Is consumer culture the ultimate fulfillment of human destiny? Or are we entitled to hope for something more? Our current use of language, it must be said, does not bode well for those of us who live in hope, for consider what today is proudly called the ‘developed world’: In the face of extreme poverty we see gross overconsumption; in the face of environmental degradation we see a fetishistic obsession with economic growth; in the face of social decay and spiritual malaise we see a vast corporate wasteland eating away at the future of humanity. Our collective imagination lies dormant. What is to be done? How now shall we live?
Intended as an invitation to an alternative way of life, this essay describes and evaluates the post-consumerist living strategy known as ‘voluntary simplicity,’ otherwise known as ‘downshifting.’[i] Our planet urgently needs us to explore alternative ways to live,[ii] 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. The central insight of voluntary simplicity is that by lowering our ‘standard of living’ (measured by income/consumption) we can actually increase our ‘quality of life’ (measured by subjective wellbeing). Paradoxical though it may sound, voluntary simplicity is about living more with less.
Since there may be some who are unfamiliar with the term ‘voluntary simplicity,’ I thought I should begin this essay by offering a preliminary definition of the central idea. After doing so I will outline various ways that voluntary simplicity can be justified as a way of life, and I will also spend a short time discussing the practice of simplicity and the attitudes that make the practice of simplicity possible. I will close with a brief statement concerning the importance of voluntary simplicity as an emerging counter-cultural force.
How one should respond to these issues is a creative and intimately personal matter – the following pages contain more questions than answers – but I wish to highlight the point that voluntary simplicity is an expression of human freedom and an affirmation of life, and I believe that the idea requires evaluation in these terms.
WHAT IS VOLUNTARY SIMPLICITY?
Allow me to spend a moment laying some groundwork and trying to put this discussion in some context. The economic problem of how to provide for ourselves and our families, of how to secure the necessaries of life, has been solved for the vast majority of ordinary people in western society.[iii] We are fabulously wealthy when considered in the context of all known history or when compared to the three billion human beings who today subsist on one or two dollars per day.[iv] As one leading economist has noted, ‘Most westerners today are prosperous beyond the dreams of their grandparents.’[v] The houses of typical families are bigger than ever and they are each filled with untold numbers of consumer products, like multiple TVs, racks of unused clothes, washing machines, dishwashers, dryers, vacuum cleaners, kitchen gadgets, garages full of ‘stuff,’ etc. Houses are often centrally heated and have air-conditioning, with spare rooms, and two cars parked outside. It is nothing for an average parent to spend one hundred dollars on a present for a child or to buy them a personal mobile phone. Most of us have spare income to spend on take-out food, alcohol, going to the movies, books, taking holidays, etc. We generally have access to sophisticated health care and free primary and secondary education. On top of all this, we live in a democracy, our water is clean, and almost nobody goes hungry.
All this is indicative of a society that has attained unprecedented wealth, which I am not about to suggest is a bad thing, necessarily. But it is a prosperity which has proven extremely easy to take for granted, leaving many in the global middleclass still complaining about the hardness of their lot, and feeling deprived despite their plenty.[vi]
What I am suggesting is that western society is, at last, rich enough to be truly free, free from material want; although, as I have implied, not many people seem willing to accept that this is so. Is it because the prospect of freedom is terrifying? Perhaps it is terrifying because, once we recognize the sufficiency of our material situations and are able to quench the upward creep of material desire, we are forced to give an answer to that great question of what to do with the radical freedom that material sufficiency provides – a freedom which I believe is on offer to us today. But rather than face this ultimate human question, many people today seem to have climbed or fallen upon a consumerist treadmill, and become enslaved, consciously or unconsciously, to a lifestyle in which too much consumption is never enough. There is no end to consumer cravings, for as soon as one is satisfied, two pop up. The goal in life does not seem to be material sufficiency, but material excess. In such cases, it seems to me, a life of freedom does not often arise.
