The root of it all:
After two hundred or more years of material growth, we are confronted with
an unyielding question: If the material consumption of a fraction of
humanity is already harming the planet, is there an alternative path that
enables all of humanity to live more lightly upon the Earth while experiencing
a higher quality of life? This question reaches deep into humanity's
psyche and soul. Transforming our levels and patterns of consumption requires
our looking directly into how we create our sense of identity and seek our
happiness. Furthermore, because the ecological challenges we face are global
in nature, so too must be our conversation concerning how we are to share the
Earth with one another and the rest of life.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 3)
As a solution, Elgin proposes the concept of voluntary simplicity. However, he warns right away that
there are four misconceptions about what this lifestyle represents: the idea
that simplicity means poverty, that it means rural living, "ugly" living and,
finally, economic stagnation.
On a growing movement:
Although leaderless, this self-organizing movement for sustainability is
growing rapidly around the world. In the United States and a dozen or so
societies (including those of Europe, Japan, and Australia), a movement
toward green living has grown from a minuscule subculture in the 1960s to a
respected part of the mainstream culture in the early 2000s. Glossy
magazines now sell the simple life and green living on newsstands across
the United States, and it has become a popular theme on major television talk
shows. Based upon three decades of research, I estimate that as of 2009,
roughly 20 percent of the US adult population, or approximately forty million
people, are consciously crafting Earth-friendly or green ways of living.
These lifeway pioneers are providing the critical mass of invention at the
grassroots level that could enable the larger society to swiftly develop
alternative ways and approaches to living.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 23)
Now, that sounds quite naive, doesn't it? Yet, Elgin argues that these people
will make a difference:
The power of living examples to teach was brought home to me a number of
years ago. I was attending a conference with a number of leading thinkers
who were exploring the concept of a transforming society. Although the
meetings were of great interest and many grand pronouncements were made
concerning the need for social change, I no longer remember anything that was
said. However, I do remember having lunch with Elise Boulding —a devout
sociologist, and compassionate advocate of the need for nonviolent, though
fundamental, social change. At the end of the first morning's discussion
we emerged from conference rooms to encounter an enormous buffet heaped with
fruits, cheeses, saladas, meats, breads, and more. Having worked up a
considerable appetite, I filled my plate and sat down next to Elise. She had,
without comment or display, selected for her lunch an apple, a piece of cheese,
and a slice of bread. I was surprised that she had chosen such a modest lunch
when such a bountiful offering was available. I asked Elise how she felt, and
she reassured me that she was feeling fine. But I was still puzzled. I
persisted and asked why she had taken such a small helping. In a few quiet
sentences she explained that she did not want to eat what others in the world
could not have as well.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 26-27)
Reasons to choose voluntary simplicity:
Overall, this survey revealed an important insight: The single most
common factor among respondents was an emphasis on inner growth and being
awake to the miracle of life. Living more consciously seems to be at
the core of a path of simplicity and, in turn, makes it clear why this way
of life is compatible with Christianity, Buddhism,
Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Zen, and
many more traditions. Simplicity fosters a more conscious and direct
encounter with the world. From a more intimate encounter with life there
naturally arise the powerful experiences at the heart of all the world's
great spiritual traditions.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 49)
In various ways, many respondents said they did not want to drop out of
politics, but rather to change their manner of participation. In general,
people seemed more interested in local and global concerns than with
national issues. Examples of local concerns were changing zoning codes
to allow the use of innovative building designs and materials. Examples of
global concerns were actions to stop the destruction of rain forests and to preserve endangered
species. This is a political perspective that is primarily concerned with
building a sustainable future for all life on the planet.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 57)
movement has contributed to the growth of simpler living in several
ways. First, feminism,
by its example, has encouraged people of both sexes to explore alternative
ways of living and working. When persons or groups empower themselves to
act in ways that move beyond traditional roles and expectations, it provides
an example of cultural liberation that all can emulate and translate into
their unique circumstances. The liberation of women from sexual stereotypes
has relevance far beyond women and sexual roles —it is a significant
example of cultural liberation that applies to many other limiting
stereotypes of traditional Western industrial societies.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 60)
But why voluntary?
