Why Live Simply?

With the definitional overview complete, it is now time to consider what reasons or incentives there might be for choosing a life of voluntary simplicity. The following discussion is divided into five (somewhat overlapping) sections – personal, social / communitarian, humanitarian, ecological, and spiritual.


Money provides power in the market – power to purchase and consume desired commodities, whether goods or services. Consumption, by satisfying market preferences, is supposed to lead to well-being. In essence, this is the economic foundation of consumer culture.[1] Its fundamental prescription is that people should seek well-being in higher incomes and more consumption.[2] The problem, however, as Juliet Schor and others have argued, is that the pursuit of income and consumption can easily distract people from what is best in their lives, functioning to lock people into a ‘work-and-spend’ cycle that has no end and attains no lasting satisfaction.[3]  Many simplicity theorists argue that if people in affluent societies are prepared to rethink their relationships with money and possessions, they just might be able to free up more time and energy for the pursuit of what truly inspires them and makes them happy, whatever that may be. As Richard Gregg put it, living simply means ‘an ordering and guiding of our energy and desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure a greater abundance of life in other directions.’[4] In this way voluntary simplicity can be seen to offer enhanced meaning and satisfaction in people’s lives. The message, in more technical terms, is that lowering ‘standard of living’ (measured by income/consumption) can actually lead to increased ‘quality of life’ (measured by subjective well-being).[5] It is important to emphasize, however, that this is not just about living a happier or more pleasurable life; it can also be about living more deeply and meaningfully in some existentialist, even spiritual, sense.[6]

I begin with the personal incentives for living simply not because they are the most important, necessarily, but because I believe that if the Simplicity Movement is to expand, it must be shown that living simply does not tend to generate any sense of deprivation, but actually frees people from an insidiously addictive consumerism and an unhealthy relation with money and possessions.[7] Rather than dedicating one’s life to the pursuit of ever-higher levels of income and consumption, simple livers are more likely to have a balanced working life or even work part-time,[8] and they are more likely to seek fulfilling employment and accept a modest income, rather than get too hung about securing the highest income possible.[9] With less time devoted to acquiring expensive commodities, simple livers tend to have more time to spend with friends and family, and more time to spend pursuing their private passions.[10] The point here is that disciplined and enlightened moderation with respect to one’s material life does not tend to give rise to any sense of deprivation or sacrifice, but ultimately gives rise to a happiness, a contentment, and even a freedom significantly greater than that which is ordinarily known in the ‘work-and-spend’ cycle of consumer culture.[11] In short, many people are drawn to voluntary simplicity because they want to escape the vapidity of the rat race and live more with less.[12]

Social / Communitarian

There are also social or communitarian incentives for embracing a life of voluntary simplicity.13] For example, when an individual embraces voluntary simplicity by working less, this may well benefit the individual (e.g. by creating more leisure and reducing stress). But those individual benefits will often have flow on effects that benefit others too, such as creating more time and energy for family and friends, or more time and energy to enjoy one’s civic or neighbourly responsibilities.[14] As Cafaro and Gambrel suggest, ‘simplicity can help us develop social unions that enrich our lives. By fostering contentment with our status and possessions and reducing levels of dissatisfaction, simplicity can help minimize social tension and build up social capital.’[15]

Social critics argue that community engagement is often pushed to the side by the demands of a high-consumption life.[16] David Myers coined the term ‘social recession’ to describe essentially this phenomenon.[17] A society might be booming economically, but dedicating too much attention to consumption and the acquisition of wealth, to the detriment of family and community life, can lead to an individualistic society of frantic, agitated, and alienated egos.[18] Mark Burch sums up this point exactly: ‘The brutally “simple” fact is that if the quality of our family and community relationships has suffered, it’s because we’ve chosen to do something else with our time.’[19] What Burch, Myers, Putnam, Cafaro, Gambrel, and many others propose is that affluent societies would be better off if they spent less time accumulating and consuming, and more time cultivating family and community relationships and increasing their civic engagements.[20] The simple act of sharing something with neighbours rather than each having their own is a good example. Which community is richer: The one where each has their own? Or the community that has less but shares?     


Although there are indeed many personal and communitarian incentives for adopting voluntary simplicity, it would be an impoverished ethics that sought to justify itself solely in relation to personal or community self-interest. For that reason, it is important to recognize that there are also broader humanitarian reasons for adopting voluntary simplicity.[21]  In a world where extreme poverty exists amidst such plenty, living simply can be understood as a lifestyle response to the highly skewed distributions of wealth in the world, a response that seeks as far as possible not to be implicated in a system of distribution perceived by many to be grossly unjust.[22] In a similar vein, living simply can also be understood to be an act of sharing, an act of human solidarity, by trying to resist high levels of consumption that cannot be shared by all.

We live in a world of scarce resources. There is only so much stuff to go around, and with the global population expected to exceed nine billion around the middle of this century, competition over resources can be expected to intensify greatly. One obvious way to share with others, then, is simply to take less, to try to take only what one needs to live a dignified life, and no more.[23] Taking less may not be easy, of course, especially in cultures that celebrate extravagance. But it is hard to imagine how the problems of poverty will ever be solved if the materially rich and materially comfortable continue seeking ever-higher levels of consumption.[24] Furthermore, we saw in Chapter One that growth and the so-called ‘trickle down effect’ is not a solution upon which we should rely for humanitarian relief.[25] Challenging though it may be to admit, a necessary part of the solution to poverty involves those in the global consumer class showing some enlightened, compassionate restraint in relation to their material lives. As Gandhi once said, ‘Live simply so that others may simply live.’[26]


