Below I’ve posted the transcript of the talk I gave last night at the book launch of Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future. Thanks so much to everyone who came. It was heartening to see so much interest in the book.
PIONEERS OF THE DEEP FUTURE
Good evening everyone. Thanks very much for coming tonight. It’s very good to be able to share this occasion with you.
I’m not going to speak for too long this evening, but what I would like to do is to say something about why we chose to edit this book and why we thought it was a worthwhile endeavour. And I’d like to do this, first, by addressing the title and then the subtitle of the book.
The title, ‘Simple Living in History’, should be relatively self-explanatory, in that it clearly reflects, as it should, the contents of the book. The book is a collection of 26 chapters, from different authors, discussing the most prominent individuals, cultures, and movements, that have embraced forms of ‘simple living’ throughout history. So there are chapters on Buddha, Diogenes, Epicurus, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Jesus, while other chapters examine how the Quakers and the Amish live. There are chapters on Henry David Thoreau, William Morris, Gandhi, Helen and Scott Nearing, among others, and toward the end of the book there are six or seven chapters that discuss contemporary manifestations of ‘simple living’, including eco-social movements based on notions of voluntary simplicity, intentional communities, radical homemaking, permaculture, transition towns, and degrowth.
Although every chapter rests upon the same hook of ‘simple living’, that hook nevertheless permits an extraordinary diversity of perspectives, each exploring and expressing in various ways the values of sufficiency, frugality, moderation, minimalism, localism, appropriate technology, and mindfulness. Simple living, in this broad sense, can be understood as the attempt to find the ‘middle way’ between overconsumption and under-consumption – an attempt to create a life based on modest material and energy foundations, but which is nevertheless abundant in its non-materialistic dimensions.
It turns out, of course, that actually ‘living simply’ in a practical sense is anything but ‘simple’, especially in consumer cultures, where we are bombarded with cultural and institutional messages insisting that the good life consists in the consumption and accumulation of ever-more stuff. So pervasive are these messages that they can easily escape our notice, just as the fish does not know it is in water, it being the very fabric of life.
We also find ourselves living our lives within structures that can often lock us in high consumption living, even if we desire a simpler, less impactful existence. The phrase ‘simple living’, then, in one sense, is outrageously misleading. It could perhaps be more appropriately called, ‘difficult living’ even if the very difficulty can itself be enriching. But I’m not sure many people would buy a book called ‘difficult living in history’.
In another sense, however, the phrase simple living is perfectly apt, emphasising a life of balance, free from excess, a life of humble beauty, unadorned, perhaps even austere, but nevertheless rich in its sufficiency. It represents an ideal, even if it is never attained; a compass that can guide us, even if it a journey more than a destination.
The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu, once said: ‘Those who know they have enough is rich’. This presents us with a challenge of sorts, because it also implies that those who have enough, but who do not know it, are poor. Or, as Henry David Thoreau would say: ‘Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only’. Living simply, in short, is about the pursuit of enough, and about discovering that enough is plenty. All the chapters of our book grapple with these themes, in different ways, in different moments of history, in different places around the world.
I don’t want to say much more about the contents of the book, as such, because then you mightn’t feel the need to buy the book, which would be real shame, because I’m only in it for the money. Instead, for the remainder of my talk, I would like to address the question of why the theme of simple living, far from being of mere historical interest, actually raises issues that touch the core of some key challenges that the world is facing today. That is to say, Amanda and I were motivated to edit this book not merely out of historical interest, interesting though that history may be. Rather, we were primarily motivated to look back into history in the hope of shedding light on the present and the future, and this point leads nicely to the subtitle of the book – ‘pioneers of the deep future’.
In what sense, you may fairly ask, can it be said that the figures and cultures that embraced forms of simple living throughout history were, or are, pioneers of the deep future. The subtitle here is intended to provoke, because commonly those people who ‘live simply’, so to speak, are considered old-fashioned, quaint, unsophisticated, behind the times, perhaps even primitive, uncivilised, or feral. Others might dismiss this way of life as something ‘just for hippies’, and not something of broader social relevance.
