Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities)


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A simpler life.

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In a shadow cast by the jarring beginning of the new millennium, simplicity has an undeniable appeal. Global conflicts, domestic security concerns, and a stalling economy can make keeping up with the Joneses feel like, at best, a misguided luxury. Now is not a time for excess; it is a time, it would seem, to focus on 'what really matters. The authors in this volume speak to the what, why, and how of voluntary simplicity and even to some extent the where, when, and who. Those included range from contemporary academics to thinkers from the turn of the last century, from ardent supporters to staunch critics.

So as not to be misunderstood, I now wish to clarify and elaborate on a few points that I have just made, by distinguishing voluntary simplicity from what it is not. Voluntary simplicity is not a glorification of poverty. Nor does it deny that a small percentage of people in western society, and a large percentage around the rest of the world, still live lives oppressed by material deprivation.

And the voluntary simplicity movement is demonstrating, through the lives of millions of participants, that surprisingly little is needed to live well and to be free, if only life is approached with the right attitude.

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Just as voluntary simplicity does not mean living in poverty, nor does it imply that people must leave the city to live to the country or join a hippie commune. Although some may decide that, for example, the life of an independent, self-sufficient rural farmer is a very good and natural way to live, it will not be for everybody; nor will joining a hippie commune. Indeed, learning how to live more sustainably in an urban setting strikes me as one of the greatest challenges of our age, especially since our political and economic institutions and our social infrastructure make urban simple living, especially, much more difficult than it needs to be, a point which I will touch on again later.

I should note, however, that these movements do share some common ideals with voluntary simplicity, such as anti-consumerism, a reverence for nature, and non-violent resistance to unjust features of our society. Voluntary simplicity, furthermore, does not mean indiscriminately renouncing all the advantages of science and technology.

It does not mean living in a cave, giving up electricity, or rejecting modern medicine. But it does question the assumption that science and technology are the only paths to health, happiness, and freedom.

Voluntary Simplicity

The simple liver will not build a ten billion dollar, hi-tech, desalination plant. The simple liver will install a water tank and think up ways to use less water. Rather than using central heating, the simple liver will be inclined to put on a sweater. And so on and so forth.

Soon enough a new form of life emerges. Now that I have offered a preliminary definition of voluntary simplicity, I now wish to say a few words on why, exactly, we might want to adopt voluntary simplicity, why we might want to step out of the rush and begin shaping a simple life of our own. I have divided my discussion of this question into four overlapping sections — personal, social, environmental, and spiritual.

Consumer culture can distract us from what is best in our lives, and it functions to keep many locked in a work-and-spend cycle that has no end and attains no lasting satisfaction. But if we rethink our relationship with money and possessions, we may be able to free up more time and energy for the pursuit of what truly inspires us and makes us happy, whatever that may be. In this way voluntary simplicity can be seen to enhance the meaning of our lives. With less time devoted to acquiring expensive things, simple livers will have more time to spend with friends and family, and more time to spend pursuing their private passions or enjoying their civic responsibilities.

In short, many are drawn to simplicity because they want to escape the rat race and live more with less. Although there are indeed many personal incentives for adopting voluntary simplicity, it would be an impoverished philosophy that sought to justify itself only in relation to personal self-interest.

For that reason, it is important to recognize that there are also many social and humanitarian reasons for adopting voluntary simplicity. Living simply can be a powerful lifestyle response to social injustices, and many people are drawn to simplicity because it can be understood to be an act of sharing, an act of human solidarity. It can therefore foster a heightened sense of human community, both locally and globally. One obvious way to share with others is simply to take less, to try to take only what one needs for a dignified life, and no more.

This may not be easy, but it could be said that before the problem of global poverty can ever be solved, those in the consuming middleclass will need to show some enlightened, compassionate restraint in relation to their material lives, and accept that in a world of great human need the wasteful consumption of material things is an unambiguous act of violence.

