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Minimalism 101


This Thursday evening, at 7pm, I’ll be teaching a class in minimalism (or ‘living with less’) at Monastiraki in Montreal.

The event is part of Monastiraki’s “School PWYC” series in which people teach classes in whatever they’re enthusiastic about.

This class will explore the idea of living with very few material possessions. We’ll look at the reasons we might want to do this: to save money, to save the planet, to save our souls. We’ll discuss some hints and tips on how to live minimally, how to benefit from a minimalist hobby, and how to appreciate the bare necessities. We’ll celebrate some of the heroes of minimalism, from 19th-Century rebel printer William Morris to future-facing digital minimalists.

I also plan to sing The Galaxy Song and Bear Necessities with ukulele accompaniment. This is a first for me so come along and witness history being made.

Here’s the event page at Ye Olde Book of Faces.

I daresay I’ll have some copies of New Escapologist to sell, and I’ll be happy to hang out and chat after the event too. Come along if you’re in the area!

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Can’t get enough minimalism

A few people emailed us recently to declare a new-found enthusiasm for minimalism. Believe me when I say that if these particular individuals are excited about minimalism now, there’s hope for the whole world yet.

There often comes a point when a fringe activity becomes adopted by the mainstream; a point when a living practice is no longer seen as eccentric. Recycling is a good example. In the 80s, my family seemed fairly alone in separating our garbage into plastic, paper, glass, and organic waste. We weren’t exactly hippies, which suggests the tipping point was already on the horizon, but our activity was certainly seen as odd by our friends and neighbours. In the 90s, recycling became seen as a responsibility, but it was still fashionable to shirk it. Today, the infrastructure to support recycling is convenient and ubiquitous, and recycling has become a matter of civic pride. What do you mean you don’t recycle?

I think minimalism (or ‘Reduction’ if you remember the most rejected of ‘The Three Rs’) is in a similar place to where recycling was in the 90s: people are becoming aware of the advantages, to stop reacting so violently to the suggestion that they voluntarily curb their consumer privileges, and to appreciate the minimalist aesthetic. Tablet computing is already encouraging a post-materialist attitude in some areas of consumption, and cloud computing promotes a certain distance between you and your stuff.

I think we’re on the brink of a third wave in terms of our attitudes to stuff. The new cycle will concern itself with empty space and quietness as the new luxury goods. Why a third wave? Peak Oil: the idea that we’ve already reached the point in time when the global production of oil reached its maximum rate, after which total global production gradually declines. We have to get used to not being able to buy cheap, disposable, largely-plastic products. We have to get used to inaccessibility due to products not being so readily and cheaply shipped.

Technology will partway solve the problem. Oil can be replaced by renewable energy resources. But to really solve the problem, we have to adjust to a new relationship between humans and stuff. It’s not a greenie fantasy anymore, but a cold necessity. Out goes the cheap and disposable, in comes the expensive and durable. Out goes lots of pointless stuff, in comes maximum utility and beauty. Out goes the idea that high-tech will save everything, in comes the balance of Brave New and Brave Old Worlds.

Space and quiet will be the new luxury goods. You’ll see. Buy shares in the quiet industries.

Criticisms of minimalism

We often talk about minimalism at New Escapologist and our interest is three-fold:

– Environmental: by reducing your consumer habits, you have less impact on the natural environment.

– Financial: by consuming less, you don’t need to spend as much money. Consequentially you don’t need to work so hard at earning money.

– Aesthetic: by reducing physical possessions, you can have a cleaner, more manageable living or working space.

In our time talking about minimalism, we’ve encountered a few criticisms. Some of them are fair, some understandably verge on the hostile (understandable because minimalism asks people to curb their consumer freedom), and others are from people who’ve completely missed the point. In this post, I respond to some of the most common or most remarkable.

I have a guest post at a blog called Skool of Life. My piece responds to six real and fairly common criticisms of minimalism.

The post has also resulted in some reasonable comments, to which I am able to respond. In particular, a bloke called Andy worries that defining one’s self as a minimalist is as bad as defining yourself as a materialist. It gave me the opportunity to say this:

1. The desire to define yourself one way or another is a piece of psychological baggage a minimalist might want to jettison. Let’s not worry about defining ourselves. Self-expression is a nonsense championed by Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. It is little more than a marketing device that minimalists should proof themselves against.

2. Even if you choose to define yourself by owning a small number of things, your doing so is certainly better than defining yourself as someone who owns a large number of things. Your reluctance to consume will help the environment and help your wallet. So, while I’d advise against defining yourself in this way, it is still outwardly and empirically better than defining yourself as a materialist.

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On resistance, minimalism, workplace tedium and cottage industry

The only real difference between an Escapologist and someone who simply hates their job is that the Escapologist has begun to take deliberate measures toward actually changing things. I think most people who hate their job don’t realise that escape is an option.

From an arrogant interview I did for Andrew Williams at his new blog, Rainy Day Wonder.

