Simple living

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Simple living (voluntary simplicity) is a lifestyle characterized by minimizing the 'more-is-better' pursuit of wealth and consumption. Adherents may choose simple living for a variety of personal reasons, such as spirituality, health, increase in 'quality time' for family and friends, stress reduction, personal taste or frugality.

Others cite socio-political goals aligned with the anti-consumerist movement, including conservation, social justice and sustainable development. According to Duane Elgin, "we can describe voluntary simplicity as a manner of living that is outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich, a way of being in which our most authentic and alive self is brought into direct and conscious contact with living."[1]

Simple living as a concept is distinguished from those living in forced poverty, as it is a voluntary lifestyle choice. Although asceticism generally promotes living simply and refraining from luxury and indulgence, not all proponents of voluntary simplicity are ascetics.



The recorded history of voluntary simplicity, often associated with asceticism, begins with the Shramana traditions of Iron Age India. Buddha and biblical Nazirites (notably John the Baptist) were early ascetics. Various notable individuals have claimed that spiritual inspiration led them to a simple living lifestyle, such as Francis of Assisi,[2] Ammon Hennacy, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.

Epicureanism, based on the teachings of the Athens-based philosopher Epicurus, flourished from about the fourth century BC to the third century AD. Epicureanism upheld the untroubled life as the paradigm of happiness, made possible by carefully considered choices and avoidances. Specifically, Epicurus pointed out that troubles entailed by maintaining an extravagant lifestyle tend to outweigh the pleasure of partaking in it. He therefore concluded that what is necessary for happiness, bodily comfort, and life itself should be maintained at minimal cost, while all things beyond what is necessary for these should either be tempered by moderation or completely avoided.[3]

Various religious groups including the Shakers, Mennonites, Amish, Harmony Society, and some Quakers have for centuries practiced lifestyles in which some forms of wealth or technology are excluded for religious or philosophical reasons. For more information about Quaker simplicity, see Testimony of Simplicity.

Henry David Thoreau, a North American naturalist and author, is often considered to have made the classic non-sectarian statement advocating a life of simple and sustainable living in his book Walden (1854). In Victorian Britain, Henry Stephens Salt, an admirer of Thoreau, popularised the idea of "Simplification, the saner method of living"[4] Other British advocates of the simple life included Edward Carpenter, William Morris and the members of "The Fellowship of the New Life."[5] C.R. Ashbee and his followers also practiced some of these ideas,thus linking Simple Life ideas with the Arts and Crafts movement[6]. British novelist John Cowper Powys advocated the simple life in his 1933 book A Philosophy of Solitude.[7]

George Lorenzo Noyes, a naturalist, mineralogist, development critic, writer, and artist, is known as the Thoreauvian of Maine. He lived a wilderness lifestyle, advocating through his creative work a simple life of sustainable living and his spiritual reverence for nature. During the 1920 and 1930s, the Vanderbilt Agrarians of the Southern United States advocated a lifestyle and culture centered upon traditional and sustainable agrarian values as opposed to the progressive urban industrialism which dominated the Western world at that time.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, a number of fairly prominent modern authors articulated both the theory and practice of lifestyles of this sort, among them Gandhian Richard Gregg, economists Ralph Borsodi and Scott Nearing, anthropologist-poet Gary Snyder, and utopian fiction writer Ernest Callenbach. Gregg wrote a book entitled The Value of Voluntary Simplicity (1936) and many decades later Duane Elgin wrote the highly influential book Voluntary Simplicity (1981). There are eco-anarchist groups in the United States and Canada today promoting lifestyles of simplicity. In the United Kingdom, the Movement for Compassionate Living was formed by Kathleen and Jack Jannaway in 1984, to spread the vegan message and promote simple living and self-reliance as a remedy against the exploitation of humans, animals, and the Earth.


Some people practice voluntary simplicity to reduce need for purchased goods or services and, by extension, reduce their need to sell their time for money. Some will spend the extra free time helping family or others. During the holiday season, such people often perform alternative giving. Others may spend the extra free time to improve their quality of life, for example pursuing creative activities such as art and crafts (see starving artist). The philosophy behind these choices is examined at length in Ernest Callenbach's 1972 non-fiction book Living Poor with Style, which also devotes hundreds of pages to practical tips and how-to guides for both voluntary and involuntary practitioners of simple living.

