Defining Voluntary Simplicity

Voluntary simplicity is an oppositional living strategy that rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting.’[1] Sometimes called ‘the quiet revolution,’[2] this approach to life involves providing for material needs as simply and directly as possible, minimizing expenditure on consumer goods and services, and directing progressively more time and energy towards pursuing non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning.[3] This generally means accepting a lower income and a lower level of consumption, in exchange for more time and freedom to pursue other life goals, such as community or social engagements, more time with family, artistic or intellectual projects, more fulfilling employment, political participation, sustainable living, spiritual exploration, reading, contemplation, relaxation, pleasure-seeking, love, and so on – none of which need to rely on money, or much money.[4] Variously defended by its advocates on personal, social, humanitarian, and ecological grounds, voluntary simplicity is predicated on the assumption that human beings can live meaningful, free, happy, and infinitely diverse lives, while consuming no more than a sustainable and equitable share of nature.[5] That, at least, is the challenging ideal which seems to motivate and guide many of its advocates and practitioners.[6]

According to this philosophy of living, personal and social progress is measured not by the conspicuous display of wealth or status, but by increases in the qualitative richness of daily living, the cultivation of relationships, and the development of social, intellectual, aesthetic, and/or spiritual potentials.[7] As Duane Elgin has famously defined it, voluntary simplicity is ‘a manner of living that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich, … a deliberate choice to live with less in the belief that more life will be returned to us in the process.’[8] According to the most prominent historian of the Simplicity Movement, David Shi, the primary attributes of the simple life include: thoughtful frugality; a suspicion of luxuries; a reverence and respect for nature; a desire for self-sufficiency; a commitment to conscientious rather than conspicuous consumption; a privileging of creativity and contemplation over possessions; an aesthetic preference for minimalism and functionality; and a sense of responsibility for the just uses of the world’s resources.[9] More concisely, Shi defines voluntary simplicity as ‘enlightened material restraint.’[10]

It should be noted that voluntary simplicity does not, however, mean living in poverty, becoming an ascetic monk, or indiscriminately renouncing all the advantages of science and technology. It does not involve regressing to a primitive state or becoming a self-righteous puritan. And it is not some escapist fad reserved for saints, hippies, or eccentric outsiders. Rather, advocates of simplicity suggest that by examining afresh our relationships with money, material possessions, the planet, ourselves and each other, ‘the simple life’ of voluntary simplicity is about discovering the freedom and contentment that comes with knowing how much consumption is truly ‘enough.’[11] Arguably, this is a theme that has something to say to everyone, especially those in consumer cultures today who are every day bombarded with thousands of cultural and institutional messages insisting that ‘more is always better.’ Voluntary simplicity is a philosophy of living that advocates a counter-cultural position based on notions of sufficiency and simplicity.[12]

The notion of living simply, of course, is not new.[13] The virtues of moderation and enlightened material restraint have been integral to almost all ancient wisdom and spiritual traditions throughout history, with prominent advocates including Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Diogenes, the Stoics, Jesus, Mohammad, St Francis, the Quakers, John Ruskin, William Morris, the New England Transcendentalists (especially Henry Thoreau), the European Bohemians, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Lenin, Richard Gregg, Helen and Scott Nearing, and many of the Indigenous peoples around the world.[14] But in postmodernity, where consumption seems to be glorified and luxury admired as never before, voluntary simplicity arguably acquires a special significance.

For more on the history of voluntary simplicity, click here.

[1] See, e.g., Charles Wagner, The Simple Life (1901); Juliet Schor, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (1st ed, 1998). The term voluntary simplicity was coined by Richard Gregg, an American lawyer and committed follower of Gandhi. See Richard Gregg, ‘The Value of Voluntary Simplicity,’ in Samuel Alexander (ed), Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009) 111-126.

[2] Duane Elgin, Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future (1st ed, 2000) Ch. 4.

[3] See Amitai Etzioni, ‘Voluntary Simplicity: A New Social Movement?’ in William Halal and Kenneth Taylor, Twenty-First Century Economics: Perspectives of Socioeconomics for a Changing World (1999).

[4] See Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, ‘The Downshifters,’ in Samuel Alexander (ed), Voluntary Simplicity, above n 1, 219-234.

[5] See Joshua Gambrel and Philip Cafaro, ‘The Virtue of Simplicity’ (2009) 23(1) Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 85.

[6] See generally, Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska (eds), Less is More: Embracing Simplicity for a Healthy Planet, a Caring Economy and Lasting Happiness (2009).

[7] See Jerome Segal, Graceful Simplicity: Toward a Philosophy and Politics of the Alternative American Dream (1st ed, 1999).

[8] Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (Rev. ed, 1993).

[9] David Shi, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (2nd ed, 2007) 3.

[10] Ibid 131.

[11] See Alan Durning, How Much is Enough?: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth (1992).

[12] See Thomas Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency (2005); Gambrel and Cafaro, above n 5.

[13] See generally, Goldian Vanenbroeck (ed), Less is More: An Anthology of Ancient and Modern Voices Raised in Praise of Simplicity (1991).

[14] For a sampling of the historical literature, see Vanenbroeck (ed), above n 13.

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