Despite the fact that western society is several times richer than it was in the 50s, at the beginning of the 21st century we are confronted by what social critic Clive Hamilton has called an ‘awful fact.’[vii] Despite the unprecedented levels of material wealth, there is a growing body of social science which indicates that people today are no more satisfied with their lives than people were in the 50s and 60s.[viii] In other words, it seems that increases in personal and social wealth have stopped increasing our wellbeing. Getting richer is no longer making us any happier. It is troubling, therefore, to see that our whole society is geared towards maximizing wealth. As Henry David Thoreau would say, ‘We labor under a mistake.’[ix]
Is it possible that we have reached a stage in our economic development where the process of getting richer is now causing the very problems that we seem to think getting richer will solve? As one of Thoreau’s disciples, I wish to suggest that we have. I wish to suggest that, however suitable the pursuit of more wealth and higher standards of living were in the past, today that pursuit has become not just wasteful but dangerously counter-productive – fetishistic, even. Consumer culture, which everyday is being globalized further, has failed and is still failing to fulfill its promise of a better life. It has even begun taking away many of things upon which our wellbeing depends, such as community life,[x] a work/life balance,[xi] spiritual and aesthetic experience,[xii] and a healthy natural environment.[xiii] 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.
That is the invitation/incitation embodied in this essay.
A Preliminary Definition
Voluntary simplicity, or simple living, is a post-consumerist living strategy that rejects the materialistic lifestyle 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 consumption habits are destroying 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, not so much sad as foolish, and 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.
Sometimes called ‘the quiet revolution,’[xiv] 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.[xv] 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, contemplation, 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.[xvi]
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, aesthetic, and spiritual potentials.[xvii] 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.’[xviii]
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.’
The spirit of late capitalist society, however, cries out like a banshee for us to expend our lives pursuing middle-class luxuries and coloured paper, for us to become faceless bodies dedicated to no higher purpose than the acquisition of nice things. We can embrace that comfortable unfreedom if we wish, that bourgeois compromise. But it is not the only way to live.
Voluntary simplicity presents an alternative.
WHAT VOLUNTARY SIMPLICITY IS NOT
So as not to be misunderstood, I now wish to clarify and elaborate on a few points that I have just made, by distinguishing voluntary simplicity from what it is not.
Voluntary simplicity is not a glorification of poverty. Nor does it deny that a small percentage of people in western society, and a large percentage around the rest of the world, still live lives oppressed by material deprivation. Far from glorifying or ignoring poverty, voluntary simplicity is about the importance of understanding and attaining material sufficiency, a concept that is all but unthinkable in a culture that generally assumes that ‘more is always better.’ My point is that living simply involves having an honest answer to the question of ‘How much consumption is enough?, and then honestly attaining that much, and not bothering with superfluities. And the voluntary simplicity movement is demonstrating, through the lives of millions of participants, that surprisingly little is needed to live well and to be free, if only life is approached with the right attitude.[xix]
Just as voluntary simplicity does not mean living in poverty, nor does it imply that people must leave the city to live to the country or join a hippie commune. Although some may decide that, for example, the life of an independent, self-sufficient rural farmer is a very good and natural way to live, it will not be for everybody; nor will joining a hippie commune. Indeed, learning how to live more sustainably in an urban setting strikes me as one of the greatest challenges of our age, especially since our political and economic institutions and our social infrastructure make urban simple living, especially, much more difficult than it needs to be, a point which I will touch on again later.[xx] For now, suffice it to say that voluntary simplicity is not synonymous with the ‘back to the land movement’ or the counter-cultures that arose in the 60s and 70s. I should note, however, that these movements do share some common ideals with voluntary simplicity, such as anti-consumerism, a reverence for nature, and non-violent resistance to unjust features of our society.
Voluntary simplicity, furthermore, does not mean indiscriminately renouncing all the advantages of science and technology. It does not mean living in a cave, giving up electricity, or rejecting modern medicine. But it does question the assumption that science and technology are the only paths to health, happiness, and freedom. To live simply, as I am using the phrase, is to at least put one’s mind to the question of whether some new technology or scientific discovery actually improves our lives, or whether, on the contrary, it ultimately costs us more than it comes to, in terms of ‘life.’ Furthermore, the simple liver might come to see that there is a certain elegance and sophistication to the clothesline or the bicycle that the washing machine and the automobile decidedly lack. The simple liver will not build a ten billion dollar, hi-tech, desalination plant. The simple liver will install a water tank and think up ways to use less water. Rather than using central heating, the simple liver will be inclined to put on a sweater. And so on and so forth. Soon enough a new form of life emerges.
Now that I have offered a preliminary definition of voluntary simplicity, I now wish to say a few words on why, exactly, we might want to adopt voluntary simplicity, why we might want to step out of the rush and begin shaping a simple life of our own. I have divided my discussion of this question into four overlapping sections – personal, social, environmental, and spiritual.
Consumer culture can distract us from what is best in our lives, and it functions to keep many locked in a work-and-spend cycle that has no end and attains no lasting satisfaction. But if we rethink our relationship with money and possessions, we may be able to free up more time and energy for the pursuit of what truly inspires us and makes us happy, whatever that may be. In this way voluntary simplicity can be seen to enhance the meaning of our lives.
I begin with this point not because it is the most important, necessarily, but because I believe that if the voluntary simplicity movement is to expand, it must be shown that simple living does not generate deprivations, but actually frees people from an insidiously addictive consumerism and an unhealthy relationship with money and ‘stuff.’[xxi]
Rather than dedicating one’s life to the pursuit of riches or status, simple livers are more likely to have a balanced working life or even work part-time, and are more likely to seek fulfilling employment and accept a modest income, rather than get too hung up about a high salary. With less time devoted to acquiring expensive things, simple livers will have more time to spend with friends and family, and more time to spend pursuing their private passions or enjoying their civic responsibilities.[xxii] The point is that disciplined and enlightened moderation with respect to our material lives will not tend to give rise to any sense of deprivation, but will ultimately lead to a happiness, a satisfaction, and a freedom far greater than that which is ordinarily known in the hectic, dead-end lifestyles of consumer culture. In short, many are drawn to simplicity because they want to escape the rat race and live more with less.[xxiii]
Although there are indeed many personal incentives for adopting voluntary simplicity, it would be an impoverished philosophy that sought to justify itself only in relation to personal self-interest. For that reason, it is important to recognize that there are also many social and humanitarian reasons for adopting voluntary simplicity. Living simply can be a powerful lifestyle response to social injustices, and many people are drawn to simplicity because it can be understood to be an act of sharing, an act of human solidarity. It can therefore foster a heightened sense of human community, both locally and globally.
One obvious way to share with others is simply to take less, to try to take only what one needs for a dignified life, and no more. This may not be easy, but it could be said that before the problem of global poverty can ever be solved, those in the consuming middleclass will need to show some enlightened, compassionate restraint in relation to their material lives, and accept that in a world of great human need the wasteful consumption of material things is an unambiguous act of violence.
The global population is expected to approach nine or ten billion by the middle of this century, and trends indicate that most of these extra souls will find themselves born into the Third World.[xxiv] This, among other factors, has lead the United Nations to publish several urgent and strongly worded warnings to the effect that if First World attitudes to consumption persist, then future generations not so far away should expect humanitarian crises beyond what we have ever experienced.[xxv]
Fortunately, at least part of the solution is at hand. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘Live simply so that others may simply live.’
As well as personal and social reasons for simplifying, there are, of course, also environmental reasons for adopting voluntary simplicity. It is becoming increasingly obvious to more and more people that simpler living, in some form or another, is needed to save our planet from real ecological disaster, and that lifestyles of reduced consumption will be a necessary part of any sustainable future for human civilization.[xxvi] We know this very well, I suspect, both in our heads and in our hearts, so I need not review the details of the environmental predicament which is beginning to define our age. Let me just assert, then, that simple living is one very promising way – if not the most promising way – to personally confront global environmental problems such as climate change, pollution, and the overconsumption of non-renewable resources. And given what is at stake here – the health of the life-support system we call Earth – perhaps this should be justification enough for everyone.
