The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace. Every increase of needs tends to increase one's dependence on outside forces, over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existential fear. &mdash E.F. Schumacher, 1973
In the midst of the winter holiday season's explosion of festive commerce, I find myself thinking about voluntary simplicity, a term originally used by Ghandian Richard Gregg in 1936 to describe a focused existence excluding the clutter and complexity associated with 20th century acquisitive lifestyles of the middle classes. Duane Elgin revived the notion in the late 1970s, as a study (coauthored by Arnold Mitchell) supported and released by Stanford Research Institute. This spun off as a popular book, published in 1981. Elgin was among several writers and thinkers (Michael Phillips, Ernest Callenbach, E.F. Schumacher, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin) who explored the potential to live more simply and sustainably, generally minimizing consumption and diverting time and energy into arguably more productive pursuits.
In 1991, I was part of an online conversation (with the late Tom Mandel of SRI; Michael Phillips, co-author of The Seven Laws of Money, Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold, Art Kleiner, et al.) about the nature of voluntary simplicity or simple living, and whether there was a measurable lifestyle trend away from consumption, and an associated rejection of potential wealth. Of course, the opposite trend seemed to hold through the nineties. In the 2000s, there's no longer the sense of the possibility, described in a book by Ernest Callenbach, of Living Poor with Style, later revised with a new title, Living Cheaply with Style. It's hard to imagine following Callenbach's advice, much of which depends on robust "fat of the land" resources, today. As one Amazon reviewer writes, "While I might not embrace the suburban ideal I also have to decline many of Callenbach's ideas: powdered milk, building my own furniture, using a public hospital, going on welfare, scavenging old food at the grocery store, living in a mobile home or a gypsy wagon, and raising bees are not what I consider viable stylishness."
Both style and simplicity are pretty subjective. In our conversation on the WELL, Michael Phillips said that the definition of simple living was is easy: reducing your income. Others noted situations where reduced income could complicate your life. It just depends. My sense at the time was that simple living was best addressed in Buddhist thinking I'd studied. I felt that I was drawn to Buddhism for its simplicity, and to voluntary simplicity for its affinity with Buddhist non-attachment. Ironically I'm a bad Buddhist and I've never lived simply. It was all aspiration, no practice.
I noticed very early in my life that I had a perverse tendency to do things I knew, at some deeper level, to be unwise. I've since learned that this is a very common, very human condition. Over time, we seem to forget the wisdom and cherish the impulse. Doing the unwise thing becomes a habit. Wisdom eludes us, even when it's sitting on our nose.
If one guy can ignore, eventually forget, wisdom, and be peristently foolish, can this be reflected, in a larger sense, in broad persistent institutional foolishness?
According to one social theory, we have fallen into a condition of affluenza, ignoring sustainable wisdom to chase ultimately unfulfilling material wealth. Not a new concern, but the context suggests urgency. We hear that "respected economists, scientists, and politicians are sounding the warnings in high-profile journals and the halls of government -- warnings that our oceans are dying, that the ice shelves are melting, and that we are setting ourselves up for the most massive and devastating market failure humanity has ever seen," but we don't address the very real core "problem of appetites, and of narcissism, and of self-deceit."
Okay - guilty as charged. I know that a shiny new Prius and a corkscrew light bulb won't mitigate the real problem, which is in my head, moderated but not fixed by years of Buddhist sustainable thinking. It's not in what your think or no-think, but in what you do, that you begin to change things, and I'm chasing the dollar even when I think I'm not, because the "dollar" is just a symbol for something that doesn't have to be money. It's in thinking that the things you acquire and the things you assume will make you somehow more, somehow better. Maybe that's not a dollar or a boat or an electric train. Maybe you think that you'll be better if you acquire enightenment. In that context, enlightenment is just another possession. You may have satori but escape wisdom, because you hold the wrong attitude toward that experience.
Affluenza.org points to a site called New American Dream, and that site has a section called the Conscious Consumer Marketplace. The site gives you tips about conscious shopping and wise buying, and includes advice and links for specific kinds of products. The site has a "simplify the holidays" section that's particularly apt. (You have to join the site to get the pdf brochure.)
New American Dream also has a page for the video, "The Story of Stuff:" "You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely." The video is posted in pieces at YouTube. This is a pretty good overview of "stuff," though I would take it with a grain of salt. (In chapter five, for instance, there's some clueless noodling about the planned obsolescence of computers).
Summary of the videos: We have met the enemy, and he is us. Now what?
The U.S. has certainly led the rest of the world into greater consumption and complexity. Part of the problem, globally, is that the U.S. has had so much, and due to its success, it's become a model for the rest of the world, and everyone wants the standard of living that we've advertised so well. If U.S. consumption is not sustainable, global-level consumption at the same rate is - impossible.
I think we can/must/will model new thinking and a global sense of direction that will embrace simplicty without sacrificing quality of life. Though industrial excess and rampant consumerism emerged and grew within the U.S., we have another tradition, via Henry David Thoreau...
...if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
What an appropriate post for the Christmas season! You mentioned many of the books that have influenced me, Jon.
Living Cheaply with Style (Callenbach) is one of my favorites. I actually followed his advice, to my great benefit. The gist of the book is to learn how things work and to think for yourself. I still have the 70s edition, and even though some of the specifics are dated, the basic message still shines through.
These days I am particularly interested in historical traditions of simplicity - religious and otherwise. In our consumerist culture, these traditions help give one the strength to persevere in the face of social pressures.
The Thoreau quote reminds me of (and I imagine was influenced by) the Goethe quote (freely translated by Irishman John Anster in 1835, and thus perhaps accessible to Thoreau/Emerson):
"What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."
Similarly, I'm a little intrigued by the notion of Grace-- the idea that the wind might be at one's back, or that an unseen hand might help one in doing heavy lifting.
Not to get into a theological debate, but I like the notion. Perhaps also suitable for Christ-mass.
Another interesting take on the Affluenza and Simplicity discussion is Bill McKibben's new(ish) book Deep Economy. He talks about how happiness is only correlated with income (worldwide) about up to $10k per person/per year. When asked about things they value, a large majority of people will talk about their friends, family, and other connection (i.e. COMMUNITY!) Simplicity allows us more time (because we are not "working for the system") to pursue those connections and be truely involved.
Human needs include those things essential to survival: Breathable air, potable water, edible food, practical knowledge, the warmth and safety of a secure shelter, clothing suited to the environment, and a sense of community. Everything else falls into the category of human wants.
An excellent writing on an excellent piece of solution we all need to ponder and act upon.
Rereading Paulo Coelho's the Alchemist in the context of soul searching within a turbulent age we are in might give concerned citizens reading this article an extra boost for action.
To change course mid-life venturing into a nobler mode of being and a better world to live in.