Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Voluntary Simplicity
Jon Lebkowsky, 26 Nov 05

simple.gifGiven the post-Thanksgiving consumerist frenzy this "Black Friday," in which fights broke out and people were trampled at various stores offering competitive deep discounts, this is a good time to mention Duane Elgin's 1981 book Voluntary Simplicity,described in its Amazon review as "the sacred text for those wanting to liberate themselves from enslavement to a job and the pursuit of status symbols."

Elgin's work emerges from a concern for the environmental consequences of our mass consumption lifestyles. His book exhorts us to save the planet and our souls by "living with balance in order to find a life of greater purpose."

Elgin was a social scientist at SRI International and had been studying what he perceived as a trend toward voluntary simplicity as a growing alternative lifestyle. He took the term from Richard Gregg's 1936 essay, "The Value of Voluntary Simplicity" (pdf here):

Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose.

Elgin was quick to note that voluntary simplicity is not inherently a life of "...poverty, antagonism to progress, rural living, and the denial of beauty." It's not about renunication of wealth or social engagement; it's about focus.

The Simple Living Network offers "Tools, Examples, & Contacts for Conscious, Simple, Healthy & Restorative Living." The network includes a program based on Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence by the late Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, which focuses on simplifying your life by changing your relationship to money. The network hosts a nine-step program created by the New Road Map Foundation. (There's also a set of audio cassettes from seminars led by Dominguez, called Transforming Your Relationship with Money.)

Dominguez died in 1997, but Vicki Robin is still active through the New Road Map Foundation and its projects, notably Conversation Cafés. Think about the pre-Christmas consumerist frenzy that kicked off yesterday, Black Friday, then read about Robin's perspective:

Indeed, most people in North America engage in the dominant myth of "more is better" without question and even good, caring people rationalize excess as necessity. Because of this, so many people, with a helpless shrug, say they need ever more money to meet the demands of "modern life," citing a vague boogey-person called "cost of living." "More is better" now means "more money is better". This acquiescence to excess then requires putting up thicker and thicker walls between our consciences and the billions of people who live in poverty. If we were selling our time – and perhaps our souls – to a system that truly fed us, that would be one thing. But the economy is not designed for people; rather, people are trained to serve the economy. In a downturn, the economy sheds people to preserve property and profits. And our relationship with money is intimately tied up with how dependent we are on this economy.

But what's the alternative? We all need money to survive. For money, we need jobs. For jobs, we need a thriving economy. For a thriving economy we need to serve the economy in some ways. Should we go back to the woods and eat nuts and berries? Deprive ourselves of the necessities of life in this complex world – phones, computers, cars, televisions, not to speak of houses, a hot shower in the morning and good food? No.

One route out of this dilemma is to redefine money in terms of something real to us, rather than abstracted access to a never-ending stream of goods and services. I offer this alternative to "store of value" and "means of exchange:" money equals our life energy. By this I mean the hours we invest on the job to earn it. Time is all we tangibly have on this earth. In our youth it seems unlimited, but somewhere just south of 40 or so we become aware that our days are numbered. Every hour we invest on the job is an hour not invested directly in our children, our mates, our community, our health, our spiritual development, our search for meaning, or our contribution to the larger life. Our jobs may, in more or less abstract ways, relate to all these other spheres. We earn money to support our family. Our professions are sometimes essential to the social fabric. We learn lessons through our jobs that imprint on our souls.

Voluntary simplicity/simple living movements owe a conceptual debt to E.F. Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful : Economics as if People Mattered,a collection of essays that tied economics to sustainable thinking behind the nascent environmental movement. In his essay on "Buddhist Economics," Schumacher wrote that modern economists are

...used to measuring the 'standard of living' by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is 'better off' that a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption. . . . The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity. Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity.

The E.F. Schumacher Society is actively extending Schumacher's thinking with programs that "demonstrate that both social and environmental sustainability can be achieved by applying the values of human-scale communities and respect for the natural environment to economic issues."

Bookmark and Share


The Buddhist would consider it irrational, and tragic as well. We are destroying this only planet we will ever have by making things that never should have been made, with labor that is desperately needed elsewhere.

I challenge everyone to walk thru of any big box store and judge each item in it for needfulness. Very little there would pass any kind of real measure of need. So why is it there at all? And what could the work and material done to make it do that is indeed needed and useful but not done?

We are living in a house of the insane.

Posted by: wimbi on 28 Nov 05

The ecovillage movement represents one way a simpler, more sustainable future could proceed. All aspects of our lives WILL become simpler during the coming energy decline, from obtaining our essential goods and services, through our social interactions, to the ways we govern ourselves.

Permaculture teaches us that excess energy fosters complexity; the converse will return us to simpler times. You can either embrace it early, and learn how to live well on less, or you'll slowly sink into "poverty," a modern term for those who will be stuck in the modern world during the energy decline.

Posted by: Jan Steinman on 29 Nov 05

It's weird how guilt plays into all this consumerist frenzy. What's the matter with just visiting your friends during this time of year and bringing a little food over? Isn't that a demonstration of care and love?

Send them a letter, WITHOUT any greeting card, and your karmic debt is settled.

Of course on the other hand, there is the lust for gadgets and, I do manage to restrain it well but, it's very hard!

Posted by: Pace Arko on 30 Nov 05

But there is a certain pleasure in consumer culture we cannot neglect. Culture is the nature of humanity and we refine this into products of pleasure. But what we should look at is the industrial decree of product-based economy where we measure everything in new products. Things should be updated, just like my body with a new haircut or even cosmetic surgery. just like i update my mind with internet, discussions or radio... Consumerism is the crown of our civilization! Don't take it away from me..

Posted by: chris wrenna on 1 Dec 05

Nobody's taking anything away from you or anyone else, Chris dear. What is being taken away is going to be taken by nature, and we can't do anything about that, can we? Nature gave us cheap oil in the first place. Besides, nature is our Big parent - and never unreasonable. It is the other way around, if we care to think, in fact. And let me tell you, our consumerism isn't normal, its got the better of us. Time for it to go, or face reality.

Posted by: Wrenna 1 on 1 Dec 05

Know exactly what you need. Obtain it. Spend rest of time serving others. Repeat.

Posted by: steven on 8 Dec 05



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg