Voluntary Simplicity, Community, and the Social Good

There are also social or communitarian incentives for embracing a life of voluntary simplicity.[1] For example, when an individual embraces voluntary simplicity by working less, this may well benefit the individual (e.g. by creating more leisure and reducing stress). But those individual benefits will often have flow on effects that benefit others too, such as creating more time and energy for family and friends, or more time and energy to enjoy one’s civic or neighbourly responsibilities.[2] As Cafaro and Gambrel suggest, ‘simplicity can help us develop social unions that enrich our lives. By fostering contentment with our status and possessions and reducing levels of dissatisfaction, simplicity can help minimize social tension and build up social capital.’[3]

Social critics argue that community engagement is often pushed to the side by the demands of a high-consumption life.[4] David Myers coined the term ‘social recession’ to describe essentially this phenomenon.[5] A society might be booming economically, but dedicating too much attention to consumption and the acquisition of wealth, to the detriment of family and community life, can lead to an individualistic society of frantic, agitated, and alienated egos.[6] Mark Burch sums up this point exactly: ‘The brutally “simple” fact is that if the quality of our family and community relationships has suffered, it’s because we’ve chosen to do something else with our time.’[7] What Burch, Myers, Putnam, Cafaro, Gambrel, and many others propose is that affluent societies would be better off if they spent less time accumulating and consuming, and more time cultivating family and community relationships and increasing their civic engagements.[8] The simple act of sharing something with neighbours rather than each having their own is a good example. Which community is richer: The one where each has their own? Or the community that has less but shares?

[1] See, e.g., Suzanne Miller and Jennifer Paxton, ‘Community and Connectivity: Examining the Motives Underlying the Adoption of a Lifestyle of Voluntary simplicity’ (2006) 33 Advances in Consumer Research 289.

[2] See, e.g., Cahit Guven, ‘Are Happier People Better Citizens?’ (2009) available at <> at 10 October 2010 (providing evidence that happier people tend to create more social capital, are more likely to vote, volunteer, and participate in public activities).

[3] See Joshua Gambrel and Philip Cafaro, ‘The Virtue of Simplicity’ (2009) 23(1) Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 85.

[4] See John De Graaf et al, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2nd ed, 2005) 63-71.

[5] See David Myers, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (2000).

[6] See Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000); Robert Lane, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000). See also, Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Land, The Unmanageable Consumer (2nd ed, 2006) 10 (describing the “Fordist Deal” – the trade-off in which workers obtain greater material enjoyment in exchange for alienation and loss of autonomy in the workplace).

[7] Mark Burch, Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet (2000) 65 (emphasis omitted).

[8] See Michelle Nelson, Mark Rademacher and Hye-Jin Paek, ‘Downshifting Consumer = Upshifting Citizen?’ (2007) 611 Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 141.

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  1. […] of which need to rely on money, or much money.[4] Variously defended by its advocates on personal, social, humanitarian, and ecological grounds, voluntary simplicity is predicated on the assumption that […]

  2. […] 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 […]

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