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The Humanitarian Case for Living Simply

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] Furthermore, economic growth and the so-called ‘trickle down effect’ is not a solution upon which we should rely for humanitarian relief.[5] 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.’[6]


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

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

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

[4] See Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (2005) 192 (arguing that ‘To solve the problem of poverty, real deprivation, we must first solve the problem of affluence, imagined deprivation’).

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

[6] 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.

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