Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future

Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future,
edited by Samuel Alexander and Amanda McLeod.

Below I have posted the ‘Table of Contents’ and ‘Preface by the Editors’.

The book is available here.

Information on the launch is available here.

Please share 🙂


Preface by the Editors, Samuel Alexander and Amanda McLeod
FOREWORD by David Shi

1. BUDDHA – Peter Doran
2. DIOGENES – William Desmond
3. ARISTOTLE – Jerome Segal
4. EPICURUS – Michael Augustin
5. THE STOICS – Dirk Baltzly
6. JESUS – Simon Ussher
8. THE QUAKERS – Mark Burch
9. THE AMISH – Steven Nolt
10. HENRY THOREAU – Samuel Alexander
11. JOHN RUSKIN – David Craig
12. WILLIAM MORRIS – Sara Wills
13. GANDHI – Whitney Sanford
14. DITCHLING VILLAGE – William Fahey
15. THE AGRARIANS – Allan Carlson
16. THE NEARINGS – Amanda McLeod
17. IVAN ILLICH – Marius de Geus
18. JOHN SEYMOUR – Amanda McLeod
20. RADICAL HOMEMAKING – Shannon Hayes
22. PERMACULTURE – Albert Bates
23. TRANSITION TOWNS – Samuel Alexander and Esther Alloun
24. DEGROWTH – Serge Latouche
25. THE SIMPLER WAY – Ted Trainer
26. MINDFULNESS – Mark Burch


Samuel Alexander and Amanda McLeod

This book is framed by the realisation that consumerism – that is, the high consumption way of life which defines the most ‘developed’ industrial societies – has no future. Consumer lifestyles have no future because our planet simply cannot sustain the weight of their energy and resource intensive burdens. Earth’s ecosystems are trembling under the weight of one or two billion high-end consumers, so it is nothing short of delusional to think that our planet could sustain four or six or eight or ten billion people living this way. There are limits to what Earth will tolerate.

And yet, it is precisely the fantasy of universal affluence that shapes national and international conceptions of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. Across the ideological spectrum it is assumed that with sustained economic growth the poorest people on the planet can attain the consumerist ideal, while at the same time it is assumed that the richest people can continue to achieve ever-higher levels of affluence. We are continually told that technology and ‘free markets’ will solve the grave ecological problems caused by this mode of development, all the while our old growth forests disappear, the oceans are emptied, the topsoils erode, our rivers are polluted, the holocaust of biodiversity continues, and the climate is destabilised. As the consumer class expands, we see the face of Gaia vanishing.

While the ecological impacts of the consumerist way of life are severe, the social justice implications are equally challenging. In order to support the high consumption lifestyles enjoyed by a minority of humankind, the global economy must be structured so as to siphon resources away from the ‘developing’ world, where the majority of human-kind live. While it can be acknowledged that ‘development’ has indeed lifted millions out of extreme poverty, people are being forced off the land into the wage slavery of factory life, in order to make consumer trinkets which are then shipped off to the rich world, only for those trinkets to be promptly disposed of, creating mountains of consumer waste that are sometimes shipped back to the developing world for dumping. The issues are more complex and nuanced than this, of course, but the point is that beneath the nice-sounding political rhetoric calling for justice and sustain-ability lies a form of development that is too often oppressive and degrading, and which insidiously promotes narrow and unimaginative conceptions of the good life. We are told that in time ‘sustainable development’ will enrich the poorest people and nations, all the while economic inequality worsens, the rich get richer, and the destitute, by in large, remain impoverished. We are told to wait for progress, as if in a Kafkaesque novel, but we are not told how long we must wait.

