Voluntary simplicity designates a way of life that is very different from the high consumption, materialistic lifestyles that are widely celebrated today in advanced capitalist societies (and increasingly elsewhere). Given the personal, social, humanitarian, and ecological benefits that voluntary simplicity promises, it should be of concern to all those who are sympathetic to this way of life that it is given very little serious attention by politicians and mass media, two of the most powerful forces in our society. Our politicians and 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 of 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.
Mass media, in particular, have very little interest in promoting voluntary simplicity, since it is an industry, 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 people only to consume more and more – never less. Indeed, many of the world’s most sophisticated psychologists are today hired by businesses as ‘marketers,’ and I do not think it misrepresents the situation to say that these marketers spend their days 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.
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, maximize GDP. 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 material standards 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 economist and social critic, Clive Hamilton, among many others. To oversimplify slightly, these critics summarize current 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. Just as with 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, both at the personal and the political level. 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.’ However, 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 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 can 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 is the defining purpose of the Simplicity Collective. 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.
What I am suggesting, and what is developed on the Simplicity Collective website at length, is that ‘the simple life’ is a viable and desirable alternative to consumer culture, one that will improve not only our own lives, but the lives of others, as well as help save our planet from the environmental catastrophe towards which we are so enthusiastically marching. By reading and talking about voluntary simplicity, and then infusing its ethos with our lives, I believe we can revolutionize 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, enrich our culture, and upset the ruts of conformity, so that we may better face the social and environmental challenges which confront us today, and which will undoubtedly confront us for all of the foreseeable future. To a large extent, we can be sure, 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.
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 I would like to convey today: 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 the Voluntary Simplicity Movement: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ 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.’ 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 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.
A politics of simplicity, though absolutely necessary, must flow from the grassroots up if it is to be successful and legitimate. As the freedom is there, so must the responsibility be there.
 Discussing the incremental rise in ‘post-materialist values,’ see Ronald Inglehart, ‘Changing Values Among Western Publics from 1970-2006’ (2008) 31(1/2) Western European Politics 130-46.
 See Clive Hamilton, Growth Fetish (2003) 2.