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Simplicity, Sustainability, and Human Rights

Mark A. Burch has just published another fine Simplicity Institute Report, this time addressing the themes, “Simplicity, Sustainability, and Human Rights.” I’ve posted the introduction below and the full report is available here

I don’t claim any professional credentials or special expertise with respect to human rights. My perspective is that of a layperson, not a jurist or human rights specialist. What I can bring to the conversation, however, is my perspective on simple living. About simple living I know a little, I love a great deal, I have tried to practice nearly my entire life, and which I believe to have central relevance to sustaining and extending human rights.

I also confess to certain feelings of irony. I’ve been talking about voluntary simplicity to anyone who will listen for almost twenty years. I’ve written seven books on the topic. I’ve given scores of workshops and taught a university undergraduate course about simple living to packed classrooms twenty-one times. I’ve been on television and radio and podcasts, in newspaper columns and on the Internet. I’ve done this because I’m utterly convinced that the broad voluntary adoption of a mindful way of life in pursuit of sufficiency rather than the mindless pursuit of affluence would, if not completely cure, then dramatically reduce much of what ails humanity, including violations of human rights. What I have to say is not hard to understand. It costs nothing to do. It requires no one else’s permission, and no new “apps.” After hearing about what voluntary simplicity is, many people wind up agreeing with me that, yes, adopting a simpler life probably would make everything a lot better. Now the irony here is that I think most of my listeners return to their familiar daily round of stress, over-work, haggling, competition, debt slavery, conflict, suffering and insecurity, now and then punctuated by weekends at the lake that only partly compensate these afflictions. So here we are: We have in our own hands all the skillful means we need to live well, but most of us don’t seem able or willing to employ them. Is this not ironic? Is this not so? So please consider, if only for an hour, how you might bend all your considerable creative talents to the task of learning how to live simply and well—rather than how to live more consumptively. It’s our last best hope of conserving human rights, which I aim presently to demonstrate.

My thesis is this: Environmental issues are human rights issues. We cannot hope to conserve human rights without also protecting the ecological and biophysical integrity of the Earth. Since consumer culture and its associated economic and technical developments are the prime drivers of ecological destruction, the active promotion of a culture of voluntary simplicity is essential to conserving the ecosphere, and with it, human rights. Our roles as educators place us in a singularly advantageous position and imply a special responsibility to do this.

Beliefs, ideologies, and the general run of humanity’s inhumanity to itself are perennial   threats to human rights. They are mainly the issues we feature in our museums and public rhetoric. But the newest and most serious threat to human rights is the changes wrought in the ecosphere by consumer culture and its obsession with economic growth. This presents a paradox for advocates of human rights since many of the entitlements we claim as human rights consist of guarantees of participation in consumer culture—the same culture that is undermining the very basis of human rights. Again ironically, this amounts to claiming the right to participate in species suicide.

The full report is available here.

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