The people who welcome the slowed-down society

Text by Lena Knaus
Illustration by Maartje Veneman

Minimalists and the consuming society have different lifestyles and priorities. When life and society slow down due to a global pandemic, it’s the minimalist who welcome this as a break for the busy world around them.

Gero Gröschel, a minimalist from Stuttgart in Germany, noticed a change in his work as a photographer since the corona pandemic forced us to stay in, but not in his lifestyle. He has gained something positive from the situation. “People are going to restaurants, cinemas or amusement parks. Instead of seeing it as total luxury and abundance, it is normal for us. Now this normality breaks down into what is actually essential and important. We can see the luxuries that we actually have. I think it is a return to the really important things”, he says.

Michael Zwick, sociologist and professor of technical and environmental sociology at the University of Stuttgart, says that not the minimalist culture changed, but the consuming society. According to him, people live on the edge of existence, they have an apartment or have to pay rent for their business, but have no income now. For them, materialism is still important. They want their money back to avoid going bankrupt. Their burning issue is how to restore materialism and industrialism. If people have to choose a lifestyle model, they prefer one of consumerism.

Gröschel is fully committed to minimalism as a lifestyle, however. He was introduced to this philosophy during a trip to Nepal in 2007. “I saw how simply the people live there, and how little they need to get by. The three weeks I was there were enough to cause a culture shock when I returned to Germany, where I was surrounded by abundance and luxury. You start to think about what you own and consume, and about nutrition. What do I eat? Where does it come from? Is it good for the world?” Gröschel is a vegetarian and also avoids buying new things. He got the furniture in his apartment from bulky waste, as a gift or built it himself. This is how most minimalists live. For six years, Gröschel also organised the Stammtisch “Minimalisten Stuttgart”, where the group members would talk about minimalism topics.

Zwick says that Western minimalism is often a transitional simplification of life in poverty, stating that “for example, students who have very little money, see this voluntary ethic of renunciation as a morally superior attempt to save the world. Hidden behind this minimalism, is often an ethical-moral exaggeration or attitude of a lifestyle, usually experienced temporarily”. Materialism, or the consumerist society, is more prominent. “I remember being in Laos many years ago, far from the tourists. There were only bamboo huts, and everyone had small generators in front of the hut, and inside there were tiny black-and-white televisions. And what did you see? Western TV commercials. The self-suggestive power of materialism in a welfare society – this prosperity, has become a guiding value, worldwide,” Zwick says.

“A big villa, a big car, a trip around the world – symbols of image and prestige”

The choice between materialism or minimalism does not arise from trauma or past experiences but from needs and the desire for recognition. Zwick explains that there are different ways to satisfy them: a big villa, a big car, a trip around the world – symbols of image and prestige. Or to be considered special and different from others. Those driven by morality opt for living in a way that minimises their ecological footprint and differentiates them from “big-time” consumers.

Gero Gröschel and Michael Zwick both think after the corona crisis everything will go back to “normal.” The high consumption levels will return. Gröschel wishes the Corona situation we are in now would dramatically change society but doesn’t believe this is going to happen. Zwick says, “The economy, politics and the population will do everything to regain economic prosperity. They want the situation to be the way it was before, despite this having dramatic side-effects on the environment and the over-consumption of resources in the world. We will not get out of this dilemma”.

All in all, the minimalists’ way of living is not much affected by the Corona Crisis. They welcome the slow-down as a break for the busy world. The consuming society experiences existential problems such as being now unable to afford their expensive house. Nonetheless, all types of society will most likely fall back into their lifestyles as soon as this pandemic ends.