Similarly, sophisticated, hard-nosed political theorists like to dismiss voluntary simplicity as naive, insisting that the problem is not overconsumption but the structures of production, but these theorists fail to recognise, it seems, that the structural changes which are indeed necessary will never emerge until there is a culture that demands them. The revolution that is needed, therefore, is first and foremost a revolution of consciousness, for by then the hard work would have already been done, and the structural changes will follow, even if the relationship here – between culture and structure – will be dialectical, with one shaping, as it is shaped by, the other.
It is also at the personal, household and socials level where we have most agency. We mightn’t feel like we have much control over the abominable decisions being made at the highest levels of government or in the boardrooms of the trans-national corporations, but rather than despairing or throwing our hands up in the air – tempting though that can be – if we look closely we will find that there are levers of change lying close to us, all around us, and living simply is a lens through which we can understand how our personal and community actions have the potential to be of transformative significance, building the new world, here and now, within the shell of the old. One of the most radical acts of liberation and opposition in a consumer culture is the ‘great refusal’ to consume more than we need.
What I would like to do, then, is outline very briefly the case for why simpler ways of living, far from being regressive, primitive, or naïve, are actually a necessary part of any civilised and coherent response to the overlapping crises the world is facing today, and in making this case it is required to acknowledge that we are living in an Age of Limits.
If once we lived on a relatively ‘empty’ planet, today we live on a planet that is ‘full’ to ‘overflowing’. According to the ecological footprint analysis, the global economy overshoots the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet by 50%, which means that we would need one and half planets if the existing economy were to be able to sustain itself over the long term. Every year the economy is in ecological overshoot, the overall biocapacity of the planet declines, which is by definition unsustainable, and this manifests in various forms, including deforestation, the emptying of the oceans, the erosion of our top toils, the sharp decline in biodiversity, the over-reliance on non-renewable resources, and, most worrying of all, perhaps, the destabilization of our climate. We know about this ecological predicament all too well.
I want to emphasise, however, that the environmental problems we face cannot be isolated from social justice concerns, here and across the globe. Despite the fact that the global economy is already in ecological overshoot, there are great multitudes across the globe who are, by any humane standard, under-consuming, and the goal of eliminating global poverty is likely to further increase the burden humanity places on an already overburdened ecosystems. If these problems were not challenging enough, the population of the planet is currently at 7.2 billion people and expanding, with recent UN projections estimating that we are likely to reach 8 billion by 2023, 9 billion by 2040, and last week a study in the journal Science says we’re likely to have 10 or 11 billion people before the century is out.
We are, I repeat, living on a planet that is full to overflowing. And this changes everything, calling radically into question the legitimacy of the high consumption way of life. The very lifestyles that were once considered the definition of success, are now, as the consumer class expands, proving to be our greatest failure. As the consumer class expands, the face of Gaia is vanishing. Geological eras are normally measured in millions of years, but scientists are now saying that we live in a new geological era – the Anthropocene – barely three hundred years old, a product of an industrial civilisation that is eating away at the ecological foundations of its own existence.
What, then, does progress look like in an Age of Limits? How can we transition toward a way of life that provides everyone with a decent quality of life but nevertheless is supported by an economy that remains within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet?
The most common answer to these questions involves highlighting how technology, design improvements, and market mechanisms, can reduce the impacts of our production and consumption. This view essentially holds that if we transition to renewable energy systems and electric cars, if we redesign our houses and buy energy efficient fridges and heaters, and so forth, we will be able to univeralise Western-style lifestyles across the globe, while at the same time reducing our resource and energy impacts to a sustainable level. Explicitly or implicitly, this is essentially what ‘sustainable development’ has come to mean today. It has come to mean that with ‘green growth’ seven, eight, nine or ten billion people will be able to live affluent lifestyles.