Don’t Wait for the Rug to be Pulled When You Can Throw in the Towel

The Guardian has a good feature for International Workers Day (1st May).

It uses fictional workplaces from the past twenty years, from The Office to Severance, to show how working culture has changed:

For all its mundanity, The Office never went full-blown bleak (one colleague might ask you, “Will there ever be a boy born who can swim faster than a shark?” but another might turn out to be the love of your life).

But such hope and humanity may be absent from the next wave of pop-culture workplaces. Gruelling gig-economy jobs, timed loo breaks, enforced commutes after months of working from home, rising bills, closing companies, the looming threat of redundancy – the desperations of 21st-century capitalism have been neatly reflected in Korean dramas such as Squid Game and Parasite, and it’s unlikely the depictions will end there. There’s brutality at the heart of the new workplace drama, as there often is at the modern workplace itself.

The evolution of the fictional workplace is a reflection, of course, of the evolution of real-life workplace anxieties. They now have a different flavour to when New Escapologist emerged in 2007.

Where it used to be a relatively simple “I’m bored and trapped here, being juiced for money” it’s now the same plus a fear that the world outside the workplace is too scary to escape into while that world also threatens to reach into your safe space and drag you out into it, unprepared, like something from The Mist.

“There’s a feeling captured in 90s and 2000s pre-crash media, that sense that you were bored and stuck at work,” says Amelia Horgan, a philosophy PhD student at the University of Essex and author of an examination of modern employment, Lost in Work, “whereas the dominant feeling now is the fear that the rug will be pulled out from under your feet without you realising, very quickly.”

New Escapologist was one of those “pre-crash media” but I think The Good Life for Wage Slaves (2021) was a timely update. The Good Life has a more contemporary take on workplace anxieties — this “fear of the rug being pulled out from under your feet” — through both my misery memoir segments and through my new-and-improved solutions.

The new fear of “the rug being pulled” is connected to bigger machines than before, to bigger and more disruptive world events. In my case it was the hostile environment for immigrants. In your case it might be the pandemic or the war or the results of austerity or something else, but it’s all connected to a broader social environment that is sometimes difficult to read much less do anything about.

The issues have indeed evolved and become more complicated, more surreal-feeling, more of a headache, taking us all the way from David Brent to Squid Game, but the solution, I think, remains the same. Escape.

Times have changed but I’m still here to say “don’t wait for the rug to be pulled when you can throw in the towel.” You don’t have to submit to either type of workplace anxiety, be it of the 2007 variety or the 2022 variety. You can escape instead.

Build an escape fund, hone your skills, define your goals, embrace frugality, practice minimalism, and get the hell out of it. Because face it: that green Squid Game tracksuit wouldn’t suit you.

Try my book, I’m Out, to get started on your escape. (Yes indeed, it’s the same book as Escape Everything! but with a new updates and a nice graphical illustration of The Trap).

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 62. Hole.

Escape Towers is on the top floor of a very old building, and water drips into our spare room whenever there’s serious rain. We reported the problem to the landlord some time ago, but no repairs were forthcoming. Since it was only our spare room and wasn’t a constant problem, we didn’t put any pressure on him to get it fixed. Bohemia!
Read the rest of this entry »


I’d been thinking about the expression “to live on one’s wits” and its connection to “being witty.”

Here, I talk about living freely and ethically and tactically. There, I tell humorously-intended stories. Is there an overlap contained in the word “wit”?

Just as I was having these thoughts, clever old friend Unclef gave me a book called Wit’s End: what wit is, how it works, and why we need it by James Geary. It’s a good book. Playful, brief and smart.

Its most important contribution to solving my wit-based question is the phrase “improvisational thinking.” That’s it! That is what connects ha-ha wit with living on one’s wits. Both are direct expressions of improvisational thinking.

But this paragraph explains it neatly too:

forms of wit other than the pun [can be] understood as compressed detective stories. I’m thinking in particular of people who “live by their wits,” as the saying goes. Inventors, scientists,and innovators of all kinds, people skilled in improvising fixes, finding clever escapes from tight scrapes, or making unlikely discoveries under seemingly inauspicious conditions.

Finding clever escapes from tight scrapes, by jove. Geary goes on to tell the stories of some of those scientists and inventors by way of illustration, but it’s also what Escapologists do every single day just by going about our general business. Improvisational thinking is at once the alternative to the rat race and the swiss army lock pick (if there could ever be such a thing) required to escape it.

It’s what they don’t teach you in school because they can’t teach it in school even if they wanted to. It’s a mindset that needs to be cultivated through unusual experience and by thinking constantly about the world and its mechanisms: “Why isn’t X like so? Can Y function better upside-down? Can I live this way instead of that way? Do I need as much money to do Z as they tell me?”

It’s the essence of an Escapological mindset or outlook. Things like minimalism, finding clever backdoor ways of doing exactly what you want to do (rather than what other people think you should do), and “building muscles of resistance” (see Escape Everything!) by not watching television are all ways of using or honing one’s improvisational thinking, one’s wits.

