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Reimagining the Good Life beyond Consumer Culture

Continuing the July series of publications, this post consists of an essay called “The Voluntary Simplicity Movement: Reimagining the Good Life beyond Consumer Culture,’ which is soon to be published in the peer-reviewed, International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability. This essay, which is based on a collection of earlier posts on this website, is summarised below and the full essay can be downloaded here. Many readers of this website will find nothing new in this essay, but I hope the essay is nevertheless of value to some readers as a broad overview of voluntary simplicity.

Abstract: Voluntary simplicity – otherwise known as ‘downshifting’ or just ‘simple living’ – is an anti-consumerist way of life that opposes the high consumption lifestyles prevalent in consumer societies today and voluntarily embraces ‘a simpler life’ of reduced consumption. As a practical matter, this living strategy characteristically involves providing for material needs as simply and directly as possible, minimizing expenditure on consumer goods and services, and generally seeking non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning. 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 an equitable share of nature. That, at least, is the challenging ideal which seems to motivate and guide many of its advocates and practitioners. This paper examines the nature of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement, including its various definitions, justifications, and practices.

The full essay can be downloaded here.

3 Responses to “Reimagining the Good Life beyond Consumer Culture”

  1. Holly says:

    Truly excellent article! I’d like to pick up on two points: 1)using the internet to create a community of Simple livers — that is what I hope to find/ help create here on this site; 2)”living simply so that others may simply live.” I am often discouraged because I can find no real indicator that my reduced consumption does anything other than provide more resources for my consumerist peers to feed on. Yes, I am able to give money to good causes, but I never know whom or how that helps. I think some sort of paired relationships between individuals and communities might help both those who have too much and those who truly need more.

  2. Samuel Alexander says:

    Thanks Holly. I sure hope that this website can play a role in the building of the Simplicity Movement, and it’s great to have you on board. I hope that the exchange of ideas continues to grow.

    As for your second comment, I understand completely where you are coming from. The good that comes from living more simply can be obvious and personal, at times, but often the good is distant, seemingly abstract, and obscure, and for that reason its easy to get the sense that it’s hardly worth the effort. But I think we must resist this inclination will all our energy, because I’m absolutely convinced that the inclination is misguided.

    I addressed this point in section 3 of my recent paper, ‘Voluntary Simplicity and the Social Reconstruction of Law: Degrowth from the Grassroots Up’ and I’ll re-post a couple of paragraphs of that argument here:

    “The pro-growth structures of advanced capitalist societies (Purdey, 2010) make transitioning to a simpler lifestyle of reduced consumption very challenging, and to some extent, in certain ways, almost impossible (Alexander, 2011c). For example, people might find it extremely hard to escape ‘car culture’ at the personal level without safe and accessible bike paths. This is one of countless structural obstacles lying in the path of ‘simpler lifestyles,’ and generally top down reform and investment is needed for such obstacles to be transcended. Personal action alone, therefore, will never be enough.

    The limitations of personal action alone, however, are not simply due to current structures opposing lifestyles of voluntary simplicity. It may also be the case that the initial ecological benefits of reduced consumption are quickly eliminated by the ‘sufficiency rebound effect,’ which Blake Alcott (2008: 775) describes as follows: ‘some of what was “saved” through non-consumption is consumed after all – merely by others.’ So far as this rebound effect exists, simple living is unlikely to be an effective response to the ecological problems of overconsumption in the absence of structural change. Accordingly, there is little doubt that structural change by way of legal, political, and economic reform is a necessary part of any transition beyond growth capitalism.

    The point I am arguing – and it is a point that theorists like Alcott (2008) seemingly fail to appreciate – is that such structural change will almost certainly not eventuate unless it is accompanied and probably preceded by a widespread cultural shift in attitudes toward consumption, such as that being advocated and explored in practice by the Simplicity Movement today. For even if the ‘sufficiency rebound effect’ exists to some extent, this would not mean people should not seek to live simpler lives of reduced consumption. To adopt a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity is to live in opposition to the cultures of consumption that give shape (and are shaped by) the pro-growth structures of advanced capitalism. Only by changing those cultures of consumption, I conclude, is there any hope of transcending and socially reconstructing those pro-growth structures.”

    I intend to address this issue in more detail in a future post, so watch this space. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

  3. Angie says:

    Hi Samuel,

    We were loaned a copy of your book around a year ago which is when we began our family transtion to simple sustainable living in earnest.

    I have started a blog in support of a modest home based business, and have recommended your book for families to read. One of the challenges in this movement is for parents with kids in the grip of consumer culture. It’s a tricky one to navigate.

    I just discovered this site when searching for your book details, and have linked to it.From the little I’ve read I can only say, congratulations, and thankyou. It is excellent.

    Kindest well wishes,
    Angie

  4. […] The Voluntary Simplicity Movement: Reimagining the Good Life beyond Consumer Culture (my essay providing an overview of of the theory and practice of voluntary […]

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