If the social justice and ecological implications of con-sumerism are disturbing, what is perhaps most unsettling of all is the fact that even those who have attained the consumerist ideal often do not seem satisfied with it. The social and ecological costs are tragic, and yet the promised benefits are constantly deferred. As we get caught up in the stressful ‘work-and-spend’ cycle of a growth-orientated world, too often our communities and families fragment into a materially rich but culturally poor society of isolated and alienated individuals – individuals who seek contentment in ‘nice things’, but who do not find it. It seems the treadmill of consumption is failing to live up to its promise of a fulfilling life, failing to satisfy the universal human craving for meaning, and yet our televisions and newspapers bombard us with the message that more consumption is the only solution to our malaise. When we get that new kitchen, and replace the carpet; when we upgrade the car or house and purchase that new watch or dress – then we will be happy; then our peers will respect us; then we will be loved. So do not question the status quo; fall quietly in line; and be grateful for a life of comfortable unfreedom.

This is the Grand Narrative of our times.

We know, deep down, of course, that something is very wrong with this narrative, that there must be better, freer, more humane ways to live. But we live in a corporate world that conspires to keep knowledge of such alternatives from us. We are told that consumerism is the peak of civilisation and that there is no alternative, and over time, as these messages are endlessly repeated and normalised, our imaginations begin to contract and we lose the ability to envision different worlds. We begin to think that the future must look more or less like the past, and we find ourselves becoming part of the problems we would like to solve.

As tragic as this picture of industrial civilisation may be, there is a silver lining to our predicament upon which grounded hope can be found. If it is the case that human beings simply do not find the limitless pursuit of ever-more consumption a very satisfying mode of existence, then this should provoke us all – if only out of self-respect – to ignite our imaginations in search of alternative ways to live. Indeed, if it is the case that consumer lifestyles are unable to make us truly happy or fulfilled, then we need not feel aggrieved by the scientific literature telling us that it is impossible to universalise affluence due to ecological limits. We should explore alternatives, then, not simply because soon we will be ecologically compelled to live differently, but because we are human and deserve the opportunity to flourish within sustainable bounds. This does not however mean regressing to something prior to consumerism; rather, it means drawing on the wisdom of ages in order to advance beyond consumerism; in order to create something better, freer, and more humane.

This book is a humble contribution to that great, ambitious, but necessary endeavour. If the consumerist way of life is a temporary, fossil-fuelled perversion that has no future, it follows that the future will be defined necessarily by less materialistic, ‘simpler’ ways of living. Fortunately, although the roots of consumerism are shallow, the roots of simplicity are deep, and this book will invite readers to put their hands in the soil of history to examine those deep roots, to feel them and learn from them, in the hope of enriching the present as we move into an uncertain future. With that in mind, this anthology brings together twenty-six short essays discussing the most significant individuals, cultures, and social movements that have embraced forms of ‘simple living’ throughout history.

But what does it mean to ‘live simply’? Granted, this is a concept that means different things, to different people, at different times; nevertheless, it can and should be given some definitional content. Broadly speaking, simple living refers to a way of life based on notions such as frugality, sufficiency, moderation, minimalism, self-reliance, localism, and mind-fulness. It can be understood to refer to ‘the middle way’ between overconsumption and under-consumption, where basic material needs are sufficiently met but where attention is then directed away from continuous materialistic pursuits, in search of non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning. Practically this might involve growing one’s own organic food, wearing second-hand or mended clothes, minimising energy consumption, riding a bike, sharing or making instead of buying, avoiding superfluous possessions, spending conscientiously, and minimising waste. But none of this should imply hardship or sacrifice. By minimising wasteful consumption and embracing sufficiency, people living simply tend to have more time for the important things in life, like family and friends, home production, creative activity, self-development, civic engagement – or whatever one’s private passions may be. In contrast to the consumer lifestyle, one could say that simple living is about privileging time over money, or freedom over stuff. In short, simple living is about knowing how much is ‘enough’ and discovering that ‘enough is plenty’.

