What is Voluntary Simplicity?

Voluntary simplicity, or simple living, is a way of life that rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting.’[1] 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.

Sometimes called ‘the quiet revolution,’[2] 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.[3] 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, more time with family, artistic or intellectual projects, more fulfilling employment, political participation, sustainable living, spiritual exploration, reading, contemplation, relaxation, pleasure-seeking, love, and so on – none of which need to rely on money, or much money.[4] Variously defended by its advocates on personal, social, humanitarian, and ecological grounds (discussed below), voluntary simplicity is predicated on the assumption that human beings can live meaningful, free, happy, and infinitely diverse lives, while consuming no more than a sustainable and equitable share of nature.[5] That, at least, is the challenging ideal which seems to motivate and guide many of its advocates and practitioners.[6]

According to this philosophy of living, 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/or spiritual potentials.[7] 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.’[8] According to the most prominent historian of the Simplicity Movement, David Shi, the primary attributes of the simple life include: thoughtful frugality; a suspicion of luxuries; a reverence and respect for nature; a desire for self-sufficiency; a commitment to conscientious rather than conspicuous consumption; a privileging of creativity and contemplation over possessions; an aesthetic preference for minimalism and functionality; and a sense of responsibility for the just uses of the world’s resources.[9] More concisely, Shi defines voluntary simplicity as ‘enlightened material restraint.’[10]

It should be noted that 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, advocates of simplicity suggest that by examining afresh our relationships 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.’[11] Arguably, this is a theme that has something to say to everyone, especially those in consumer cultures today who are every day bombarded with thousands of cultural and institutional messages insisting that ‘more is always better.’ Voluntary simplicity is a philosophy of living that advocates a counter-cultural position based on notions of sufficiency and simplicity.[12]

The notion of living simply, of course, is not new.[13] The virtues of moderation and enlightened material restraint have been integral to almost all ancient wisdom and spiritual traditions throughout history, with prominent advocates including Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Diogenes, the Stoics, Jesus, Mohammad, St Francis, the Quakers, John Ruskin, William Morris, the New England Transcendentalists (especially Henry Thoreau), the European Bohemians, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Lenin, Richard Gregg, Helen and Scott Nearing, and many of the Indigenous peoples around the world.[14] But in postmodernity, where consumption seems to be glorified and luxury admired as never before, voluntary simplicity arguably acquires a special significance.

[For more on the history of voluntary simplicity, click here]

Misconceptions about Voluntary Simplicity

So as not to be misunderstood, it may be worthwhile spending a few moments clarifying a few points made in preceding sections by distinguishing voluntary simplicity from what it is not.

A Glorification of Poverty?

Voluntary simplicity can be misinterpreted sometimes as glorifying or romanticizing poverty, a myth encouraged perhaps by the fact that some of the more extreme proponents of simplicity – e.g. Diogenes, St Francis, Gandhi, etc. – did indeed live lives of staggering material renunciation. Such extremism can be alienating if it is considered to be a defining or necessary feature of the simple life, which it is not.[15] There is also a risk that advocates of simplicity will be understood to be downplaying the plight of those in the world who genuinely live lives oppressed by material deprivation. It is of the utmost importance, then, to be perfectly clear on this point: voluntary simplicity does not mean poverty. Poverty, in its various dimensions, is debilitating and humiliating.[16] Voluntary simplicity, on the other hand, can be understood as an empowering expression of freedom; a choice to live with fewer market commodities in the belief that a better life, and a better world, will result. It is about the importance of understanding and attaining material sufficiency,[17] while, at the same time, creating a life rich in its non-material dimensions.[18]

Necessarily Agrarian? Just for Hippies?

Living simply does not necessarily imply leaving the city to live in the country; nor does it mean becoming a hippie or joining a commune. Although some may find that an agrarian existence is a very good and natural way to live, it will not be attractive (or available) to everyone; nor will living in a hippie commune. Indeed, learning how to live more simply and sustainably in an increasingly urbanized world is surely one of the greatest challenges of our age, especially since legal and political institutions and social infrastructure make urban simple living, especially, much more difficult than it needs to be. For now, suffice it to note that voluntary simplicity is not synonymous with the ‘back-to-the-land’ movement or the counter-cultures that arose in the 1960s and 70s. It should be added, however, that those movements do share some common ideals with voluntary simplicity, such as anti-consumerism, self-sufficiency, the celebration of life, a deep respect for nature, and non-violent resistance to unjust features of society.[19]

Primitive, Regressive, Anti-Technology?

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 all the benefits of electricity, or rejecting modern medicine. But it does question the assumption that science and technology are always the most reliable paths to health, happiness, and sustainability. It is certainly better to accept rather than reject the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention and industry of humankind offer – provided, of course, that they are genuine advantages. But often with such ‘modern improvements,’ as Thoreau warned, there is ‘an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance.’[20] Voluntary simplicity, then, involves taking a thoughtfully sceptical stance in relation to technology and science, rejecting those aspects which, all things considered, seem to cost more than they come to. Clearly, this is far from being primitive or regressive. Just perhaps our modern technocratic societies will one day come to see that there is a sophistication and elegance to the clothesline, the bicycle, and the water tank that the dryer, the automobile, and the desalination plant, decidedly lack. On a similar note, perhaps it will one day be widely accepted that there is a certain primitiveness to technological gimmicks or that a blind faith in science can itself be ‘anti-progress.’ In the words of the great Leonardo da Vinci: ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’[21]

See also, Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation, by Samuel Alexander, for one vision of a ‘simple living’ utopia. 

[1] See, e.g., Charles Wagner, The Simple Life (1901); Juliet Schor, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (1st ed, 1998). The term voluntary simplicity was coined by Richard Gregg, an American lawyer and committed follower of Gandhi. See Richard Gregg, ‘The Value of Voluntary Simplicity,’ in Samuel Alexander (ed), Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009) 111-126.

[2] Duane Elgin, Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future (1st ed, 2000) Ch. 4.

[3] See Amitai Etzioni, ‘Voluntary Simplicity: A New Social Movement?’ in William Halal and Kenneth Taylor, Twenty-First Century Economics: Perspectives of Socioeconomics for a Changing World (1999).

[4] See Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, ‘The Downshifters,’ in Samuel Alexander (ed), Voluntary Simplicity, above n 1, 219-234.

[5] See Joshua Gambrel and Philip Cafaro, ‘The Virtue of Simplicity’ (2009) 23(1) Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 85.

[6] See generally, Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska (eds), Less is More: Embracing Simplicity for a Healthy Planet, a Caring Economy and Lasting Happiness (2009).

[7] See Jerome Segal, Graceful Simplicity: Toward a Philosophy and Politics of the Alternative American Dream (1st ed, 1999).

[8] Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (Rev. ed, 1993).

[9] David Shi, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (2nd ed, 2007) 3.

[10] Ibid 131.

[11] See Alan Durning, How Much is Enough?: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth (1992).

[12] See Thomas Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency (2005); Gambrel and Cafaro, above n 108.

[13] See generally, Goldian Vanenbroeck (ed), Less is More: An Anthology of Ancient and Modern Voices Raised in Praise of Simplicity (1991).

[14] For a sampling of the historical literature, see Vanenbroeck (ed), above n 13.

[15] See Segal, above n 7, 20.

[16] On the difficulty of defining poverty, see Segal, above n 7, 21.

[17] See Thomas Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency (2005).

[18] See Segal, above n 7, 22.

[19] See Hélène Cherrier, ‘Anti-Consumption Discourses and Consumer-Resistant Identities’ (2009) 62(2) Journal of Business Research 181.

[20] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 306.

[21] See Steve Deger and Leslie Gibson (eds), The Book of Positive Quotations (2nd ed, 2007) 262.