It makes an enormous difference whether greater simplicity is voluntarily
chosen or involuntarily imposed. For example, consider two people who
ride bicycles to work in order to save gasoline. The first person voluntarily
chooses to ride a bicycle and derives great satisfaction from the physical
exercise, the contact with the outdoors, and the knowledge that he or she is
conserving energy. The second person bikes to work because of the force of
circumstances —this may be due to the high cost of gasoline or the
inability to afford a car. Instead of delighting in the ride, the second
individual is filled with resentment with each push of the pedals. This
person yearns of an automobile and is indifferent to the social benefit
derived from the energy savings.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 73)
In other words, the situation that many of us find ourselves in right now,
as a consequence of what has become known as the Great Recession
On the nature of simplicity itself:
The dictionary defines "simplicity" as being "direct, clear; free of
pretense or dishonesty; free of vanity, ostentation, and undue display;
free of secondary complications and distractions." In living more simply we
encounter life more directly —in a firsthand and immediate manner.
We need little when we are directly in touch with life. It is when we
remove ourselves from direct and whole-hearted participation in life that
emptiness and boredom creep in. It is then that we begin our search for
someone or something that will alleviate our gnawing dissatisfaction. Yet
the search is endless in that we are continually led away from ourselves
and our experience in the moment.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 90)
To live more voluntarily is to live more deliberately, intentionally,
and purposefully —in short, it is to live more consciously. We cannot
be deliberate when we are distracted. We cannot be intentional when we are
not paying attention. We cannot purposeful when we are not being present.
Therefore, to act in a voluntary manner is to be aware of ourselves as we
move through life. This requires that we pay attention not only to the
actions we take in the outer world, but to ourselves acting —our inner
world. To the extent that we do not notice both inner and outer aspects of
our passage through life, our capacity for voluntary, deliberate, and
purposeful action is diminished.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 92-93)
Once a person or family reaches a moderate level of income, here are the
factors that research has shown contribute most to happiness:
- GOOD HEALTH: Physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
- PERSONAL GROWTH: Opportunities for learning, both inner and
outer, and giving creative expression to one's true gifts.
- STRONG SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS: Close personal relationships with
family, friends, and community in the context of a tolerant and democratic
society that values freedom.
- SERVICE TO OTHERS: Feeling that our lives contribute to the
well-being of others.
- CONNECTION WITH NATURE: Communion with the wildness of nature
brings perspective, freshness, and gratitude into our lives.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 95)
On simplicity and consumption:
To live sustainably, it is vital that we each decide how much is "enough".
Simplicity is a double-edged sword: Living with either too little or too much
will diminish our capacity to realize our potentials. Balance occurs when
there is neither material excess nor deficit. To find this in our everyday
lives requires that we understand the difference between our needs and
wants. "Needs" are those things that are essential to our survival and
our growth. "Wants" are those things that are extra —that gratify our
psychological desires. For example, we need shelter in order to
survive; we may want a huge house with many extra rooms that are
seldom used. We need basic medical care; we may want cosmetic
plastic surgery to disguise the fact that we are getting older. We
need functional clothing; we may want frequent changes in
clothing style to reflect the latest fashion. We need a nutritious
and well-balanced diet; we may want to eat at expensive restaurants.
We need transportation; we may want a new Mercedes. Only when
we are clear about what we need and what we want can we begin to pare away
the excess and find a middle path between extremes. Discovering this
balance in everyday life is central to our learning, and no one else can find
it for us.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 99-100)
A conscious simplicity, then, is not self-denying but life-affirming.
Voluntary simplicity is not an "ascetic simplicity" (of strict austerity);
rather, it is an "aesthetic simplicity" where each person considers how his
or here level and pattern of consumption can fit with grace and integrity
into the practical art of daily living on this planet. Possessions
that previously seemed so important and appealing could gradually lose much
of their allure. The individual or family admired for a large and luxurious
home could find that the mainstream culture increasingly admires those who
learn how to combine functional simplicity and beauty in a smaller home.
The person who was previously envied for his or her expensive car could find
that a growing number of people are uninterested in displays of conspicuous
consumption. The person who was previously recognized for always wearing
the latest in clothing styles could find that more and more people view
high fashion as tasteless ostentation no longer fitting in a world of great
human need. All of this does not mean that people would turn away from the
material side of life; rather, they would place a premium on living ever
more lightly and aesthetically.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 102-103)
However, is this truly happening in any developed society (beyond the
need to reduce consumption due to the crisis, of course)?
Is there a clear trend towards a voluntary simplicity that can be considered
meaningful at all in a sociological sense? Or are the social pressures to
promote a wasteful lifestyle still in place?