Another approach is to focus more fundamentally on the underlying motivation of buying and consuming so many resources for a good quality of life.[8] Though our society often seeks to buy happiness, materialism very frequently fails to satisfy, and may even increase the level of stress in life. It has been said that "the making of money and the accumulation of things should not smother the purity of the soul, the life of the mind, the cohesion of the family, or the good of the society."[9]

The 'grassroots' awareness campaign, National Downshifting Week (UK) [1] (founded 1995) encourages participants to positively embrace living with less. Campaign creator, British writer and broadcaster on downshifting and sustainable living, Tracey Smith says, "The more money you spend, the more time you have to be out there earning it and the less time you have to spend with the ones you love". National Downshifting Week encourages participants to 'Slow Down and Green Up' and contains a list of suggestions for individuals, companies, children and schools to help adopt green or eco-friendly policies and habits, develop corporate social and environmental responsibility in the workplace, and create eco-protocols and lessons that work alongside the national curriculum, respectively.

Another practice is the adoption of a simplified diet. Diets that may simplify domestic food production and consumption include raw veganism and the Gandhi diet.

Examples and experiments

The University of Michigan's New England Literature Program is an experiential literature and writing program run through the university's Department of English Language and Literature which was started in the 1970s by professors Alan Howes and Walter Clark. Howes and Clark called upon Thoreauvian ideals of nature, independence and community to create an academic program modeled after Thoreau's experiment at Walden Pond. Today, students at NELP study Thoreau's work – as well as that of several other New England writers from the 19th and 20th centuries – in relative isolation on Sebago Lake in Raymond, Maine. University students who participate pledge to give up drugs and alcohol for the duration of the program and live without cell phones or computers and with minimal access to electricity and heat as part of their academic experience and study of New England literature, history and culture.


Many Green Parties often advocate voluntary simplicity as a consequence of their "four pillars" or the "Ten Key Values" of the United States Green Party. This includes, in policy terms, their rejection of genetic modification and nuclear power and other technologies they consider to be hazardous. The Greens' support for simplicity is based on the reduction in natural resource usage and environmental impact. This concept is expressed in Ernest Callenbach's "green triangle" of ecology, frugality and health.

Many with similar views avoid involvement even with green politics as compromising simplicity, however, and advocate forms of green anarchism that attempt to implement these principles at a smaller scale, e.g. the ecovillage.

The alleged relationship between economic growth and war, when fought for control and exploitation of natural and human resources, is considered a good reason for promoting a simple living lifestyle. Avoiding the perpetuation of the resource curse is a similar objective of many simple living adherents. Opposition to war has led some to a form of tax resistance in which they reduce their tax liability by taking up a simple living lifestyle.[10]


Although simple living is often a secular pursuit, it may still involve reconsidering personal definitions of "appropriate technology", as Anabaptist groups such as the Amish or Mennonites have done. People who eschew modern technology are often referred to as Luddites or Neo-Luddism adherents.[11]

People who practice simple living have diverse views on the role of technology. Some simple living adherents, such as Kirkpatrick Sale, are strong critics of technology,[11] while others see the Internet as a key component of simple living in the future, including the reduction of an individual's carbon footprint through telecommuting and less reliance on paper. Voluntary simplicity may include high-tech components — indeed computers, Internet, photovoltaic arrays, wind and water turbines, and a variety of other cutting-edge technologies can be used to make a simple lifestyle within mainstream culture easier and more sustainable.

The idea of food miles, the number of miles a given item of food or its ingredients has travelled between the farm and the table, is used by simple living advocates to argue for locally grown food. This is now gaining mainstream acceptance, as shown by the popularity of books such as The 100-Mile Diet, and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. In each of these cases, the authors devoted a year to reducing their carbon footprint by eating locally.[12]

Advertising is criticised for encouraging a consumerist mentality. Many advocates of voluntary simplicity tend to agree that cutting out, or cutting down on, television viewing is a key ingredient in simple living. Some see the Internet, podcasting, community radio or pirate radio as viable alternatives.