Anyone who has attempted to actually live simply, of course, will know very well that doing so is not very ‘simple’ at all, in the sense of being easy. This is especially so in the consumerist cultures that have arisen today, which are dominated not only by materialistic values but also by growth-orientated structures that often lock people into high consumption lifestyles. To be sure, it is hard to swim against the current of consumerism. What this suggests is that the significance of simple living is not just about personal lifestyle choice, but has wider and deeper implications on how we think about the structures of our societies. As we will see, this raises political and macroeconomic issues, as well as ethical, cultural, ecological, and even spiritual issues. It seems, then, somewhat paradoxically, that simple living is actually an extremely complex notion that exhibits a multitude of dimensions and defies simplistic definition. We hope that this anthology helps to convey the richness of simplicity, and perhaps even goes some way to unravelling its defining paradox – the paradox that less can be more.

While materialistic values have always been present and usually dominant in the evolution of human civilisations, so too have there always been brave souls and counter-cultures that have rejected those values in favour of less materialistic, ‘simpler’ ways of living. The purpose of this anthology is to review those diverse examples – those pioneers of the deep future. The early chapters of this book include discussions of momentous figures such as Buddha, Diogenes, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Jesus, while movements and cultures such as the Stoics, the Quakers, and the Amish are also reviewed. The middle chapters include discussions of such figures as Henry Thoreau, John Ruskin, William Morris, Gandhi, and Helen and Scott Nearing, as well as movements related to agrarianism, voluntary simplicity, and radical homemaking. The later chapters take a look at other contemporary expressions of simple living, including those based on notions of permaculture, intentional communities, degrowth, and transition towns. The anthology closes with a discussion of ‘mindfulness’, which is perhaps the one element common to all manifestations of simple living – and perhaps the most challenging element too.

This book reviews these great moments in the history of simple living, and many more, but again it only looks backwards in order to shed light on the present and the future. We were motivated to publish this book because of our belief that a sustainable, just, and flourishing society is one that learns many of the lessons of simplicity and adapts them to our times. Little else needs to be said by way of introduction, because the following FOREWORD by David Shi – the pre-eminent historian of simplicity – eloquently provides some more intimate context to this anthology. We will simply conclude with the following remarks.

Our civilisation has experimented with a particular relationship to the material world – and it is always good to experiment with life. But the consumerist experiment turned out to be a dead end. We should not feel obliged to continue down this path any further, and should instead imagine and undertake new experiments in living, explore different paths into the future, before darker alternatives are imposed upon us. As Henry Thoreau fairly insisted, ‘there are as many ways [to live] as there are radii from one centre’, and the choices made by previous generations need not bind us today. Let us think for ourselves, then, and be brave enough to create our own fate. That is the urgent task that confronts us today, the task of creating something new, as we find ourselves swept along by the currents of a destructive, industrial civilisation. With that creative task in mind – which is a task both of opposition and renewal – may the following stories of simplicity inspire you as they have inspired us.

The book is available here. Please share this link or post with friends, family, facebook, twitter, etc. Thanks for your support.

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4 Responses to “Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future”

  1. […] have embraced forms of ‘simple living’ throughout history. For more information, see here.  Details on the Farm Visit below: Where: Pigface Point, Syndey, NSWWhen: Sunday November […]

  2. Shirley0401 says:

    Any way to order as an epub or PDF?

  3. Samuel Alexander says:

    Not yet, hopefully later this year. Thanks for your interest.

  4. […] The following essay, by David Shi, is the ‘foreword’ to my new book, Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future, which I co-edited with Amanda McLeod. This essay provides a wise and stimulating introduction to many of the individuals, cultures, and movements which are discussed in the book (which available here). If you are in Melbourne and are free on the evening of 24 September, it’d be great to see you at the book launch (details here). The ‘Preface by the Editors’ and the table of contents can be read here. […]

  5. Robert Leonard says:

    Congratulations on the publication of this book. Although I don’t have an e-reader, I would prefer to buy a version that I can read on-screen (e.g., pdf). May I also thank you for your marvellous website, to which I return time and time again.

  6. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Robert, thanks for your kind words. As for a pdf of the book, I’m hoping to make that available in the near future. I’ll do a post on that when it is available. best wishes, SA

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