Note how convenient and non-confronting this perspective is. If we can dematerialise and decarbonise our current ways of living, it would follow that we don’t need to rethink our consumption levels significantly. If the existing economy is able to continue growing while environmental impact decreases, we don’t need to rethink our defining commitment to economic growth. These comforting myths of techno-optimism are endlessly repeated, not because they are true, however, but because they are politically convenient and socially palatable.
The problem is that relying on efficiency to reduce the impacts of consumption practices is not actually reducing environmental impact, because, within a growth-based economy, our efficiency gains tend to be reinvested in more consumption and more growth, rather than reducing impact. So despite decades of stunning technological advancement, the evidence clearly shows that the overall energy and resource requirements of the global economy continue to increase, even as efficiency improves. Even the so-called ‘green’ economies, like Germany, which are among the most technologically sophisticated economies on Earth, have an ecological footprint about three times what could be universalised. The Australian way of life would require four planets.
What I am trying to say here is that any transition to a sustainable way of life can’t just be about the application of technological or market solutions in the hope of producing and consuming more efficiently. We do need to exploit appropriate technologies and innovations, of course. But my point is that the ecological predicament is presenting us with a more fundamental challenge. It is calling on us to reimagine and reinvent the good life. Rather than asking: how can we make the existing way of life sustainable? The ecological predicament is calling on us to ask the more challenging question: what way of life is sustainable?
A ‘fair share’ of the planet’s finite resources would involve taking a small fraction of what is common in developed nations today, which means that we need to fundamentally readjust the way our society pursues happiness and satisfaction, shifting our attention away from material culture, toward a culture, an economy, and a politics that embraces and promotes material sufficiency, leaving us free to seek the good life in any number of non-materialistic sources of meaning and fulfilment.
And herein lies the fundamental importance of exploring simpler ways of living – not merely as a historical mode of living, but as a way of living that touches on something of the utmost importance for us living today. On a full planet, we can’t just transition to renewable energy systems and carry on more or less as usual. We also need to learn how to thrive on a small fraction of our current energy and resource requirements, and in the history of simple living there is a wealth of wisdom waiting for us, showing us that it is possible live more on less, if only we manage the transition wisely and equitably.
To cut a longer story short, this is why Amanda and I decided to work on this book. We feel that there is a long history of individuals and cultures that have shown that the simple life – a life based on sufficiency, frugality, mindfulness, and moderation – can be a good life. This does not, however, mean regressing to something prior to consumerism; rather, it means drawing on the wisdom of ages in order to advance beyond consumerism, in order to create something better, freer, simpler, and more humane.
But the importance of simple living is not just something we hold up as an ecologically necessary and socially desirable lifestyle choice. As implied earlier, we also need to restructure our societies to make it easier to live low-impact lives, and a cultural movement toward simple living will be necessary, I feel, to create the social conditions for that structural change to take place. Therein lies the often overlooked political and macroeconomic significance of simple living. Before we can have a politics or macroeconomics of sufficiency, we first need a culture that embraces the values of sufficiency.
This book is a humble contribution to that great, ambitious, but necessary endeavour. If the consumerist way of life is, in fact, a temporary, fossil-fuelled perversion that has no future – if indeed, the sun is already beginning to set on industrial civilisation as we have know it – it follows that the future will be defined, one way or another, by less materialistic, less energy-intensive ways of living. In this sense the advocates of simplicity reviewed in this book are, we feel, properly considered pioneers of the future, ahead of their time, and will one day be recognised as such.
Fortunately, although the roots of consumerism are shallow, the roots of simplicity run deep, and this book invites readers to put their hands in the soil of history to examine those roots, to feel them and learn from them, in the hope of enriching the present as we move into an uncertain future.
The book is available here.
The ‘preface by the editors’ is available here.
The ‘foreword’ is available here.