The ability to communicate is at the very heart of human life and
civilization. If we cannot communicate effectively, civilization itself is
threatened. If we apply the principle of simplicity to our communications,
they will tend to be more direct, clear, and honest. Here are five areas
where simplicity can enhance the quality of communication:
- Being honest and authentic.
- Choosing valuable conversations.
- Valuing the eloquence of silence.
- Looking with "soft eyes".
- Respecting physical contact.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 103)
List of global adversity trends:
- Unsustainable population growth.
- Wide and deep poverty.
- Profound climate disruption.
- The end of cheap oil.
- Global water shortages.
- Mass extinction of plant and animal species.
- Unsustainable globasl footprint.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 115-116)
These problems comprise a tightly interdependent and intertwined
system of problems that cannot be dealt with on a one-by-one basis.
Instead they require a dramatic shift in our overall pattern of thinking
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 123)
I do not expect a quick or easy transition through the emerging systems
breakdown. Only after people express their anger and sadness over the
broken dreams of material prosperity will they turn to the task of building
a sustainable economy. Only after people communicate their despair that
we may never restore the integrity of the global ecology will we work
wholeheartedly for its renewal. Only after people express their unwillingness
to make material sacrifices unless their actions are matched fairly by others
will a majority of people being to live in a more ecologically sound manner.
Only after people have exhausted the hope that the golden era of growth can
somehow be revived will we collectively venture forward. We are moving into
a traumatic time of social turmoil that will either transform or devastate
the very soul of species.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 124)
In the past the idea of a peaceful and mutually supportive global
civilization was viewed as a utopian dream. Now, it is a requirement for
continuing human evolution. If we do not rise to this challenge, we
will surely unleash upon ourselves the most massive wave of suffering ever
experienced in human history. Time has run out. The era of creative
adaptation is already upon us.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 126)
Looking ahead, I see two radically different pathways for humanity. I
will symbolize these two futures simply —as either a crash or a
bounce. In a crash, the biosphere is pushed beyond its ability
to support the burden of humanity and suffers crippling devastation. The
momentum of historical evolution is dispersed as humanity pulls apart in
conflict. In a bounce, the same initial conditions prevail but
the human community engages in a process of intense communication and
reconciliation to build a working consensus around a sustainable pathway
into the future. The human family comes together and pulls together during
this time of transition, conserving the momentum of historical evolution
and building the foundations for a promising future.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 127)
When I was doing research for the first edition of this book in the mid-1970s,
key trends such as population, resources, and climate change seemed likely to
converge eventually into an intertwined and mutually reinfocring system of
trends. At that time, my best estimate was that it would be the decade
of the 2020s during which these trends would finally intersect, powerfully
amplify one another, and produce an unyielding world crisis —a
"supreme test" for humanity. Now, as I write this edition, more than thirty
years later, I still think it is likely that in the decade of the 2020s
adversing trends will converge into an unyielding systems challenge,
producing a decisive tipping point and time of profound choice for humanity.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 132-133)
For the past several hundred years, societies in the Western world have been
operating under the assumption of rationalism born of the "Enlightenment Era". Since the late 1700s, scientific
belief has been premised on the idea that the universe is a lawful place
governed by physical processes. This powerful idea helped free societies
from oppressive superstitions such as witchcraft and from authoritarian
political systems such as monarchies. It also focused human attention on
material things as a source of identity and as a measure of human
accomplishment and happiness. With this shift, the Earth came to be
regarded as a storehouse of resources for human purposes. Several hundred
years later, we are seeing the consequences of this exploitive view in the
form of climate change, species extinction, resource depletion, and more.
And at the very time the rationalistic paradigm has begun to lose its
evolutionary relevance and power, a new, and vastly larger, "integral
paradigm" has begun to emerge.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 141)
The biggest challenge facing the human community is not the climate crisis,
nor the energy crisis, nor the crisis of species extinction; instead, it is
a crisis of consensus around a collective vision for a promising future.
The human community does not have a compelling story to guide us in responding
to a world in system crisis. Stated differently, we do not yet share in our
collective imagination a compelling story of the human journey leading to
a sustainable and meaningful future.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 149)
Although television and the Internet are merging into an integrated media
system, it is important to recognize the different strengths of each.
