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Our culture teaches us to be proud of achieving a perpetual state of “induced busyness” – always stressed, always in a hurry, always running behind, always juggling too many tasks simultaneously.
Why? To feed our grotesque, insatiable “economy” and keep the wheels of our own servitude spinning. And what do we get for it? Anxiety, frustration, disappointment, exhaustion, helplessness, and the unshakable feeling that we’ve lost something profound.
That thing we’ve lost: I’d call it autonomy, as in “the condition of self-government,” or “freedom from external control or influence.” The state dictates how we allocate essentially all of our time, leaving us with but a few scattered moments throughout any given day to catch our breaths and observe the hurricane of our artificially busy lives passing us by.
Wouldn’t you prefer to slow down? To spend less time working a “job” and more time working on projects of personal interest that don’t necessarily generate money? To reduce or eliminate expenditures in order to stay home and cultivate a sense of belonging with your community and your surroundings?
First, the bad news: In our modern era there is no such thing as a fully autonomous lifestyle, free from the government’s implicit threat of violence. As long as you continue to breathe, you will pay taxes or be punished.
How, then, do we resist the encroachment of the state and its corporate allies into our personal lives and reclaim some of our autonomy? By minimizing our interactions with the market economy and embracing a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity.
What is Voluntary Simplicity?
As a movement, the idea of “simple living” arose over the last few decades in response to the hyper-consumer culture that began to dominate the landscape by the 1980s. In his book Voluntary Simplicity, Duane Elgin defines the concept as “a manner of living that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich, ...a deliberate choice to live with less in the belief that more life will be returned to us in the process.”
What are we simplifying? Ultimately, it’s a matter of removing the material clutter and the unnecessary distractions from our lives so that we can free up the space—both literal and figurative—to pursue a more meaningful lifestyle based on values and relationships rather than consumption and economic exchange. Sounds simple enough, but what it implies about how we organize our culture and interact with our environments is profound.
Voluntary simplicity involves a critical examination of both yourself and your culture; your personal habits and predilections as well as the customs and traditions that you were born into. You have to be unflinchingly honest with yourself about your needs and desires, as well as your ability to provide these things for yourself or go without.
I stress the fact that it’s up to you to work these things out because everybody’s idea of simplicity looks a little different, and it changes over time. For one person it might mean downsizing the living space and selling one of the cars; for another, it might involve giving away all of her possessions and living out of a suitcase. We all have different sets of complexities tangled up in our lives, and different reasons for unraveling them.
Why Choose the Simple Life?
There are many good reasons to move towards a life of intentional simplicity, whether personal, social, political, or ecological. My reasons encompass all of these spheres. Personally, I see it as a means of slowly but surely undoing the insidious process of domestication and breaking the shackles of habitual consumption that bind us to a destructive and unsustainable culture.
To embrace simple living means to place distance between ourselves and the hyper-consumerist paradigm that surrounds us. I say that we “distance” ourselves rather than “reject” the paradigm because as I mentioned above, a flat-out rejection is just not possible.
Forget off-grid living – grid or no grid, you’re still beholden to the whims of the state that rules over whatever place you’re occupying. As captive domesticated humans we are not allowed to leave civilization – where would we go? Antarctica? The moon?
The few remaining hunter-gatherer cultures surely wouldn’t have us, and even if we did possess all of the skills required for wilderness survival, and there was a piece of land that we could occupy, the fact is that human civilization has wiped out the vast majority of wild foods that we would need for subsistence.
We cannot opt out of civilization, but we can choose to pursue a life of simplicity that aims to minimize our interactions with the forces of destruction and exploitation.
Simplicity Comes In Degrees
To distance ourselves from the materialism of the modern world implies that this distance comes in degrees, and that it can be literal as well as figurative. Rural living is the most obvious expression of voluntary simplicity, as physical distance from the amenities of the city forces you to be more clever and creative in solving problems and addressing material needs.
When “running out to the store” on a whim is no longer an option, the acquisition of material goods slows to a crawl, and more value is placed on the proper care of high-quality materials than the frequent, habitual purchasing of cheap goods meant to be trashed and replaced.
But you don’t need farm land or a cabin in the woods to distance yourself from these external forces. Think about all of the ways in which you might be plugged in: TV, Internet, social media, smartphones, computers; those are just the tip of the iceberg. What about the food you buy from the supermarket? The clothing you purchase from the mall? The pharmaceutical drugs you take when sick or in pain? The fossil fuels you fill your car up with?
I’m not saying that it’s “all or nothing” when it comes to engaging with these external influences; it’s worth pointing out once more that you don’t have a choice to opt out fully, in most cases. But you do have an obligation to critically assess your relationship with these forces and make a conscious decision about how (and how much) you will interact with them.
For example, Brooke and I don’t have an Internet connection at home. We’re not opposed to the Internet – you wouldn’t be reading the things I write if that were the case. But we made a reasoned decision not to invite the Internet into our house because we both know how intoxicating and addicting it can be when left unchecked. And anyway, the last thing we want to do is give money to the abusive, bloated monopolies that offer the “service.”
Practicing Practical Simplicity
Now that we’ve worked our way through a philosophical understanding of voluntary simplicity, I want to offer some guidance for putting the theory into practice. As I mentioned earlier, every individual’s solution to the question of “whither simplicity?” is going to look a little different, but there are nonetheless common threads that run through the lifestyles of most intentionally simple folks.
Conceptually, voluntary simplicity overlaps in many ways with the pursuit of self-reliance, because if you can make it or do it yourself then you probably don’t need to complicate your life with so many external influences.
The way I see it, there are two major areas that we all ought to simplify: material life and daily life, which includes work habits. Though by no means comprehensive, here’s what I advise to get you started:
Make an effort to get by with less of everything you use or purchase from day to day
Reduce unnecessary expenditures
Avoid debt like the plague that it is – don’t spend beyond your means
Produce your own food
Hunt and forage wild foods
Trade or barter whenever possible to reduce the flow of cash between individuals
Maintain and repair rather than replacing things
Purchase high-quality goods that will last a long time
Learn how to build or fix it yourself
Buy used, recycle, or salvage whenever possible
Resist the urge to constantly “upgrade” or adopt the latest gadget
Avoid purchasing things with excessive packaging
Avoid the corporate rat race and any job that demands an unreasonable amount of your time
Only work as many hours as necessary to support yourself and your family
Consider options for making money on your own outside of your job
Minimize your commute between work and home if possible
Restrict the use of electronics to certain times of the day
Favor face-to-face exchanges over electronic communication
Avoid addictive habitual purchases like coffee, lunch from fast-food joints, etc.
Cook your own meals
Prioritize activities that don’t involve making or spending money
Stepping Into a World of Abundance
What most people find on this journey is that though they might desire a great deal, they really don’t need much, and providing those basic needs for themselves is far more preferable than passively accepting whatever the consumer culture gives them. And letting go of those material desires can have a profound impact on a person’s perception of their quality of life.
When we discover that we truly need very little, then we are finally able to revel in the magnificent abundance of the natural world. That’s the step that I think many people interested in voluntary simplicity, minimalism and similar concepts miss; and yet it is the logical conclusion that follows from removing burdensome clutter and toxic cultural detritus from our lives.
Abundance is a state of mind: you are always surrounded by a wealth of beauty, love, and nourishment, if you know how to look. Fear of scarcity leads us down the path of overconsumption, and we become blinded by our possessions, somehow convinced that they reflect our identities in some meaningful way.
But if we tear down the wall of objects blocking our view, we can see the sun rising through the window every morning. We can never possess it, which means we do not have to tend to it; but it will always provide us with more than we could ever need. How fortunate are we!