentially. There was even discussion about how the climate would be affected. As physics students we thought about various means of generating renewable power. That was fifty years ago! The climate crisis is now upon us and the world population continues to grow. I cannot understand why the warnings that were given then, and have continued to be repeated, have remained unheeded for so long. I guess it is so that a few wealthy people or corporations could maintain and increase their wealth and power even at the expense of the lives of their children and grandchildren and everyone else. I feel that this is a failure of democracy.
When my husband went to study in England it was very much a culture shock for us. I didn't realize that the UK was still suffering from the aftermath of the war thirty years after it had ended. The buildings and the streets were all black and grimy and in a state of disrepair. Our friends were students and no-one had any money. People patched their trousers where they wore out on bicycle seats (that didn't look very elegant!) and sewed elbow patches on their sleeves. I never saw my friend Shauna Shaw except with a sock that she was darning. We fitted right in. I was working but all my income went to save up for a trip back to Australia. It was over a year before we had enough. I was amazed when some of our new American friends flew back home for Christmas only a few months after they had arrived. Nowadays the average person in the UK appears to be much better off. The buildings and streets have all been cleaned and repaired. The country is a completely different place.
When we returned to Australia with our new baby and had a second child I discovered that children are the exact opposites of minimalists. They are huge generators of disorder and they are the recipients of much unnecessary stuff. Even the necessary stuff is very temporary since babies quickly grow out of both clothing and equipment as their needs change.
Coming to America was the opposite of going to the UK. I was shocked by how profligate many Americans appeared to be. The thing that exemplifies that to me is the way someone will grab a whole handful of paper napkins when all they need is one, or perhaps two when they are very flimsy. The positive side of this is that the second hand shops are really wonderful.

