Invitation / Incitation
The Life Poets’ Simplicity Collective is a grass-roots environmental organization dedicated to promoting and celebrating sustainable culture. We are a diverse and ever-growing network of individuals, from all walks of life, who are trying to make a difference in our own creative way – and we need your help. Our planet needs us to explore alternative ways to live, and one promising way to lessen our impact on nature is to simplify our lives by consuming less and living more. This approach to life has come to be known as ‘voluntary simplicity,’ and it is the idea upon which our Collective is founded.
This website (currently under reconstruction) provides a brief overview of ‘voluntary simplicity’ and invites/incites sympathetic readers to join the Life Poets’ Simplicity Collective and participate in this quiet revolution.
Only your imagination is needed.
Founder of the Life Poets’ Simplicity Collective
Since there may be some who are unfamiliar with the term ‘voluntary simplicity,’ I thought I should begin this introduction to the subject by saying a few words on what this term might mean and, just as importantly, what it does not mean; I also wish to say a few words on what potential or significance voluntary simplicity has as a quietly emerging social movement, and what its limitations might be. After addressing some of these foundational issues, I will then consider the question of why someone might want to adopt voluntary simplicity as a way of life, and, I will also spend a short time looking into how one might begin practicing simplicity, that is, how one might begin living more simply, if one were convinced that this way of life was desirable. But first, as I have said, I would like to clarify the subject of this website and try to define this idea of voluntary simplicity.
Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture
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, who are fabulously wealthy when considered in the context of all known history or when compared to the three billion human beings who today live on one or two dollars per day. As one leading sociologist has noted, ‘Most westerners today are prosperous beyond the dreams of their grandparents.’ The houses of typical families are bigger than ever and they are filled with untold numbers of consumer products, like multiple TVs, racks of unused clothes, washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, kitchen gadgets, garages full of sitting junk, 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 a 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.
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 quench the upward creep of material desire, we are forced to give an answer that great question of what to do with the radical freedom that material sufficiency brings – a freedom which I believe is on offer to us today. But rather than accept this ultimate human responsibility, 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, and then some. In such cases, it seems to me, the question of freedom does not often arise.
What, then, of consumer culture? Have we attained 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 or environmental degradation we see a fetishistic obsession with economic growth; in the face of social alienation 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?
Despite the fact that western society is three to four times richer than it was in the 50s, at the beginning of the 21st century we are confronted by what Clive Hamilton has called an ‘awful fact.’ Despite 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. In other words, increases in personal and social wealth long ago seem to have stopped increasing wellbeing in the West. 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.’
Is it possible that we have reached a stage in our economic development where the process of getting ever-richer is now causing the very problems that we seem to think getting ever-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, and has even begun taking away many of things upon which our wellbeing depends, such as community life, leisure, 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.
That is the invitation/incitation that I will try to impart in this brief discussion of voluntary simplicity.
A preliminary definition
Voluntary simplicity is an anti-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 thus considered a despairing 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.
Sometimes called ‘the quiet revolution,’ 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, 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 rely on money. The grounding assumption of voluntary simplicity is that human beings are inherently capable of living 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, aesthetic, 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.’
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.
STEPPING OUT OF THE RUSH
Consumer culture has failed to fulfill its promise of a better life, and it has even begun taking away many of things upon which our wellbeing depends, such as community life, leisure, and a healthy natural environment. The Life Poets’ Simplicity Collective is founded upon the idea 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.
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 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 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 is one of the central messages that the Life Poets’ 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 expresses the very essence of voluntary simplicity: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ This inspiring call to personal action compliments 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.’ 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; that what the world needs more than anything else is for brave visionaries to quietly step 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.
One of the chief aims of the Life Poets’ Simplicity Collective is to organize the voluntary simplicity movement for collective action and support. This requires an efficient means of communication. Accordingly, individuals sympathetic to voluntary simplicity, from all around the world, are encouraged to register their support by signing up at www.simplicitycollective.com and encouraging others to do the same.