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Bruce Springsteen, Marie Kondo, and the power of subtraction

A new book explores ‘the untapped science of less.’

Flatiron Books

Leidy Klotz and his 3-year-old son, Ezra, were building a bridge out of Legos when they ran into a little engineering trouble: One support tower was taller than the other, making it difficult to build a span in between.

Klotz turned around to grab a block to add to the shorter tower, but his son took a different approach: He pulled a block out of the taller tower.

He subtracted.

A clever solution, and a pretty simple one, too. So why hadn’t Klotz — Klotz, of all people — thought of it?

A University of Virginia professor with appointments in the schools of engineering, architecture, and business, he has long been fascinated by the idea of less.

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As a teenager mowing grass for a little summer cash, he wondered why we needed so many lawns when they only seemed to get used when he was cutting them. And as an adult, an abiding concern for the environment meant he was always thinking about how we get to less — less waste, less pollution.

But watching his son pluck the Lego from the tower that day, he had an epiphany: Less is just an end state. Subtraction is the act of getting there.

And most of us, he’d come to understand, don’t think of subtraction when we have a problem to solve. If we want to build a bridge, improve an essay, or make a better soup — it’s more blocks, more words, more ingredients.

Sometimes, Klotz says, adding is the right answer. But in his new book, “Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less,” he asks readers to consider the power of subtraction, too — in the stripped-down beauty of Bruce Springsteen’s landmark album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” in the redesign of downtown Lexington, Ky., and in the existential fight against climate change.

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Ideas recently spoke with Klotz via Zoom from his home in Charlottesville, Va. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

So are we hardwired to add? Are we hardwired for more?

Yes.

You see this behavior in animals. For example, pack rats will stockpile supplies. That seems intuitive, right? But the thing with the pack rats is, they’re not making conscious choices. This is an instinct — and we share that same instinct to accumulate things.

There’s also a fundamental biological instinct to display competence. We want to show that we can make change in our world. That’s why it’s painful to subtract two pages out of an essay that I’ve been working on. It’s like, “I did this thing, I want people to see that I’ve done it.”

And yet there is clearly something alluring about the pronouncements of, say, Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru. How do you explain that?

Cal Newport does digital minimalism. Tim Ferriss does his four-hour work week. And it’s great. But in many ways, they’re the exceptions proving the rule. We don’t need a Marie Kondo to tell us to add to our closets. That’s what we’re going to do left to our own devices.

Hopefully, what my book can contribute is a scientific understanding of why. Understanding what’s going on in their own brains can help people think of subtractions that no guru can think of for them.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band premiered several selections from "Darkness on the Edge of Town" in a show in Boston in 1978.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band premiered several selections from "Darkness on the Edge of Town" in a show in Boston in 1978.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

Speaking of gurus, what about Springsteen? What does “Darkness on the Edge of Town” tell us about subtraction?

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“Darkness on the Edge of Town” he refers to as his samurai record — “all stripped down for fighting.”

There were 50 songs from that era. He had to distill those songs down to the ones that actually made it onto the album. And the songs had fewer words. The instrumentals were more sparse.

So here’s this person who just worked doggedly to subtract — to make this album that has many of his most enduring songs. And everybody noticed. Everybody’s like, this is a different sound from Bruce Springsteen — from anybody.

And it sounded different because of the subtraction.

In her new book, “Under a White Sky,” environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert suggests that we have so engineered the environment — so altered it — that more engineering may be our best hope for mitigating problems like climate change. This is an additive, do-more approach. Is it what we need? Because in your book, you seem skeptical of climate engineering.

I do think that we are going to be engineering the climate. One of the arguments she makes in her book is that we’ve always been doing this — ever since we dammed up rivers, we’ve been trying to control our environment to meet our needs.

My worry is that when we’re thinking about engineering the climate, we’re only thinking about additive solutions: “OK, the earth’s heating up, what are we going to do? Well, let’s shoot some mirrors up into space and reflect the sun’s rays.”

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Clearly, with climate change the main issue is that there’s too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, right? The best solutions, the ones we should try first, are the ones that pull some of that carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.