catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 23 :: 2003.12.05 — 2003.12.18


Voluntary Simplicity

Lifestyle of the future?

Newspapers and magazines publish occasional articles about people abandoning the “rat race” pursuits of Western society and seeking a simpler lifestyle, less frenetic in its demands and less tied to today’s high-consumption, money-orientated civilization.

We believe that these press reports reflect a social movement which has the potential of touching the United States and other developed nations to their cores. This movement is toward what Richard Gregg, many years ago, described as “voluntary simplicity”—a way of life marked by a new balance between inner and outer growth. We also believe that voluntary simplicity may prove an increasingly powerful economic, social, and political force. It could represent a major transformation of Western values and signal shifts not only in values, but in consumption patterns, institutional operations, and national policies.

Although there are many precursors and contributing streams to this social flow (environmentalism, consumerism, consciousness movement, etc.), there is little direct evidence to measure the magnitude of this way of life. This discussion, then, is not intended to be predictive or definitive; rather, as social conjecture and pattern recognition, it is inherently speculative and intended to provoke further thought and comment regarding voluntary simplicity.

What is voluntary simplicity?

The essence of voluntary simplicity is living in a way that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich. This way of life embraces frugality of consumption, a strong sense of environmental urgency, a desire to return to living and working environments which are of a more human scale, and an intention to realize our higher human potential—both psychological and spiritual—in community with others. The driving forces behind voluntary simplicity range from acutely personal concerns to critical national problems. The appeal of simple living appears to be extraordinarily widespread, even gathering sympathy among those who are not presently attempting to simplify their own life patterns.

Voluntary simplicity is not new, but the conditions and trends which appear to be driving its contemporary emergence do seem new in their magnitude and intensity. Historically, voluntary simplicity has its roots in the legendary frugality and self-reliance of the Puritans, in Thoreau’s naturalistic vision at Walden Pond, in Emerson’s spiritual and practical plea for “plain living and high thinking,” in the teachings and social philosophy of a number of spiritual leaders such as Jesus and Gandhi.

A uniquely modern aspect of voluntary simplicity is that it seems to be driven by a sense of urgency and social responsibility that scarcely existed 40 years ago. This sense of urgency appears to derive from many serious societal problems, including: the prospects of a chronic energy shortage, growing terrorist activities at the same time that nations seem increasingly vulnerable to disruption; growing demands of the developing nations for a more equitable share of the world’s resources; the prospect that before we run out of resources on any absolute basis we may poison ourselves to death with environmental contaminants; a growing social malaise and purposelessness which causes us to drift in our social evolution; and so on. These are but a few of the elements which converge to make voluntary simplicity a seemingly rational response to the current world situation.

Values central to voluntary simplicity

The social movement toward voluntary simplicity is very rich and highly diverse. Yet there seems to be an underlying coherence to the rich diversity of expression of this way of life. Among the values which seem to lie at the heart of this emerging way of life are material simplicity, human scale, self-determination, ecological awareness, and personal growth. Let us examine each of these in turn.

Material Simplicity: Simplification of the material aspects of life is one of the core values of voluntary simplicity. The American Friends Service Committee, long a leader in exploring a way of life of creative simplicity, defines simple living as a “non-consumerist lifestyle based upon being and becoming, not having.”

Living simply implies consuming quantitatively less (particularly items that are energy-inefficient, non-biodegradable, nonessential luxuries, etc.), but it does not mean that the overall cost of consumption will go down drastically. Living simply need not be equated with living cheaply. The hand-crafted, durable, aesthetically enduring products that appeal to frugal consumers are oftentimes purchased at a considerable premium over mass-produced items. Therefore, although the quantity of consumption may decrease and the environmental costs of consumption may be considerably moderated, the overall cost of consumption may remain relatively high since our economy is not oriented to producing the kinds of products which fit these criteria. Material simplicity will thus likely be manifest in consumption styles that are less ascetic than aesthetic, that is, the emphasis will not be on a strictly enforced austerity (doing without material goods) but rather on creating a pattern of consumption that will fit, with grace and integrity, into the practical art of daily living.

Human Scale: A preference for human-sized living and working environments is a central feature of voluntary simplicity. Adherents of this “values constellation” tend to equate the gigantic scale of institutions and living environments with anonymity, incomprehensibility, and artificiality. The preference for smallness implies that living and working environments (which have grown to enormous levels of scale and complexity) should be decentralized into more comprehensible and manageable entities. Each person should be able to see what he or she contributes to the whole and, hence, have a sense of shared rewards and shared responsibility. Reduction of scale is seen as a means of getting back to basics by restoring to life a more human sense of proportion and perspective.

