De-cluttering is not effective altruism: review of Jeff Shinabarger’s More or Less

When my contact at Patheos forwarded me an e-mail about the book club Patheos was going to be doing on Jeff Shinabarger’s book More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity, I was excited. It may have been just the subtitle that did it; if not the subtitle, then the book’s website with its focus on the question, “what is enough?”

But after the book arrived in the mail, by chapter three I was starting to hate it. Or worry I’d hate the book, at least. I mean, there was a lot more book left, so maybe it would get better, right?

By chapter five I was seriously pissed off. OKAY I GET IT YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF SHUT THE FUCK UP ALREADY.

After chapter five, I flipped to the table of contents to see if any chapters looked more bearable. Most of them didn’t. I skimmed a few of the later ones, eventually finding this passage:

Whenever conversations with my friends center around transportation, one thing always comes up: bikes. We all have this dreamy hope of a better, environmentally friendly way of transporting our bodies from one place to the other on a bike. Wouldn’t it be great to bike to work every day? We wouldn’t have to purchase gas, we would get a good workout without a gym membership, and we’d have time to process the day on the way home. Some of us might even take the next step and purchase a bike. Maybe we’d ride it a few times and realize that it’s more difficult than one would think. What if we have a meeting that day on the other side of town? What if it’s raining? What if we work up a sweat on the way to work? The “what if” excuses emerge very quickly in this all-too-idealistic aspiration, resulting in the bike moving to a closet, shed, or garage.

Eventually we’ll buy the classic six-inch S hook from the nearest hardware store and hang the bike, and our aspirations, upside down from the rafters. Three years later, the bike still hangs in the shed from the same hooks, and we haven’t ridden it once. May people own a bike, but few people actually ride their bikes consistently (pp. 207-208).

WHAT DO YOU MEAN “WE” KEMOSABE I DON’T OWN A CAR MY BIKE IS MY MAIN WAY OF GETTING ANYWHERE MORE THAN A FEW BLOCKS FROM MY PLACE AND BY THE WAY FUCK YOUR RAIN I LIVE IN PORTLAND AND I DEAL WITH THE RAIN BY HAVING RAIN GEAR THAT I BOUGHT ON SALE.

Why did I hate this book so much? Well, basically, the book turned out to be dominated by anecdotes about middle-class people struggling with consumerist bullshit that I somehow never inherited, even though I had the family background for it. For example, while I won’t pretend it wasn’t fun to go bouncing over the waves in a small jet boat, I never inherited my dad’s belief that spending thousands of dollars on a series of boats that kept breaking down was a sensible way to spend money.

I’ve got even less attached to my possessions as a result of having traveled a fair bit. After three multi-month trips since graduating college, I have yet to learn the trick of only packing things I’ll actually use… but at least I’m aware of the problem, and have gotten better at it. Basically, I have no problem going several weeks with nothing but:

  • A laundry cycle’s worth of clothes
  • Bathroom stuff, including towel etc. Also including sunscreen in hot weather
  • Laptop
  • E-reader (a Kindle, in my case)

If I had to add one more thing to the list, it would be a phone, but with most communication happening online these days and hardly anyone calling anyone anymore, I’ve found a phone to be less essential than many people think. Their only really important feature, I think, is that texting can avert snafus when trying to meet up with your friends. (Not that I don’t also like having internet access in the palm of my hand. Just not remotely essential.)

Long-term, of course, I have a fair number of possessions I don’t want to part with, but noticing how long you can go without ever touching many of the things you own is really enlightening.

Notice that I’ve said nothing about my own altruism at this point. In fact, you may have noticed that by traveling a lot, I’m spending a lot of money having fun (though when I travel, I try to keep the cost down as much as possible). I’ve made a selfish decision to spend less money on things and more money on experiences, because research shows doing so will make you happier.

But as for my altruism: yes, I got exposed to Peter Singer-style thinking on overseas charity at an early age, and at the times in my life when I’ve had a steady paycheck, I’ve made a point to donate a percentage of it to whatever non-profits will, as best I can tell, will put the money to best use. I’ve written about doing so here and here.

And still, I wonder if I could make do with just a little bit less in order to give a little bit more. I was really helping that More or Less would give me some help thinking about that question, or maybe just that it would inspire me. So imagine my disappointment when I found out the book was all about people I couldn’t relate to at all.

I also have a big substantive problem with the book: the emphasis on giving away your stuff, rather than buying less stuff and giving the excess to charity. As GiveWell explains, this is typically not a very efficient form of charity. In some places, there’s discussion of selling your stuff and giving away the money, one of the things GiveWell recommends, but selling something for $50 on eBay and donating the money is a drop in the bucket compared to committing to donate a percentage of your income to charity–even if it’s only 5%.

In short, de-cluttering is great for selfish reasons, and if you can de-clutter and help other people a little bit on the side, that’s nice too. But generally speaking it’s a mistake to confuse de-cluttering with effective altruism.

Links: to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute if you buy the argument that existential risk reduction is extraordinarily important and you think MIRI’s work helps, GiveWell otherwise

Review: Philosophy of Mathematics, ed. Paul Benacerraf & Hilary Putnam
Paper on Plantinga and classical foundationalism
Philosopher's Carnival March 2014
Russell Blackford on human enhancement

CLOSE | X

HIDE | X