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The Voluntary Simplicity Movement in an Age of Commodity Fetishism

In the developed regions of the world today, such as North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, etc., decades of unprecedented economic growth have all but solved the economic problem of how to secure the necessaries of life and, indeed, have resulted in most people living lives of relative luxury and comfort.[1] Though a small residue of poverty remains in these regions, on the whole ordinary people are fabulously wealthy when considered in the context of all known history or when compared with the 2.5 billion people who today struggle for a bare subsistence.[2] As Clive Hamilton puts it, ‘Most Westerners today are prosperous beyond the dreams of their grandparents.’[3] The houses of typical families are bigger than ever,[4] and they are each filled with untold numbers of consumer products, such as multiple TVs, stereos, computers, mobile phones, racks of unused clothes, washing machines, fridges, dishwashers, dryers, vacuum cleaners, kitchen gadgets, etc. – products that often overflow into garages or hired storage rooms to create spaces full of accumulated ‘stuff.’[5] Houses are often centrally heated and air-conditioned, with spare rooms and two or more cars parked outside.[6] Average wages are well above subsistence levels,[7] meaning that almost everyone has spare income to spend on comforts and luxuries such as alcohol, take-away food, going to the movies, fashionable clothes or furniture, books, taking holidays, etc. People generally have access to a variety of public services, including free primary and secondary education. On top of all this, democratic political systems are firmly established, the water is clean, and almost nobody goes hungry.[8]

All this is indicative of unprecedented material wealth, which it will not be suggested is a bad thing, necessarily. But it is a prosperity which has proven extremely easy to take for granted, leaving many in the global middle-class still feeling deprived despite their plenty.[9] Material wealth has reached unprecedented levels and yet there is growing body of social research which indicates that many people in affluent societies today are no more satisfied with their lives than people were in the 1950s and ‘60s.[10] In other words, it seems that huge increases in material wealth have stopped contributing meaningfully to individual and social well-being affluent societies.[11] It is troubling, therefore, to see that even the richest nations are still focused primarily on maximizing wealth, maximizing GDP per capita.[12] As Henry David Thoreau would say, ‘[We] labor under a mistake.’[13]

Is it possible that the majority of people living in affluent societies today have reached a stage in their economic development where the process of getting richer is now causing the very problems that they seem to think getting richer will solve? There are indeed grounds for thinking that this is so. Consumer culture, which every day is being globalized further,[14] is failing to fulfil its promise of a better life.[15] It has even begun taking away many of the things upon which well-being depends, such as community life,[16] a work/life balance,[17] spiritual and aesthetic experience,[18] and a healthy natural environment.[19] All this makes it hard to avoid the confronting questions: Is more consumption and production really the solution to these problems? Or is there, as Ted Trainer puts it, a ‘Simpler Way’?[20]

The following posts will look more deeply into the way of life practised by participants in the Simplicity Movement. Your comments and questions would be much appreciated.


[1] See generally, Avner Offer, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950 (2006); Richard Easterlin, Growth Triumphant: The Twenty-First Century in Historical Perspective (1996).

[2] See World Bank, ‘World Development Indicators: Poverty Data,’ (2008) 11 <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/DATASTATISTICS/Resources/WDI08supplement1216.pdf> at 5 September 2010.

[3] Clive Hamilton, Growth Fetish (2003) xi.

[4] See, e.g., Alex Wilson and Jessica Boehland, ‘Small is Beautiful: U.S. House Size, Resource Use, and the Environment’ (2005) 9(1/2) Journal of Industrial Ecology 277 (reporting that average living area per person in new houses in the U.S. increased by a factor of three since 1950s).

[5] In the United States, for example, the storage industry has increased 40-fold since the 1960s, from virtually nothing to $12 billion annually, making it now larger than the US music industry. See John de Graaf et al, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2nd ed, 2005) 32.

[6] Hamilton, above n 3, xi.

[7] In February 2010, for example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that the average, full-time salary in Australia was over $67,000. See <http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/mf/6302.0> at 10 August 2010).

[8] Again, this is not to deny that residual poverty remains an extremely important issue even in advanced capitalist societies; rather, the claim is that affluence, not poverty, is now the dominant societal characteristic.

[9] Despite living in one of the richest nations in the world, when Australians were asked in a nation-wide survey about whether they thought they could ‘afford to buy everything they really needed,’ nearly two-thirds said ‘no.’ See Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (2005) 4.

[10] See generally, Ed Diener, Daniel Kahneman and John Helliwell (eds), International Differences in Well-Being (2010); Richard Layard, Guy Mayraz and Stephen Nickell, ‘The Marginal Utility of Income’ (2008) 92 J. of Pub. Econ. 1846; Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005); Ronald Inglehart, ‘The Diminishing Utility of Economic Growth’ (1996) 10(4) Critical Review 509.

[11] The best explanation for this phenomenon seems to be that beyond the satisfaction of ‘basic needs’ (a concept that is admittedly problematic, but still useful), further increases in income are a poor substitute for non-materialist ‘goods,’ such as friendship, community engagement, meaningful employment, leisure, creative activity, etc. See generally, Rafael Di Tella and Robert MaCulloch, ‘Happiness Adaptation to Income Beyond “Basic Needs”‘ in Ed Diener, Daniel Kahneman and John Helliwell (eds), International Differences in Well-Being (2010) 217.

[12] See generally, Stephen Purdey, Economic Growth, the Environment and International Relations: The Growth Paradigm (2010); Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, Mis-Measuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up (2010).

[13] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden‘ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982)  261.

[14] See Hellmuth Lange and Lars Meier, The New Middle Classes: Globalizing Lifestyles, Consumerism and Environmental Concern (2009).

[15] See Tim Kasser and Allen Kanner (eds), Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World (2003).

[16] See Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000).

[17] John De Graaf (ed), Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America (2003).

[18] David Myers, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (2000).

[19] See generally, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being (2005).

[20] See Ted Trainer, ‘The Simpler Way,’ <http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/> at 10 October 2010.

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