The global population is expected to approach nine or ten billion by the middle of this century, and trends indicate that most of these extra souls will find themselves born into the Third World. Fortunately, at least part of the solution is at hand. As well as personal and social reasons for simplifying, there are, of course, also environmental reasons for adopting voluntary simplicity.

It is becoming increasingly obvious to more and more people that simpler living, in some form or another, is needed to save our planet from real ecological disaster, and that lifestyles of reduced consumption will be a necessary part of any sustainable future for human civilization.

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Let me just assert, then, that simple living is one very promising way — if not the most promising way — to personally confront global environmental problems such as climate change, pollution, and the overconsumption of non-renewable resources. And given what is at stake here — the health of the life-support system we call Earth — perhaps this should be justification enough for everyone.

Finally, for immediate purposes, there are what could be called spiritual reasons for living simply. By shifting attention from the material to the non-material side of life, voluntary simplicity can facilitate a deeper awareness of the spiritual dimension of being. I will not now argue this point, however, since it is one that I suspect can only be experienced, not explained; at least, not explained by me.

I will only say this: That if we take time to isolate ourselves from consumer culture for long enough to unlearn it, for long enough to rouse ourselves from the daze of unexamined habit and reopen the doors of perception, we just might provoke a surprisingly fresh interpretation of the form of life behind, as well as provoke a new appreciation of the possibilities of an alternative mode of being. For simplicity is nothing if it is not an affirmative state of mind, an authentic celebration of life, and it is a state of mind that often seems to reflect a mystical interpretation of life and a deep reverence for nature, even if one does not subscribe to any traditional religion nor any crude pantheism.

Earlier generations confronted spiritual questions face to face, we through their eyes. But why, as Emerson would insist, should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Obviously, it is very important. But the fact is that there is no Doctrine or Code of Simplicity to follow, as such.

What is Voluntary Simplicity?

There is no Method or Equation of Simplicity into which we can plug the facts of our lives and be told how to live. That is precisely what the idea cannot do — but perhaps that suits your disposition as well as it does mine.

Voluntary simplicity, as I have said, is more about questions than answers, which implies that practicing simplicity calls for creative interpretation and personalized application. It is not for me, therefore, or for anyone, to prescribe universal rules on how to live simply. We each live unique lives, and we each find ourselves in different situations, with different capabilities, and different responsibilities. Accordingly, the practice of simplicity by one person, in one situation, will very likely involve different things to a different person, in a different situation.

But, as I have implied, I do not think that this practical indeterminacy is an objection to the idea. With that proviso noted, allow me say a few general and very brief words on what a simple life might look like and how one might begin to live it. Money: Although living simply is much more than just living cheaply and consuming less — it is also a state of mind — spending wisely plays an important role.


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The following exercise may surprise you: Over a one month period, record every purchase you make, and then categorize your expenses. Multiply each category by twelve to get a rough estimate of the annual cost. Then consider how much of your time and energy you spent obtaining the money required to buy everything you consumed that month. Question not only the amount of money you spent on each category, but also the categories on which you spent your money. You might find that seemingly little purchases add up to an inordinate amount over a whole year, suggesting that the money might be better spent elsewhere, not at all, or exchanged for more time by working less.

One does not have to be a tightwad, as such, only thoughtful.

If this is true, then the global middleclass has the potential to become a non-violent revolutionary class and change the world, simply by changing its spending habits. Money is power, and with this power comes responsibility. Exactly what kind of shelter does one need to live well and to be free? Clothing: The historic purpose of clothing, of course, was to keep us warm and, in time, for reasons of modesty. Today its primary purpose seems to be fashion and the conspicuous display of wealth and status. People can, of course, spend thousands and thousands of dollars on clothing if they want, in search of themselves.

Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities) Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities)
Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities) Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities)
Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities) Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities)
Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities) Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities)
Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities) Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities)
Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities) Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities)
Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities) Voluntary Simplicity: Responding to Consumer Culture (Rights & Responsibilities)

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