Self-determination: Voluntary simplicity embraces an intention to be more self-determining and less dependent upon large, complex institutions. Self-determination manifests itself as a desire to assume greater control over one’s personal destiny and not lead a life tied to installment payments, maintenance costs, and the expectations of others. To counterbalance the trend toward increasing material dependency, people may seek to become more materially self-sufficient—to grow their own, to make their own, to do without, and to exercise self-discipline in their pattern and level of consumption so that the degree of dependency (both physical and psychological) is reduced.

Self-determination shows up in production as a counterbalancing force to combat excessive division of labor. Instead of embracing specialization, a voluntary simplicity adherent may seek greater work integration and synthesis so that the contribution of their work to the whole enterprise is more evident.

In the public sector, the drive for greater self-determination is revealed by a growing distrust of, and sense of alienation from, large and complex social bureaucracies. Adherents seem to want to take charge of their lives more fully and to manage their own affairs without the undue or unnecessary intrusion of a remote bureaucracy.

This dimension of voluntary simplicity may explain some of the unusual political coalitions that seem to be emerging between the right and left, coalitions that oppose the further intrusion of big institutions into people’s lives, and seek greater local self-determination and grassroots political action. The aversion to being controlled by increasingly distant bureaucracies is reminiscent of the stubborn independence which birthed the American revolution.

Ecological awareness: A sense of ecological awareness which acknowledges the interconnectedness of people and resources is central to voluntary simplicity. From this awareness emerges a number of themes that are hallmarks of this way of life. For example, ecological awareness prompts recognition that Earth is indeed limited, with all that implies for conservation of physical resources, reduction of environmental pollution, and maintenance of the beauty and integrity of the natural environment. Importantly, this concern often extends beyond purely physical resources to include other human beings as well. The philosophy of “welfare” espoused by Gandhi—sarvodaya

, or not wanting what the least of the inhabitants of Earth cannot have—seems to spring, in large measure, from this intimate sense of felt connection with others. The growth of an ecological awareness expands the vision of voluntary simplicity outward and brings with it a strong sense of social responsibility and worldly involvement to what otherwise could be a relatively isolated and self-centered way of life.

Some of the more concrete expressions of this awareness might include: a willingness to share resources with those who are disadvantaged; a sense of global citizenship with commensurate adjustments in lifestyle, social vision, and political commitments; a preference for living where there is ready access to nature; and a desire to foster human and institutional diversity at a grassroots level.

Personal growth: For many persons taking up a materially simple way of life, the primary goal is to clear away external clutter so as to be freer to explore the “inner life.” The themes of material simplicity, self-sufficiency, a more human scale to living and working, and an ecological awareness are, in a way, devices to sweep away impediments to inner growth. The goal, then, is to free oneself of the overwhelming externals so as to provide the space in which to grow both psychologically and spiritually.

Simone de Beauvoir succinctly stated the rationale for this desire for self-realization when she said: “Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.” In the view of many adherents to voluntary simplicity, contemporary society is primarily occupied in perpetuating itself and living has become “only not dying.” They seek an outlet for their growth potential.

A concern for the subjective aspect of experience and for the quality of human relationships has been reflected in a number of developments over the past 30 years: the emergence and proliferation of the “human potential movement;” the emergence of “transpersonal psychology” coupled with a rapid increase of interest and involvement in many Eastern meditative traditions; the growth of feminism; a cultural fascination with psychic phenomena; developments in brain research that confirm a biological basis for both the rational and the intuitive side to human nature; a growing interest in sports as both a physical and spiritual process, and more.

Without the compelling goal of exploring inner potentials, it seems unlikely that there will be sufficient motivation to adopt voluntarily a lifestyle of material simplicity. Without greater simplicity, we probably will not be able to cope successfully with scarcity and other problems. Finally, unless inner learning expands, it seems unlikely that we will develop the degree of internal maturation necessary for the human species to act as wise trustees of conscious evolution on Earth.

Our analysis still has not penetrated to the roots of the connection between personal growth and voluntary simplicity. For an adequate explanation of that connection, we must look to a deeper underlying vision. It is an old vision—perhaps as old as humanity—but an enduring one that seems destined to be rediscovered again and again. The nature of this vision is succinctly summed up by historian Arnold Toynbee:

…Jesus, Buddha, and Lao Tse… agreed in their ethical precepts. They all agreed that the pursuit of material wealth is a wrong aim. We should aim only at the minimum wealth needed to maintain life; and our main aim should be spiritual. They all said with one voice that if we made material wealth our paramount aim, this would lead to disaster. They all spoke in favor of unselfishness and of love for other people as the key to happiness and to success in human affairs.

The foregoing five themes do not exhaust the range of basic values that may emerge as hallmarks of the way of life termed voluntary simplicity. Moreover, these values will surely be held to differing degrees and in differing combinations by different people. Nonetheless, these values possess an underlying coherence which suggests that they have not arisen randomly, but rather as a mutually supporting set or pattern. Just a few moments of reflection reveal how powerfully reinforcing these values are; for example, personal growth may foster an ecological awareness which may prompt greater material simplicity and thereby allow greater opportunity for living and working at a smaller, more human scale which, in turn, may allow greater opportunity for local self-determination. No one value theme alone could create the vitality and coherence that emerges from the synergistic interaction of these values. These values combine to form a practical “world view”—a coherent pattern of perception, belief, and behavior which could provide an important bridge between the traditional industrial world view and an uncertain and difficult social future.

What voluntary simplicity is not

We have been trying to define what voluntary simplicity is. We can also get a sense of voluntary simplicity by suggesting what it is not.

  • Voluntary simplicity should not be equated with a back-to-nature movement. Voluntary simplicity seems perhaps as compelling for the urban majority as it does for the rural minority. An urban existence need not be incompatible with voluntary simplicity. Indeed, many of the experiments with appropriate technology, intensive gardening and such have been conducted in urban contexts.

  • Voluntary simplicity should not be equated with living in poverty. Indeed, impoverishment is in many ways the opposite of simple living in that poverty tends to make life a struggle to maintain oneself and provides little opportunity to surpass oneself.

  • Voluntary simplicity is not confined to the United States and Canada. Virtually all of the developed Western nations seem to be moving in a somewhat similar direction. Many European nations, with more limited land and resources, have been learning how to cope with scarcity for far longer than North America has. And there is evidence that other nations may opt for voluntary simplicity rather than endure the stress of striving for affluence.

  • Voluntary simplicity is not a fad. Its roots reach far too deeply into the needs and ideals of people everywhere to be regarded as a transitory response to a passing societal condition.

The push toward voluntary simplicity

Despite the strength of the pull to voluntary simplicity, there is little reason to think that this way of life will grow to embrace substantial proportions of the population unless the pull is matched by substantial pushes. The twin elements of push and pull need to be considered if we are to assess the likelihood that voluntary simplicity will gather social momentum in the future. Let us therefore consider whether societal problems will push us in a direction similar to that exerted by the pull toward voluntary simplicity.

The range and diversity of contemporary societal problems is enormous. Space does not allow more than a cursory glance at some of the more prominent problems which may, in their eventual resolution, push us toward a simple way of life. These problems include:

  • the prospect of running out of cheaply available, critical industrial raw materials;

  • the prospect of chronic energy shortages and a difficult transition to a much more energy-efficient economy;

  • the growing threat that we will pollute ourselves to death with the intrusion of many thousands of hazardous substances into our living environments and food chains;

  • rising material demands of the developing world, coupled with climatic changes which may induce periodic but massive famine in certain areas;

  • the growing threat of terrorism (nuclear and biological as well as conventional), coupled with the growing vulnerability of the highly complex and interdependent technology (e.g., communications, energy, and transportation systems) common to the Western nations;

  • the poverty of abundance: a growing dissatisfaction with the output of our industrial society as the sole or even primary reward and reason for our individual existences;

  • apparent loss of social purpose and direction coupled with rising levels of individual alienation;

  • chronic and pervasive fiscal crisis of many of our largest cities;

  • decline in the expected number of meaningful work roles, growing levels of automation, and chronic underemployment and unemployment;

  • the prospect that we have created social bureaucracies of such extreme levels of scale, complexity, and interdependence that they now exceed our capacity to comprehend and, therefore, to manage them; coupled with growing demands upon government at all levels;

  • growing demands that domestic economic inequities be moderated, coupled with the prospect of a little or no-growth economy in the foreseeable future, yielding the specter of intense competition for a fixed or slowly growing pie.

Resolution of the foregoing problems will likely push our society in a direction which is more ecologically conscious, more frugal in its consumption, more globally-oriented, more decentralized, more allowing of local self-determination, and so on.

Solving these increasingly serious problems will probably push us in a direction at least similar to that implied by the pull toward voluntary simplicity.

Two groups

We think there are at least two very distinct kinds of people living a life of voluntary simplicity. The first consists of families and individuals who have voluntarily taken up simple living after years or decades of active involvement in the mainstream. The motivations of such people tend to be highly private and specific—a desire to escape the “rat race,” personal disillusionment, boredom with their jobs, a wish to live a more “meaningful,” less artificial life, and so on. Such changes in lifestyle make good copy and hence this type of phenomenon gets much publicity. In terms of numbers, this group does not appear very significant, but, as a model for others to emulate, it may be profoundly important.

The other type tends to be younger, more motivated by philosophical concerns, and more activistic.

Criteria for simplicity

A group of Quakers have identified four consumption criteria which evoke the essence of voluntary simplicity:

  • Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does it induce passivity and dependence?

  • Are my consumption patterns basically satisfying, or do I buy much that serves no real need?

  • How tied is my present job and lifestyle to installment payments, maintenance and repair costs, and the expectations of others?

  • Do I consider the impact of my consumption patterns on other people and on Earth?

?Alternatives for Simple Living. Used by permission. For more ideas to simplify your life, call 800-821-6153 or visit

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