Finally, for immediate purposes, there are what could be called spiritual reasons for living simply. I acknowledge that I am now touching on a very private matter – ‘private,’ not because spiritual exploration must be done alone, but because nobody can do it for us. By shifting attention from the material to the non-material side of life, voluntary simplicity can facilitate a deeper awareness of the spiritual dimension of being. I will not now argue this point, however, since it is one that I suspect can only be experienced, not explained; at least, not explained by me. I will only say this: That if we take time to isolate ourselves from consumer culture for long enough to unlearn it, for long enough to rouse ourselves from the daze of unexamined habit and reopen the doors of perception, we just might provoke a surprisingly fresh interpretation of the form of life behind, as well as provoke a new appreciation of the possibilities of an alternative mode of being. In other words, when we let ourselves be enchanted by ordinary experience,[xxvii] it quickly becomes clear that ‘a simple life’ is a profoundly beautiful life, one that is exciting and worth living. For simplicity is nothing if it is not an affirmative state of mind, an authentic celebration of life, and it is a state of mind that often seems to reflect a mystical interpretation of life and a deep reverence for nature, even if one does not subscribe to any traditional religion nor any crude pantheism.
Earlier generations confronted spiritual questions face to face, we through their eyes. But why, as Emerson would insist, should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?[xxviii]
THE PRACTICE OF SIMPLICITY
Having now defined voluntary simplicity and offered a few words on why we might embrace it as a living strategy, it is important, I think, to say at least a few words about the practice of simplicity, about ‘how’ exactly one might go about simplifying one’s life, and ‘how’ one might try to live the idea, if one were convinced that this way of life was desirable.
I will, however, be very brief on this aspect of simplicity, not because it isn’t important. Obviously, it is very important. But the fact is that there is no Doctrine or Code of Simplicity to follow, as such. There is no Method or Equation of Simplicity into which we can plug the facts of our lives and be told how to live. That is precisely what the idea cannot do – but perhaps that suits your disposition as well as it does mine.
Voluntary simplicity, as I have said, is more about questions than answers, which implies that practicing simplicity calls for creative interpretation and personalized application. It is not for me, therefore, or for anyone, to prescribe universal rules on how to live simply. We each live unique lives, and we each find ourselves in different situations, with different capabilities, and different responsibilities. Accordingly, the practice of simplicity by one person, in one situation, will very likely involve different things to a different person, in a different situation. But, as I have implied, I do not think that this practical indeterminacy is an objection to the idea.
With that proviso noted, allow me say a few general and very brief words on what a simple life might look like and how one might begin to live it.
Money: Although living simply is much more than just living cheaply and consuming less – it is also a state of mind – spending wisely plays an important role. The following exercise may surprise you: Over a one month period, record every purchase you make, and then categorize your expenses. Multiply each category by twelve to get a rough estimate of the annual cost. Then consider how much of your time and energy you spent obtaining the money required to buy everything you consumed that month. Question not only the amount of money you spent on each category, but also the categories on which you spent your money. You might find that seemingly little purchases add up to an inordinate amount over a whole year, suggesting that the money might be better spent elsewhere, not at all, or exchanged for more time by working less. One does not have to be a tightwad, as such, only thoughtful. ‘The cost of a thing,’ after all, ‘is the amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it.’[xxix] You may find that some small changes to your spending habits, rather than inducing any sense of deprivation, will instead be life-affirming.[xxx]
And when it comes to spending our money we should always bear in mind Vicki Robin’s profound democratic insight: That how we spend our money is how we vote on what exists in the world. If this is true, then the global middleclass has the potential to become a non-violent revolutionary class and change the world, simply by changing its spending habits. Money is power, and with this power comes responsibility.
I repeat: How we spend our money is how we vote on what exists in the world.
Shelter: Housing or accommodation is typically life’s greatest expense, so we should think especially carefully about where we live and why, and how much of our lives we are prepared to spend seeking a nicer home. Exactly what kind of shelter does one need to live well and to be free? Obviously, we must answer this question for ourselves, but again the words of Henry David Thoreau might give us a moment’s pause: ‘Most people appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.’[xxxi] The individual or family who today is admired for a large and luxurious house might find that our culture comes to admire those who have learned how to combine functional simplicity and beauty in a smaller, much more modest, home.[xxxii]
Clothing: The historic purpose of clothing, of course, was to keep us warm and, in time, for reasons of modesty. Today its primary purpose seems to be fashion and the conspicuous display of wealth and status. People can, of course, spend thousands and thousands of dollars on clothing if they want, in search of themselves. But we should never forget that functional, second-hand clothing can be obtained extremely cheaply. And those who ‘dress down’ often express themselves more uniquely than those who are limited to the styles found in shopping malls or who try to imitate celebrities. Many hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each and every year on the fashion industry. Just imagine if even half of that money was redirected towards green energy or humanitarian initiatives? We would lose so little and gain so much.