As well as personal, communitarian, and humanitarian reasons for living simply, there are, of course, also environmental reasons. It has long been recognized that consumption and ecological impact are correlated,[27] and from this correlation it follows that reducing consumption can be an effective means for reducing ecological impact. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that simpler living, in the sense of reduced and more efficient consumption, is needed to save our planet from grave ecological harm.[28] This is especially so in the affluent societies, where lifestyles of reduced consumption will be a necessary part of any transition to a sustainable future.[29] This has been acknowledged in several of the leading international policy documents on the environment which have emerged in recent decades. Agenda 21, for example – the main policy document to emerge from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 – argued that ‘the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in the industrialized countries.’[30] This document called for the following actions: 

  1. To promote patterns of consumption and production that reduce environmental stress and will meet the basic needs of humanity.
  2. To develop a better understanding of the role of consumption and how to bring about more sustainable consumption patterns.[31] 

In more recent years, this message has been widely affirmed. When the World Summit convened in Johannesburg in 2002, ‘changing consumption and production patterns’[32] was identified as one of three ‘overarching objectives’ for sustainable development. What these and other reports imply is that fundamental lifestyle changes with respect to private consumption are one of the main preconditions to ecological sustainability.[33]


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, 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?

[1] For a critical discussion of the economic theory underpinning consumer culture, see Neva Goodwin, Frank Ackerman and David Kiron (eds), The Consumer Society (1997) 149-228.

[2] The prophet of consumerism, Victor Lebow, once stated: ‘Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate,’ quoted in Vance Packard, The Waste Makers (1963) 11. 

[3] See Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Rev. ed, 1993). See also, Tim Kasser and Allen Kanner (eds), Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World (2003).

[4] See Richard Gregg, ‘The Value of Voluntary Simplicity,’ in Samuel Alexander (ed), Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009), 111-126, 112.

[5] See Philip Cafaro, ‘Less is More’ (2001) 14(1) Global Bioethics 45.

[6] On the spiritual significance of simplicity, see Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? (1st ed, 1976).

[7] 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).

[8] See Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (2005) 156 (reporting that 29 per cent of downshifters surveyed practise voluntary simplicity by reducing their working hours).

[9] Ibid (reporting that 19 percent of downshifters practise voluntary simplicity by changing careers).

[10] Ibid 153 (reporting that 35 percent of downshifters do so because they want to spend more time with family).

[11] Ibid (reporting that 90 per cent of downshifters are happier with their changed lifestyle, despite having reduced income).

[12] See Hélène Cherrier, ‘Drifting away from Excessive Consumption: A New Social Movement based on Identity Construction’ (2002) 29 Advances in Consumer Research 245.    

[13] See, e.g., Suzanne Miller and Jennifer Paxton, ‘Community and Connectivity: Examining the Motives Underlying the Adoption of a Lifestyle of Voluntary simplicity’ (2006) 33 Advances in Consumer Research 289.

[14] See, e.g., Cahit Guven, ‘Are Happier People Better Citizens?’ (2009) available at <> at 10 October 2010 (providing evidence that happier people tend to create more social capital, are more likely to vote, volunteer, and participate in public activities).

[15] See Joshua Gambrel and Philip Cafaro, ‘The Virtue of Simplicity’ (2009) 23(1) Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 85, 11.

[16] See John De Graaf et al, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2nd ed, 2005) 63-71.

[17] See David Myers, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (2000).

[18] See Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000); Robert Lane, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000). See also, Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Land, The Unmanageable Consumer (2nd ed, 2006) 10 (describing the “Fordist Deal” – the trade-off in which workers obtain greater material enjoyment in exchange for alienation and loss of autonomy in the workplace).

[19] Mark Burch, Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet (2000) 65 (emphasis omitted).

[20] See Michelle Nelson, Mark Rademacher and Hye-Jin Paek, ‘Downshifting Consumer = Upshifting Citizen?’ (2007) 611 Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 141.

[21] See Deirdre Shaw and Terry Newholm, ‘Voluntary Simplicity and the Ethics of Consumption’ (2002) 19(2) Psychology and Marketing 167.

[22] See Daniel Fireside (ed), The Wealth Inequality Reader (3rd ed, 2009).

[23] See Jim Merkel, Radical Simplicity (2003) Chaps. 1 and 3.

[24] See Hamilton and Denniss, above n 8, 192 (arguing that ‘To solve the problem of poverty, real deprivation, we must first solve the problem of affluence, imagined deprivation’).

[25] See David Woodward and Andrew Simms, ‘Growth Isn’t Working: The Unbalanced Distribution of Benefits and Costs from Economic Growth’ (2006)   <> at 15 October 2010.

[26] On Gandhi’s conception of simplicity, see Mahatma Gandhi, ‘The Quest for Simplicity: My Idea of Swaraj,’ in Majid Rahnema and Victoria Bawtree (eds), The Post-Development Reader (1997) 306-7.

[27] See generally, Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Explosion (1990) (discussing the ‘I = PAT’ identity, which holds that environmental impact (I) is a product of population (P), affluence (A), and technology (T)).

[28] To clarify, what is needed in terms of consumption is not just ‘less of the same,’ but ‘less, more efficient, and different.’

[29] But see, Hana Librova, ‘The Environmentally Friendly Lifestyle: Simple or Complicated? ‘ (2008) 44(6) Czech Sociological Review 1111 (arguing that there is nothing very ‘simple,’ in the sense of ‘easy,’ about living sustainably in consumer cultures). 

[30] See United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, ‘Agenda 21,’ Sect. 4.3, <> at 10 October 2010.

[31] Ibid, Sect. 4.7.

[32] United Nations, ‘World Summit on Sustainable Development’ (2002) <> at 10 November 2010.  

[33] There is also a growing recognition that ecological and humanitarian issues are closely linked. See Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being (2005) 2 (acknowledging that ‘the degradation of ecosystems services is already a significant barrier to achieving the Millennium Development Goals’).