As I was packing a large shiny-red suitcase for a six-month study-abroad exchange in Vienna, my mother lifted her brow and frowned: “Are you sure that’s enough stuff?” I looked up. “I mean, to get you through six months? ”I knew what she meant. But in that moment, all I was worrying about was having to carry it.
But it got me thinking: How have people gotten to the point of believing they needed so much?
I soldiered on and packed the essentials: warm and cool weather clothes, toiletries, school stuff, power cords, … and called it a day. I certainly wasn’t going to drag along any more.
In Vienna, my small dorm room had a table, a single bed, two sheets, a dresser for my clothes and some utensils for the shared kitchen. I unpacked, and looked around. The room, tiny as it was, felt empty; Nothing on the walls, no bookshelves, no mirror, no carpet, no couch… I wasn’t used to this….
Then suddenly, it surprisingly felt great.
Back in Canada before I left, I had to get rid of a lot of things. So I started asking myself if each knick-knack, piece of jewelry or pair of shoes “sparked joy”. It was corny, I admit, but it helped. I began to notice how light it felt getting rid of old things – the room felt cleansed! My mind felt cleansed. It also helped prepare me for the even more minimalistic lifestyle I now live in Wien.
It’s not that I wasn’t tempted: After absorbing my new Spartan accommodations, I found myself mulling over whether I should run to Ikea and “fill up the space.”
I decided against it. What more did I really need? It’s simply the societal construct that leads us to believewe need something… to feel more adequate… to fill some imagined hole… I laughed. Well, after all this is the city of Freud… For now, I would keep things simple and see how it went.
The Evils of Consumerism
Then came COVID: When both routine and comfort were turned upside down, many people began to hold onto the one certainty that they still had: Shopping! I was as guilty of this as the next person: Going to the grocery store felt like the one remaining slice of normal live.
But the question is, how have we gotten to this? And why was our idea of comfort reliant on shopping, especially online shopping while we were in the midst uncertainty. To answer this question, I took a deeper look at the history of consumerism and the great mind that discussed it.
According to History Crunch, the modern idea of consumerism begun in the late 17thcentury in Europe, intensifying through the 18th and 19th, becoming a major societal phenomenon – where the advertising and buying of consumer goods became the end game of industrialization.
“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production,” Adam Smith announced in The Wealth of Nations in 1776. From the moment industry was able to make more, and society was able to spend more, businesses began to grow. Inevitably, wages increased, and a cycle gained traction as time went on.
With the Industrial Revolution came the widening gap between the urban proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Karl Marx’s pamphlet The Communist Manifesto described this new world as one of “class struggle” between the workers and the “owners of the means of production.” The goal was a “classless society,” with a progressive income tax, abolition of inheritance and private property, free public education, nationalized railroads and publicly supported media – ideas that later shaped the values of 20thcentury social-democracies. It was the battle cry of the working class which, in fits and starts, laid the foundation for the modern middle class. Able to fulfill the role described by Adam Smith, to buy consumer goods and acquire better housing.
Consumerism developed into the 20th century and during this time, goods became easier to get a hold of with the first wave of globalization ending in the Great War and again following World War II. Improvements in shipping and rail transportation and eventually air travel moved good more easily and consumer tastes shaped through effective marketing campaigns. It was an approach to the public that depended more on psychology than information alone, developed in very real part from the successful use of propaganda in war time. These attitudes have moulded our markets today, leaving us often unconscious of the beast of careless consumerism that has enveloped us.
The evidence is everywhere: According to Euro Stat, between February and June 2020, the internet sales volume in the EU increased by 17.4 % while the sales volume of textiles, clothes and footwear in specialised shops dropped by 22.4 %. In June 2020, total European retail sale regained 99.7 % of the volume that it had reached in February before the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis; in the euro area the degree of recovery was 100.2%.
Of course, with flights cancelled and people told to stay close to home, many have felt impelled to connect with the outside by shopping online. For some, it was for the sake of normally, for others for the thrill of the chase.
Most of us realize that “things” are not the source of our happiness – or mental stability. (Although try telling that to an advertising man, who would like nothing better that for you to take his word for it.) Writers from Zino of Athens to Henry David Thoreau have reminded us of the dangers of being a materialist.
Declutter Your Life
Vienna, too bred this kind of thinking. Viennese architect and social critic Alfred Loos, in his 1908 essay Ornament and Crime, saw minimalism as the bridge between old and new, emphasizing the value in few and simple things (old or new), freeing us from buying more.
“Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength,” he wrote. “Modern man uses the ornaments of earlier or alien cultures as he sees fit. He [then] concentrates his own inventiveness on other things.” The concept is not to have nothing, but to simplify what you do have. And do it on purpose. Need less, buy less, use less, less to throw away.
So de-cluttering my room was a great way to start. Like dorm room, like mind. I wake up each morning in my simple room, feeling the space there is there, space, to stretch and move about, space for new ideas, without being compressed by what already has been or will be. When its time for coffee I sit in my kitchen, using the same Julius Meinl cup each day and then washing it for the next.
Wien has made me down size, and also slow down in ways that almost feel poetic. Walking along Lerchenfelder Strasse, I’ll stop to smell the flowers at Blumen Minh, always beautifully displayed out on the street and scented with the freshest of floral smells from pungent lavender to soft rose. I’ll take time sit at Vollpension café for what feels like hours, just happy to be where I am in that moment. I often bring a book for company, or some work, and find I am spending more of my time within the bounds of the intangible and feel a lot happier there.
Each day in Vienna, I wake up with less than I have ever had. But being here has taught me the importance of quality over quantity, because, as one Kellner told me, Des letzte hemd hot kane sackln – literally, “There are no pockets in a shroud”. Or as we would say, You can’t take it with you.