Once again, how we spend our money is how we vote on what exists in the world.
Food: Eating locally, eating green, eating out in moderation, eating less meat, eating simply and creatively – I know by experience this can be done very cheaply. Given some thought and a little discipline, a good diet can be obtained at a surprisingly low cost, especially if you are able to cultivate your own garden, which is a very natural and strangely satisfying thing to do.
Work: I have just outlined, with a very broad brush, a voluntarily simplistic perspective on acquiring the most basic necessities of life – shelter, clothing, and food. Once upon a time these necessities could be obtained by hunting and gathering in the commons, but in our day and age, of course, they must be obtained through economic transactions in the marketplace, usually through the medium of money, which we must work to acquire. It is important to consider, therefore, however briefly, the question of employment.
When it comes to work, we would do well, I believe, to more carefully put our minds to the question of what our time is worth. For once we have obtained the necessities of life, and have acquired a few comforts appropriate for a dignified life, there is another alternative than to spend our lives working to obtain material superfluities. And that is to pass up those superfluities and instead ‘adventure on life now,’ as Thoreau would say, ‘our vacation from humbler toil having commenced.’[xxxiii] From the perspective of voluntary simplicity, this exchange of money for time will often prove to be a very good trade.
If we keep raising our standard of living every time we come into more money, through a raise, for example; or if we keep raising our standard of living every time we become more productive, through some new technological development, for example; then we will never shorten our working week. Most westerners, especially North Americans, are working longer hours today than they were in the 50s,[xxxiv] despite being many times richer and many times more productive. Why should we always be working for more consumer products and not sometimes be content with less? Why should we not accept a lower standard of living and work half as much? Who can say what wonders such a cultural style might not bring! The immediate point is simply that if we can embrace the simple life and stop the upward creep of material desire, then we can take some of our pay increases or increases in productivity, not in terms of dollars and things, but in ‘freedom’ instead. Again, this seems like it would be a very good trade – a no-brainer, even. But history suggests that most westerners will choose otherwise. The ruts of conformity run deep.
A Thumbnail Sketch: A comprehensive guide to simple living would obviously require much more space than is available here, so let me just round off this part of my discussion by summarizing what simple living tends to involve. It tends to involve thoughtful thrift and environmentally and socially conscientious spending habits. It can involve recognizing that there is no good reason for desperately trying to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’ since modest accommodation and few possessions are perfectly sufficient to live a free and happy life. Simple living can involve buying secondhand clothing and furniture, creating one’s own style, and rejecting high fashion. It might involve cultivating a garden, eating simply, locally, and creatively, and discovering that doing so can be both cheap and satisfying. And it might involve riding a bike instead of driving a car, choosing a washing line over a dryer, or even something as simple as choosing a book over television. Rather than stay at a luxurious resort, the simple liver might spend $12 a night bush camping in midst of nature. Rather than work long hours to afford a life dedicated to consumption, the simple liver might step out of the rush and reduce working hours, freeing up more time to paint, play the piano, meditate, spend with family, read, walk in Nature, etc. Rather than choose competition, the simple liver is likely to choose community. Not money, but meaning. And so on and so forth, until the very elements of life have been transformed.
Despite these tentative remarks on how to practice simplicity, I wish to reiterate that there is not one way to live the simple life, and that anyone who wishes to embrace simplicity must be prepared to think over the idea for oneself, until it takes root in personal experience. I am convinced, however, both by faith and by experience, that if someone is genuinely committed to the idea of simplicity then that person, with a little courage and some imaginative effort, will find a way to shape a simple life of their own. Start with a few small steps, enjoy the adventure, and soon enough your life has changed.
