Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. – William Wordsworth
A SIMPLER LIFE BEYOND CONSUMER CULTURE
The Simplicity Collective is a grassroots ‘network of imaginations’ dedicated to exploring, promoting, and celebrating a materially simple but inwardly rich life. Our planet needs us to explore alternative ways to live, and one promising way to lessen our impact on nature is to reject the high-impact lifestyles of consumer culture and voluntarily embrace ‘a simpler life’ of reduced consumption. This approach to life has come to be known as ‘voluntary simplicity’ and it is the idea upon which our Collective is founded. This short statement provides an overview of ‘voluntary simplicity’ and invites/incites sympathetic readers to join the Simplicity Collective and participate in this quiet revolution.
Only your imagination is needed.
Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture
Voluntary simplicity, or simple living, is a way of life that rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer culture and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life,’ or ‘downshifting.’ The rejection of consumerism arises from the recognition that ordinary Western-style consumption habits are degrading the planet; that lives of high consumption are unethical in a world of great human need; and that the meaning of life does not and cannot consist in the consumption or accumulation of material things. Extravagance and acquisitiveness are accordingly considered an unfortunate waste of life, certainly not deserving of the social status and admiration they seem to attract today. The affirmation of simplicity arises from the recognition that very little is needed to live well – that abundance is a state of mind, not a quantity of consumer products or attainable through them.
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. 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, family time, artistic or intellectual projects, more fulfilling employment, political participation, sustainable living, spiritual exploration, reading, conversation, relaxation, pleasure-seeking, love, and so on – none of which need to rely on money, or much money. The grounding assumption of voluntary simplicity is that all human beings have the potential to live meaningful, free, happy, and infinitely diverse lives, while consuming no more than an equitable share of nature. Ancient but ever-new, the message is that those who know they have enough are rich.
According to this view, 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, artistic, and spiritual potentials. 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.’
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, by examining afresh our relationship 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.’ And this might be a theme that has something to say to everyone, especially those of us who are everyday bombarded with thousands of cultural messages insisting that ‘more is always better.’ Voluntary simplicity is an art of living that is aglow with the insight that ‘just enough is plenty.’
Invitation / Incitation
Consumer culture has failed to fulfill its promise of a better life and it has even begun taking away many of the things upon which our wellbeing depends, such as community life, a work/life balance, and a healthy natural environment. We can no longer just fall in line, then, and continue the march ‘business as usual.’ We must explore alternative ways to live. We must experiment creatively, like the artist. We must be the poets of our own lives and of a new generation. The Simplicity Collective is founded upon the idea that ‘a simpler life’ is a viable and desirable alternative to consumer culture, one that will improve not only our own lives, but the lives of others, and, at the same time, help save the planet from the environmental catastrophe towards which we are so enthusiastically marching. The 21st century will be defined by how we today deal with the problems caused by overconsumption – not only how we deal with them politically and economically, but, perhaps most importantly, how we deal with them through the everyday decisions that we make in our private lives.
And it is for this reason that the idea of voluntary simplicity should give us such hope, because it shows (although perhaps this is obvious) that the power to change the world ultimately lies in the hands of ordinary people. It is a reminder that, in the end, the nature of a society is the product of nothing more or less than the countless number of small decisions made by private individuals. The upshot of this, of course, is that those small decisions, those small acts of simplification – insignificant though they may seem in isolation – can be of revolutionary significance when added up and taken as a whole. And that is one of the central messages that the Simplicity Collective seeks to convey: That if we are concerned about the direction our society is heading, and if we seek a different way of life, then we must first look to our own lives and begin making changes there, and not be disheartened by the fact that our social, economic, and political institutions embody outdated materialistic values that we ourselves reject.
As Mahatma Gandhi once said, in a phrase that captures the revolutionary spirit of voluntary simplicity: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ This inspiring call to personal action complements the call of another great simple liver, Henry David Thoreau, who never tired of reminding us that, ‘The individual who goes alone can start today.’ The point, here, is that there is no reason, nor is there any time, to wait for politicians to deal with the problems that we face. For what the world needs more than anything else is for brave visionaries to step out of the rat race and show, by example, that a simpler, greener, more peaceful way of life is both possible and desirable.
Let us, then, be pioneers once more.