My guiding principle to being a minimalist is to follow the four Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Repair and Recycle. So why, you might ask, is my house so cluttered? Well, we will see.
The first of the Rs is
1) Reduce: I find that I do do a reasonable job of not acquiring or using more than I need, with a few weaknesses such as books and equipment for the arts and crafts that I do. Even when I paint I usually try to identify who I will give the painting to before I start. Recently I took a painting course which produced a number of paintings that don't have anyone's name on them. At least they are only on art paper so they don't take up a lot of space. With clothing I have taken to not bringing something into the house without sending something out. That was a necessity because of limited cupboard space. We no longer get any magazines and only subscribe to the New York Times online. The biggest input and source of clutter is paper that contains information that I do not want to lose. We have decided that we should donate all the novels that we have both read and are very unlikely to read again to one of the Little Libraries that we encounter on our daily walks, no more than one book a day. This is working quite well (and they do disappear from the Libraries) but it is a slow process. Reference books are still a stumbling block.
We drive our one car as little as possible but I think our flights to Australia undo all those efforts. Of course, long haul flights are more efficient, I hope you appreciate!
Another thing we have done to minimize our carbon footprint is to sign up for 100% sustainable electric power. This is more expensive but it is an expense that we can and ought to bear. Because we are lucky enough to be able to afford what others may not be able to, it is only more imperative that we make the change.
2) Reuse: This R is a trap! There is a tension between minimizing your environmental impact and minimizing the clutter you are surrounded by. This explains why, for example, our house is cluttered with boxes and other packaging waiting to be reused. The incoming rate is definetly exceeding the outgoing rate. Reusing a box has much less impact on the environment than recycling that box and buying another one when you need it. I never know what sized box I will want next, but I am going to have to make some arbitrary decisions to cull our supply soon. The same applies to old clothes and linen that we keep for rags.
3) Repair: This R is another trap! This is applied to any clothes which are damaged or slightly worn, with the result that I have a huge pile of mending waiting for me. I have a wardrobe half full of clothes that are nearly worn out, okay for wearing around the house but not good enough for when in company. I would happily donate these to anyone who would be willing to wear them, but if I recycled them I know they would only qualify as rags. We also try to mend other goods that break down. Well over a year ago our printer stopped working. I was able to work out what was wrong but it took me a couple of months to pull the printer apart and fix. Putting it back together was another story – a few unidentified pieces appeared. It took about a year to get it back into one piece. Now it is refusing to print until it is reset with the Canon software which I can only find for PC's, not Macs. I've given my husband that job since he tells me it should be straightforward. Over the last year or so we managed to repair both our fridge and our stove. The internet is invaluable because we are able to both find out what needs to be done and order the parts that we need. The stove was rather awkward but the repair went well. We gave up in despair on the refrigerator because it still just wasn't cooling. I was already looking up replacement refrigerators when the repairman we had called out came. He pointed out to us that we might get better results if we switched the fridge on! Didn't we feel stupid.
4) Recycle: We do a lot of this on a weekly basis, and really should do more to reduce our clutter. We are lucky because the City of Cambridge has a very good waste management program. Each week we generally only have about one supemarket vegetable bag of trash. It is mostly packaging and little bits of plastic that we can't recycle.
The four Rs I considered are given in order of minimizing environmental impact. This order is not totally rigid. Sometimes, for example, donating some good clothing can become another way of reusing, but the handling and transport have additional environmental impact over continuing to use, adjusting the size, or handing on to someone you would normally be in contact with, such as giving your children's outgrown clothes to their cousins.
An alternative approach to minimalism is to adhere to motto “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”, which I believe is a variation of a phrase uttered by Calvin Coolidge in World War I. (He said “Eat it up,” etc).
One point, which I will not go into here, is the significant amount of time I spend trying to reduce my environmental impact. It may be made up to some extent, but definitely not completely, by time saved in having to take care of less stuff. Lack of time is the reason why I have so many bits of paper waiting to be dealt with. I have plenty of other things I would rather be doing!
To end I have two short video clips of Juliet Schor. She agrees with Lizabeth Cohen that it is essential that governments take action. The first clip is a very recent one and explains where we are in reducing our carbon emissions globally.
[The audio recording ends here.]
Scope of the Climate Crisis 2min 3sec to 5min 35sec: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlFKMIfqaPE If you can spare the time it is worth listening to the whole 31 minutes.
The other video clip is a personal one with Juliet Schor describing how she and her family live.
Why Ethical Consumption? 2min 4sec to 5min 7sec: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VutnFgED10U
As I said at the beginning, “I try to minimize clutter for my serenity. I try to minimize my environmental impact for the good of humanity and of the planet”. I know what I do is only a drop in the bucket, but that is a good analogy because all the water in that bucket is nothing more than many drops. If we all did what we could it would make a big contribution to reducing our environmental impact. Remember that 70% of the US GDP is based on consumption.
I am looking forward to hearing what you all have to say. Thank you.

For people who listened and didn't read, the following points were missed from the original talk in the recording (but are included in the text above):
Looking back at what I said, the URGENCY I feel about the importance of limiting climate change and other environmental destruction does not come through nearly enough. Reducing clutter in my life would free up my time and give me more opportunity to enjoy the company of friends and the good things in life. It would enable me to feel more serene. BUT how can I feel serene when faced by the threats of climate change and the danger to everyone on the earth! I try to reduce clutter for my serenity. I try to minimize my environmental impact for the good of humanity and of the planet.
There is a tension between these two ends. This explains why, for example, I am surrounded by packaging waiting to be reused. Reusing a box has much less impact on the environment than recycling that box and buying another one when you need it.
The four Rs I considered are given in order of minimizing environmental impact. This order is not totally rigid. Sometimes, for example, donating some good clothing can become another way of reusing, but the handling and transport are additional environmental impact over continuing to use, adjusting the size or handing on to someone you would normally be in contact with, such as giving your children's outgrown clothes to their cousins.
An alternative approach to minimalism is to adhere to motto “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”, which I believe is a variation of a phrase uttered by Calvin Coolidge in World War I. (He said “Eat it up,” etc).
One point, which I will not go into here, is the significant amount of time I spend trying to reduce my environmental impact. It may be made up to some extent, but definitely not completely, by time saved in having to take care of less stuff. Lack of time is the reason why I have so many bits of paper waiting to be dealt with.

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