THE CALL OF SIMPLICITY
From what I have said so far, it should be clear that voluntary simplicity embodies a way of life that is very different from the high consumption, materialistic lifestyle that is widely celebrated in advanced capitalist society today. And it should be of concern to all those who are sympathetic to voluntary simplicity that this way of life is given very little serious attention by politicians and the mass media, two of the most powerful forces in our society. Our politicians and the mass media seem not just indifferent but fundamentally opposed to the idea of voluntary simplicity, despite the occasional lip-service that is paid to the social and environmental problems caused by overconsumption. It is little surprise, then, that to date the voluntary simplicity movement has not entered the mainstream, although perhaps some light is beginning to break through the crust of convention, albeit with much difficulty.[xxxv]
The mass media, in particular, has very little interest in promoting voluntary simplicity, since it is, by in large, made up of privately owned corporations, each of which is driven almost exclusively by the incentive of private profits. Corporate shareholders, by definition, it seems, want us only to consume more and more – never less. Indeed, many of the world’s most sophisticated psychologists are today hired by corporations as ‘marketers,’ and I do not think it misrepresents the situation to say that these marketers spend all day thinking up ways to make us – potential consumers – feel dissatisfied with what we have, despite our plenty, in order to get us buy things we didn’t even know we wanted and certainly didn’t need. The message they convey in their slick, ever-present advertisements is that more money, more material things, more consumption, is what is needed to improve our lives. And we are easily persuaded.[xxxvi]
Disappointingly, we can perceive the very same message in the rhetoric of our so-called ‘political representatives.’ In the newspapers everyday, on the television news every night, and throughout every political campaign I have ever experienced, political parties seem to assume that it is their overriding objective to maximize economic growth. Almost every political party, whether on the Left or the Right, claims that they will run the economy ‘best,’ by which it is implied that they will increase our standard of living, make us all richer, and make us better able to buy more things – as if that were the solution to all our problems.
This is a point that has been picked up on and criticized heavily by Clive Hamilton, who I mentioned earlier. To oversimplify slightly, he sums up contemporary public policy as follows: Unemployment is high: only economic growth can create the jobs; schools and hospitals are under-funded: economic growth will improve the budget; protection of the environment is too expensive: the solution is economic growth; poverty is entrenched: economic growth will rescue the poor; income distribution is unequal: economic growth will make everyone better off.[xxxvii] Just as with the mass media, the point is that our politicians are telling us that more money and more consumer products are the key to a better life.
Voluntary simplicity rejects this approach. To repeat a phrase mentioned earlier, in stark contrast to the idea that ‘more is always better,’ voluntary simplicity is an art of living that is aglow with the insight that ‘just enough is plenty.’ But, whether we like it or not, most of us today have been educated into a materialistic culture that assumes the legitimacy of ever-higher levels of consumption. Even though we are now aware that ordinary western-style consumption habits are destroying the planet, we think that it is normal and acceptable for the mass media and our politicians to dedicate themselves to encouraging and facilitating ever higher levels of consumption. So embedded are we in consumer culture that these perversities seem natural and inevitable; facts of life; just the way the world is. An alternative is almost unthinkable and largely unspeakable.
When a whole society is geared towards producing and then consuming ever-more consumer products, it can be very difficult for people to live and think differently, even for those of us who want to. As I see it, there is no easy, silver-bullet, solution to this problem. But one step that can be taken is to dedicate more of our attention to exploring alternatives, and that was one motivation I had for writing and publishing this essay. Obviously, just reading and talking about voluntary simplicity is not enough to change our lives and our society, but I am convinced that it is an important and perhaps necessary first step. In a world such as ours, focused so intently on making money, it is important that we occasionally take time to step back and ask ourselves, ‘What is money is for?” and “What is our economy for?” For when we ask ourselves these questions, it quickly becomes apparent that the meaning of life does not and cannot consist in the consumption and accumulation of material things. There is more to life than desiring big houses, new carpet, fine clothing, expensive cars, and luxurious holidays, etc. There is freedom from such desires.[xxxviii]
What I am suggesting is that ‘the simple life’ is a viable 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. By reading and talking about voluntary simplicity, I believe we can revolutionize – a term I do not use lightly – the form of life we have inherited from the past. By giving more attention to alternatives to consumer culture, we will discover that there are other, better, more fulfilling ways to live. By acting upon this realization, we can reshape our own lives, improve our culture, and upset the ruts of conformity. We can better face the social and environmental challenges which confront us today, and which will undoubtedly confront us for all of the foreseeable future. What we can be sure of is that the 21st century will be defined, to a large extent, 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 we make in our private lives.