I’m happy to report that I say this in relation to minimalism in The Good Life for Wage Slaves so this isn’t a total epiphany, but I wish I’d made a little more of it because it’s so important.

I think I knew it all along: have I not said many times that our practice is “Escapology” because it comes with a sense of humour and theatrical aplomb? But the Wit’s End book really homes in on that truth.

Another useful point concerning the Escapological mindset (which comes from the same chapter of Geary’s book) is:

Now, you might wonder whether this type of wit is innate–you either have it or you don’t–or whether it might not in some form be nurtured and cultivated. Well, it turns out there is a way to hone the powers of attention and observation needed for serendipitous discovery: live in a foreign country.

He means that, abroad, everything is different and a certain “cognitive flexibility” is required (and is developed) at all times. It keeps you on your toes, which is useful. So live abroad! Or do the sort of things that might have similar effect on your brain to living abroad: walk through streets that you don’t need to walk through, read a different sort of book, write one, talk to different sorts of people, learn another language.

Cognitive flexibility and improvisational thinking, kids. It’s what’s for dinner.

I haven’t mentioned Patreon in a while, have I? I have a series of posts over there called “Running Man” (now in its sixth installment). It’s essentially all about living on your wits. Chip in at Patreon if you’d like to read it. There are other items to see there too, including older essays and the brand new “Hypocrite Minimalist” show-and-tell series.

Reduce! Reduce! And Again I Say Reduce!

This article is a timely reminder that minimalism is the only answer to the climate crisis.

Telling people what they can throw out and recycle is important, but corporations and governments who are in the business of growth do not want to address the real problem: the vast and escalating quantity of plastic and other stuff that people buy, use a bit and then throw away. Along with celebrities, “influencers” and PR companies they seek to create needs for things we never knew we wanted, and then manipulate us to buy more of everything. Bombarded by advertisements, we are then persuaded that the more we binge-shop, the more fulfilling and satisfying our lives will be.

As I say in Escape Everything!, the materials required to create almost any physical item, ultimately, come out of the ground. Recycling and reuse are respectful of this fact, but they are no alternative to leaving the coal in the ground and the rainforest intact.

The way to avoid ecological disaster is to starve the beast of consumerism, by buying less and reusing more of everything. … we must change consumer habits and attitudes to consumption.

Minimalism is the change in consumer habits/attitude to consumption we’ve been looking for. For reasons that still elude me, minimalism is often considered a sign of affluence despite costing nothing (and in fact saving money). So why not pursue that sign of affluence instead of the costly plastic ones? This way, you can still enjoy a sort of social status-in-relation-to-consumerism while helping to save the planet in the only meaningful way. And if social/consumer status is not important to you, then follow minimalism anyway for all the other benefits.

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Should I Buy a Record Player?

Should I buy a record player? I’d genuinely like some advice on this, whether from vinyl enthusiasts or from get-a-grip friends. So leave a comment below or drop me an email.

Whenever I betray my anti-consumerist, minimalist ethics by joining in with some craze or other, I usually regret it. Joining Twitter for example was a mistake that has cost much fretting and fiddling that I could have done without.

Buying a record player would be the physically-biggest move I’ve made away from minimalism in years, currently owning absolutely no physical media. After a few months or years of buying records, it would likely be the most expensive too, and it would also represent a significant bump in energy usage here at Escape Towers.

On the other hand, it would be nice to correct a certain lack of music in our lives. Yes, we can currently play music from YouTube or Spotify (and I digitised my 300-strong CD collection before selling it a decade ago, so it still lives on in the cloud). But this involves a dependency on Silicon Valley and the infernal jab-screen, which is something I’d like do less of, and it’s not much fun to stab at an app when what you want from music is human connection.

Moreover, I’m sometimes a little (though not a lot) embarrassed to invite friends to Escape Towers when we offer little here but quiet retreat. A record player, would offer a bit more event to an invitation. “We’ll play some records,” I’ll say and “bring a couple of records over.” Selecting music would become a social activity and friends won’t have to watch me fumble with an app, playing autocratically-selected music, and trying to remember if I have a certain Stereolab album because I can’t see the whole collection and the search function isn’t working properly.

I like the idea of browsing the records in Monorail (fun local spot steeped in history) on a Saturday morning with Samara and of hanging out with Friend J who works in a second-hand vinyl shop with more reason to my being there than just to stare at his face. But is this not precisely the sort of positive lifestyle situation dreamed up by any product-hungry consumer?

Having set off my own vigilance-against-consumerism alarm, I at least think this could all be done fairly cheaply and with a non-rampant consumerist credo if we just buy our equipment and the bulk of our records second-hand and never from Amazon. Of course, this could just be a sort of internal green-washing on my part to justify what would actually be quite a silly purchase.

Any strong feelings? Would this thing (and that’s what it is: a thing) enhance life or would it just be another infernal regret and a loss of personal integrity?

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