Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States of America, has been the strongest advocate of the last century for minimalism as a lifestyle in the US.
Bold claim? Yes, but I believe that this undervalued exemplar (in word, act, belief and agenda) in our country vocalized the core values of the true minimalist movement with urgency, heart and integrity.
The democratic Georgia native served as governor in his home state for four years before being elected president in 1976 amid the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Carter may best be known for his strong humanitarian efforts after he left office as his time in office yielded mixed opinions from both sides of the political aisle. His second act in office was to pardon draft-evaders of the war and would go on to highlight, not the battles waging across the sea, but a different battle on American soil.
On July 15, 1979, Jimmy Carter delivered one of the most misgiving addresses to the nation made by a President in his “Crisis of Confidence” speech, often called his “malaise speech” that managed to call out a nation for problems with its overconsumption and wastefulness. From the address:
“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.“
Carter’s two biggest legislative moves in his term centered around energy and oil as major players in commerce and production that (literally) fueled a consumer-driven culture. He believed he could wield these two powers to direct society away from the idea ingrained that “human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns” (Crisis of Confidence). In his book, Our Endangered Values, he talks about how the “new economic philosophy in Washington is that a rising tide raises all yachts,” expressing frustration to a nation not willing to give back and support societal efforts, favoring investments in personal gain and material wealth.
“…we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.“
In this line, Carter strikes upon the feeling that so many, myself included, have discovered within themselves in their lives. He stresses the core struggles that push many to become minimalists as a world dominated by advertisement and alluring Amazon purchases disenfranchises those who truly seek meaning in their lives.
Not as often as it praises the benefits of the lifestyle does minimalism degrade the culture that it is so counter-intuitive to in this time. Carter’s, “premonition” (my own term) of where our country was headed is rooted in the idea that we have begun to lose our identity in things that do not add value to our lives.
One needs look no further than Black Friday shopping spree videos (‘spree’, an understatement defined as a “sustained period of unrestrained activity”) or the increasing sizes of homes and spaces we fill with our “stuff.” Generational and technological change have created a culture that has lost confidence in who they are. We put societal “value” in things that are cheap and easy to come by, if one spends enough credit. Identity is devalued and misplaced in the things we own instead of who we are as a people. We have unified around ideas like greed and competition that create a culture of fear and fraudulence.
I am hesitant to write so despondently, but as we look ahead at the future of our children and country, Carter’s words are needed to be heard more today than ever…
“This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.” ~Jimmy Carter