And it is for this reason that the idea of voluntary simplicity gives me 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 corollary 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, I wish to emphasize, is one of the central messages I would like 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 Gandhi once said, in a phrase that captures the revolutionary spirit of voluntary simplicity: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’[xxxix] 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 it alone can start today.’[xl] The point, as I understand it, 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 quietly step out of the rat race and show, by example, both to themselves and to others, that a different way of life is both possible and desirable.
Let us, then, be pioneers once more.
As the globalization of western consumption habits pushes our planet towards the brink of environmental collapse, as evidence mounts that consumer culture has failed to fulfill its promise of a better life, and at a time when three billion of our fellow human beings still live in the darkness of poverty amidst plenty, one may be forgiven for thinking that there is a certain inescapable logic to pursuing a way of life that is ‘outwardly simple, inwardly rich.’ Yet, from earliest childhood onward, first upon somebody’s knee, then through lessons ratified by polite society, we are educated into a materialistic form of life that squarely contradicts that of voluntary simplicity. What is more, it seems we are forbidden to admit this.
If it is true, however, as some existentialists have argued, that we can always make something new out of what we have been made into, then it might be interesting to inquire: Did you choose your mode of living because you preferred it to any other? Or did you honestly think that it was the only way? Reading and talking about voluntary simplicity with these questions in mind can be unsettling, rather like being shaken awake from the most dogmatic slumber. But it can also be exhilarating and uplifting, in the most unexpected ways. I hope that some readers will find, or have already found, that this is so.
* * * * *
Despite what seems to be a strong case for voluntary simplicity, one may nearly despair of the possibility that the entrenched economics of consumerism will ever lose its authority over western minds. But as Theodore Roszak has said:
There is one way forward: the creation of flesh-and-blood examples of low-consumption, high-quality alternatives to the mainstream pattern of life. This we can see happening already on the counter cultural fringes. And nothing – no amount of argument or research – will take the place of such living proof. What people must see is that ecologically sane, socially responsible living is good living; that simplicity, thrift, and reciprocity make for an existence that is free.[xli]
This essay will have served its purpose if the reader goes away with an increased curiosity about this life-affirming freedom, and an appreciation that with a little courage and some imaginative effort, the door to voluntary simplicity will swing gracefully open.
* * * * *
Our world can change. Thoughtful, dedicated people like you and me can change it. And if not us, then who? If not now, then when? My closing words must be that if it is not us, then it will be nobody. And if not now, then never.
‘Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new.’[xlii]
[i] See generally, Samuel Alexander (ed.), Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009).
[ii] For example, see New Economic Foundation, ‘100 Months: Technical Note’ (2008, www.neweconomics.org) (which calculates that 100 months from August 2008, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will begin to exceed a point whereby it is no longer be likely we will be able to avert potentially irreversible climate change).
[iii] In Australia, for example, average income is over AU$50,000 per annum, as reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in August 2008 (see www.abs.gov.au). And there are 14 countries with higher GDP than Australia (in terms of Purchasing Power Parity), as reported by the International Monetary Fund in 2009 (World Economic Outlook Database, April 2009).
[iv] World Bank Development Indicators, ‘Poverty Data’ (2008), available online at:
[v] Clive Hamilton, Growth Fetish (2003) xi. This paragraph draws on Hamilton’s discussion.
[vi] See Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (2005) (arguing in all seriousness that western society is in the grip of a collective psychological disorder called ‘affluenza’ which deludes people into thinking that they are deprived despite their plenty.)
[vii] Clive Hamilton, Growth Fetish (2003).
[viii] For a comprehensive review and analysis of this research, see Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, ‘Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being’ (2004) 5(1) Psychological Science in the Public Interest 1 (reviewing over 150 studies assessing the correlation between financial wealth and wellbeing); See also, Robert E. Lane, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000); Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism (2002); Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005); Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, Happiness and Economics (2002); Avner Offer, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Wellbeing in the United States and Britain since 1950 (2006); Bill McKibben, Deep Economy (2007).
