The Social Significance of Voluntary Simplicity – Sustainability Week Presentation

There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

– Victor Hugo


Samuel Alexander

(Speech made for Sustainability Week, Melbourne University, 22nd March 2010)

Hello everyone, good to be with you today to recognize and celebrate Sustainability Week. What strikes me most about Sustainability Week is how bluntly it reminds us what the other 51 weeks are called. Perhaps next year we should organize two Sustainability Weeks, four the year after, then eight, then sixteen, and so forth. Hopefully a time would come when formally recognizing Sustainability Weeks, as such, would be unnecessary, since the message would have entered ‘commonsense’ and no longer be in need of promotion; just as today nobody thinks of organizing an Unsustainability Week to promote today’s ‘commonsense.’

This clash of worldviews, however, presents us with something of a paradox. There is only supposed to be one ‘commonsense,’ according to convention, since the term implies a set of assumptions which is shared ‘in common,’ assumptions that are so obvious, so sensible, that they typically go without saying. But it seems that we live in age in which there are two versions of ‘commonsense,’ two sets of assumptions that are in conflict, each trying to dissolve the other. This is dividing our world into two camps, and the metaphor of war, I would suggest, is not inappropriate. There are those who genuinely seek sustainability and the radical changes that this necessarily implies, and there are those who are just continuing the march, ‘business as usual.’ It should come as no surprise that this division is affecting old ways of thinking about the world and our place in it. Some are even suggesting that traditional political oppositions are breaking down, such that politics can no longer be divided into the Left and the Right but only into those parties which genuinely care for ecology, and the predators.

Though that may well be true, things of course are more complicated. It’s no good having an environmentally sustainable society if it is socially unsustainable; just as it is no good having a socially sustainable society if it is environmentally unsustainable; worst of all is when a society is neither socially nor environmentally sustainable. Evidence is emerging that many Western societies have fallen or are falling into that last category. I mention this because the term sustainability is sometimes assumed to relate only to the environment, when in fact it has a much wider application. I was invited to speak today on the ‘social’ aspects sustainability and I would like to thank the organizers for suggesting this topic, because it is an important reminder that sustainability, as I have just noted, is not solely about how we relate to the environment; it is also about how we relate to each other, how we live our lives as social creatures, and that is the theme which I will be exploring this afternoon; at least, for the next ten or fifteen minutes.

The title of my talk today is ‘The Social Significance of Voluntary Simplicity,’ and let me begin by offering a definition of the central idea.

I. What is Voluntary Simplicity?

Voluntary simplicity is an oppositional living strategy that rejects the materialistic lifestyles 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-style 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 therefore considered to be undeserving 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,’ 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. The grounding assumption of voluntary simplicity is that all human beings have the potential to live 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.’

What will be clear from this definition is that voluntary simplicity is a way of life that is very different from the materialistic lifestyles widely celebrated in consumer cultures today. In those cultures, including our own, it is often assumed that more money is the path to increased well-being, since with more money we can presumably satisfy more of our desires by purchasing consumer goods and services. If that is true then voluntary simplicity, by trying to do with less money and consumption, seems hopelessly misguided as a living strategy. I propose, however, that it is not misguided at all.

Many ancient wisdom traditions, both ‘philosophical’ and ‘religious,’ tell us that materialistic values can have a caustic effect on our lives and our societies, that focusing on attaining material possessions and social renown can detract from what is meaningful about life. Tim Kasser has recently explored the science beneath such ancient wisdom in his text, The High Price of Materialism. He shows that, ‘People who are highly focused on materialistic values [i.e. people who orientate their lives around the acquisition of money, fame, and image] have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic pursuits are relatively unimportant.’ If this is true, as the weight of evidence suggests it is, our consumerist age is inculcating us with values that are not conducive to our well-being. Indeed, when people and societies follow materialistic values and organize their lives around attaining superfluous wealth and possessions, ‘they are essentially wasting their time as far as well-being is concerned. By concentrating on such a profitless style of life, they leave themselves little opportunity to pursue goals that could fulfill their needs and improve the quality of their lives.’

Whatever it is that makes life meaningful, then, research and perhaps our intuition tells us that it is not the limitless consumption of goods and services. Yale Professor, Robert Lane in  his review of the evidence expresses the idea as follows: ‘the richer the society and its individuals become, the less purchasable are the things that brings them happiness­ – although they may still pursue wealth with their accustomed vigor.’ And continuing the pursuit seems to be the way of consumer cultures. ‘The sad truth is that when people feel the emptiness of either material success or failure, they often persist in thinking that more will be better, and thus continue to strive for what will never make them happy.’

The point of these comments is to suggest that living a life of voluntary simplicity and deliberately trying to consume less is not the crazy idea it might first have seemed to be. On the contrary, both state-of-the-art science and ancient wisdom traditions suggest that living simply may actually be the secret to fulfillment. With that in mind, I am now in a position to return to our subject of sustainability and bring my talk to a head.

II. The Social Significance of Voluntary Simplicity

Our planet urgently needs us to explore alternative ways to live, and one promising way to lessen our impact on Nature is to reject the high-impact lifestyles of consumer cultures and voluntarily embrace ‘a simpler life’ of reduced consumption. Without any doubt, there would be huge environmental benefits if Western societies deliberately set about reducing their consumption. In fact, it is probably fair to say that to achieve an environmentally sustainable society, it will be necessary for us to reduce our consumption. But my focus today is not on the ecological benefits of living simply, great though there are. My focus instead is on how the pursuit of money and consumption is not the path to personal and social well-being and how there may be huge rewards – personal, social, and ecological – if people are able to step out of the rush and escape the rat race. A few words will suffice to make my central point.

It’s all very well to dream of a life of high consumption. Perhaps it would be nice to live in a mansion, drive a flash car, travel luxuriously, wear high fashion clothing, eat at expensive restaurants, own all the new gadgets, and enjoy the dubious social status that all this might bring, etc. But what is easy to forget is that the more we consume the more of our lives we have to spend earning the money needed to pay for that consumption. And we must always be cognizant of that kind of trade off. If that consumption doesn’t even lead to life satisfaction, then consumerism is a despairing waste of life.

If people were to live simpler lives of reduced consumption, however, they wouldn’t need to dedicate so much of their lives to the pursuit of ‘nice things,’ and this would free up more time and energy for the pursuit of other, more fulfilling goals. Just imagine, for a moment, if voluntary simplicity entered the mainstream and took hold at the societal level. With less time dedicated to the pursuit of money and material possessions, millions of people would have more time and energy for other life goals, such as social and community engagements, family time, 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 need to rely on money, or much money. The social significance of such a cultural shift would be truly profound. Victor Hugo once said, ‘There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.’ It’s hard to be confident, but just perhaps voluntary simplicity is such an idea.

To conclude, it seems that in affluent Western societies today getting richer has generally stopped making people any happier. A huge body of social research confirms this, and that research simply confirms what many ancient wisdoms traditions have been insisting for millennia. It should trouble us, therefore, that our culture is geared towards maximizing wealth or maximizing GDP. As the great ‘simple liver’ Henry David Thoreau would say, we ‘labor under a mistake.’ Fortunately, however, the mistake of consumerism is not the only way to live. Voluntary simplicity presents an alternative that is both socially and ecologically sustainable, and it is an alternative which I believe we should take seriously, today more than ever  before.

Thanks very much.

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