Broadcast television can, as its name implies, reach broadly —but its
messages are often shallow. The Internet can reach deeply, but its messages
are often isolated. By joining deep but disconnected conversations over the
Internet with broad but shallow conversations over television, we can transform
social communication about our collective future. Neither the Internet
nor broadcast television substitutes for the other. However, working together,
they can create a broad and deep, resilient and powerful capacity for
awakening the collective consciousness and conversation of our species, and
for building a working consensus for a sustainable and meaningful future.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 155)
The most precious resource of a civilization —the shared
consciousness of its citizenry— is literally being prostituted and
sold to the highest corporate bidders. Each time we watch commercial
television, we are putting our collective values, attitudes, and priorities
up for sale. The pervasive commercialization of television, and thus
society, represents far more than an offense to "good taste" —it is
crippling our capacity to comprehend and respond to mounting world
challenges. Commercialization is distorting and undermining the very
foundation of civilization —the view of reality and social identity
that we hold in common. Television advertising takes exceedingly trivial
concerns (such as which deodonrat, shampoo, or denture adhesive to use) and
blows them up into issues of seemingly enormous importance for our lives.
Concerns that are utterly insignificant relative to the task of making it
through this time of profoundly ecological and social transition are given
vastly inflated significance and then force-fed into our collective
consciousness. To break the cultural hypnosis of consumerism, we must
begin by breaking the corporate stranglehold on broadcast television.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 158)
In a world systems crisis, the most sustainable places to live will be
towns and small cities that are nested within a larger agricultural area.
As the cost of energy becomes increasingly expensive, the least well-adapted
places will likely be high-rise cities, which are voracious consumers of
energy and generally far from agricultural resources. Also poorly
adapted are sprawling suburbs that are far from any significant economic
core and food sources. Particularly in the United States, we can see the
enormous misallocation of resources represented by urban sprawl, in which
more than half of the population lives in suburbia. In the years ahead, we
will see waves of migration toward towns and regions more favored for
sustainability by weather and local resources.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 164)
In the future, many neighborhoods with single-family dwellings will be
configured into unique clusters of small village communities. Modern
or ecovillages are
showing the way to make this work. To illustrate, my wife Coleen and I lived
in a cohousing community in Northern California for a year and a half. The
three core organizing principles for the community are simplicity, family,
and ecology. With seventy people (fifty adults and twenty children), this
was a scale of living that was small enough to create a genuine feeling of
community and large enough to use our size to advantage. We lived in a
newly constructed community consisting of thirty units in two-story flats
and town houses clustered in rows to establish a common green area on the
interior and parking on the exterior. The common house is used as a dining
area but is regularly transformed into a dance floor, meeting room, or
whatever else it needs to be. The common house also includes two guest
rooms, an informal lending library, and a playroom for small kids on rainy
or cold days.
As a community, we would eat together three evenings each week and often
join up for a brunch on weekends. Each person is expected to participate
in a three-person cooking crew once a month, preparing food and cleaning
up for roughly fifty persons. People are also expected to participate in
work crews to perform functions like landscaping, conflict resolution, or
kitchen maintenance. Every other week there are meetings to run the workings
of the community. Happily, these are run efficiently and expertly,
attendance is high, and much is accomplished. This cohousing community also
has a half-dozen office and commercial spaces connected with it (a coffee
shop, a green consulting business, a copy shop, etc.), so it is both a
housing entity and a commercial enterprise.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 168-169)
Although ecovillages are designed for sustainable living, there is not
the time to retrofit and rebuild our existing urban infrastructure around
this approach to living before we encounter the world systems crisis.
Climate disruption, energy shortages, and other critical trends will overtake
us long before we can make a sweeping overhaul in the design and functioning
of cities and towns that have been a century or more in the making. We can
regard ecovillages as greenhouses of human invention, learn from their
experiments, and adapt their designs and principles for successful living.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 171)
We cannot create a new world in the cultural context of old media
programming. The old media is selling a culture of consumption. The new
media must serve a culture of conservation and sustainability. As we
think, so we will become. If we fill our social mind with old media, there
is no room to imagine new possibilities. The wonderful thing about media is
that it can change in the blink of an eye. For example, if the public wanted
it, television broadcasters could open the airwaves to "Earthvisions" created
by the youth of the world —appealing for a sustainable pathway for
all. This could rapidly bring a new culture and consciousness into our
lives and help shift our society in a new direction.
(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 179)
Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 6/10