[ix] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, in Carl Bode (ed.) The Portable Thoreau (1982) (‘Men labor under a mistake.’) 261.
[x] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2001).
[xi] Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1992). John de Graaf et al, Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America (2003).
[xii] David G. Myers, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (2000).
[xiii] Exemplifying this consensus of environmental degradation was the panel of 1,300 scientists assembled by the United Nations which in 2005 issued a ‘Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’ report. They found that ‘human actions are depleting the Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.’ Or see the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a science-based nonprofit affiliation of scientists/citizens with over 250,000 members. Their publications include “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” issued in 1992 by 1,600 of the world’s leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, which begins: ‘Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring.’ Towards the end of this publication the UCS concludes, ‘A new ethic is required.’ One could list several dozen such warnings.
[xiv] Duane Elgin, Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future (2001) Ch. IV.
[xv] Amatai Etzioni, ‘A New Social Movement?’ in William Halal and Kenneth Taylor (eds.) Twenty-First Century Economics (1999).
[xvi] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (300 BCE).
[xvii] By defining ‘progress’ in these terms I intend to position my discourse in relation to the conception of progress espoused by Arnold Toynbee in his Study of History (1972). According his ‘Law of Progressive Simplification,’ as a civilization evolves it will come to transfer increasing increments of energy and attention from the material to the nonmaterial side of life (relationships, contemplation, community, leisure, art, etc.), from which it follows that simplicity approaches the peak of civilization. (‘Nature is going to compel posterity to revert to a stable state on the material plane and to turn to the realm of the spirit for satisfying man’s hunger for infinity.’)
[xviii] Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (Revised edition, 1993).
[xix] See Mary Grigsby, Buying Time and Getting By: The Voluntary Simplicity Movement (2004).
[xx] See generally, John de Graaf, ‘Political Prescriptions’ in Samuel Alexander (ed.) Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009).
[xxi] Amatai Etzioni, ‘A New Social Movement?’ in William Halal and Kenneth Taylor (eds.) Twenty-First Century Economics (1999).
[xxii] For recent discussions of the sociology of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement, see Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (2005); and Mary Grigsby, Buying Time and Getting By: The Voluntary Simplicity Movement (2004).
[xxiii] Discussing the ‘less is more’ paradox, see Philip Cafaro, ‘Less is More: Economic Consumption and the Good Life’ (1998) Philosophy Today 42(1) 26-39.
[xxiv] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN, 2007).
[xxv] See, for example, the United Nations Development Programme, ‘Human Development Report,’ (2007/8) 3 (using the term ‘apocalyptic’ to describe what may lie in store for the poorer nations.)
[xxvi] See note 13, above.
[xxvii] See Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossing, and Ethics (2001).
[xxviii] Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Nature’ in Carl Bode (ed) The Portable Emerson (1977) 7.
[xxix] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, in Carl Bode (ed.) The Portable Thoreau (1982) 286.
[xxx] For more elaborate financial exercises, see Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming your relationship with money and achieving financial independence (1992) and Jim Merkel, Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Planet (2003).
[xxxi] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, in Carl Bode (ed.) The Portable Thoreau (1982) 290.
[xxxii] Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (Revised edition, 1993) 150-51.
[xxxiii] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, in Carl Bode (ed.) The Portable Thoreau (1982) 270-71.
[xxxiv] This argument has been made most famously by Juliet Schor, in The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1992) and The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (1998), and by John de Graaf et al, in Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America (2003).
[xxxv] See Mary Grigsby, ‘Extending the Movement,’ in Samuel Alexander (ed.) Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009) (outlining ways that the Voluntary Simplicity Movement could extend into the mainstream and become a more significant oppositional force.)
[xxxvi] Juliet Schor, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need (1998).
[xxxvii] Clive Hamilton, Growth Fetish (2003) 2.
[xxxviii] See Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be? (1976).
[xxxix] On Gandhi’s view of simplicity see, Mahatma Gandhi, ‘The Quest for Simplicity: My Idea of Swaraj,’ in Majid Rahnema (ed.) The Post-Development Reader (1997) 306-7.
[xl] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, in Carl Bode (ed.) The Portable Thoreau (1982) 326.
[xli] Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends (1972) 422 (emphasis in original).