A new economics movement has been building since the UN conference on the environment in 1972,[13] and the publication that year of Only One Earth, The Limits to Growth, and Blueprint For Survival, followed in 1973 by Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.[14]

Recently, David Wann has introduced the idea of “simple prosperity” as it applies to a sustainable lifestyle. From his point of view, and as a point of departure for what he calls real sustainability, “it is important to ask ourselves three fundamental questions: what is the point of all our commuting and consuming? What is the economy for? And, finally, why do we seem to be unhappier now than when we began our initial pursuit for rich abundance?”[15] In this context, simple living is the opposite of our modern quest for affluence and, as a result, it becomes less preoccupied with quantity and more concerned about the preservation of cities, traditions and nature.

A reference point for this new economics can be found in James Robertson's A New Economics of Sustainable Development,[14] and the work of thinkers and activists, who participate in his Working for a Sane Alternative network and program. According to Robertson, the shift to sustainability is likely to require a widespread shift of emphasis from raising incomes to reducing costs.

The principles of the new economics, as set out by Robertson, are the following:

  • systematic empowerment of people (as opposed to making and keeping them dependent), as the basis for people-centred development;
  • systematic conservation of resources and the environment, as the basis for environmentally sustainable development;
  • evolution from a “wealth of nations” model of economic life to a one-world model, and from today's inter-national economy to an ecologically sustainable, decentralising, multi-level one-world economic system;
  • restoration of political and ethical factors to a central place in economic life and thought;
  • respect for qualitative values, not just quantitative values;
  • respect for feminine values, not just masculine ones.[14]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Elgin, Duane (1993). Voluntary Simplicity p. 25.
  2. ^ Slocock, N. (May 2004). ‘Living a Life of Simplicity?’ A Response to Francis of Assisi by Adrian House.
  3. ^ Smith, M.F. (2001). Lucretius: On the Nature of Things. Introduction available online at Hackett Pub Co ISBN 978-0872205871
  4. ^ Salt quoted in Peter C. Gould, Early Green Politics, p. 22.
  5. ^ Gould, pp. 27-8
  6. ^ Fiona Maccarthy, The Simple Life:C.R. Ashbee in the Cotswolds (London, 1981).
  7. ^ A Philosophy of Solitude, London, 1933.See also David Goodway, Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow (Liverpool, 2006),pgs. 48-9,174, for Goodway's comparison of Powys' ideas of the Simple Life to Carpenter's.
  8. ^ Rajvanshi, A.K. (January 14, 2005)."Less Possessions Produce Happiness." Times of India.
  9. ^ The thoughts of David Shi as summarized in "Voluntary Simplicity" (1993) by Duane Elgin, p. 53.
  10. ^ Picket Line Annual Report
  11. ^ a b Sale, K. (February 1997). "America's New Luddites." Le Monde diplomatique.
  12. ^ Taylor, K. (August 8, 2007). "The Year I Saved The World." New York: The Sun."
  13. ^ United Nations Environment Program (1972) Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Stockholm 1972. Retrieved on March 24, 2008
  14. ^ a b c Robertson, James (2005) "The New Economics of Sustainable Development". A Briefing for Policy Makers. Report for the European Commission. ISBN 0 7494 3093 1
  15. ^ Wann, David. Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle. New York, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007. ISBN 13-978-0-312-36141-9

Further reading

  • Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau, available at wikisource — key text in simple living.
  • The Value of Voluntary Simplicity (1936), Richard Gregg; a seminal book on the subject of simplicity, heavily influenced by Gandhi.
  • The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing's Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living (Schocken, 1970), by "Scott and Helen Nearing".
  • The Simple Life (1973), Vernard Eller, ISBN 0802815375; a perspective on simple living according to Jesus, Kierkegaard and Eller.
  • More-With-Less Cookbook (Herald Press, 1976), Doris Janzen Longacre, ISBN 0-8361-1786-7 — suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world's limited food resources.
  • New Age Politics (1979), Mark Satin, ISBN 0-440-55700-3 — articulates a politics focused on voluntary simplicity and humanistic psychology; builds on two important Elgin articles from the 1970s.
  • Living More With Less (Herald Press, 1980), Doris Janzen Longacre, ISBN 0-8361-1930-4 — a pattern of living with less and a wealth of practical suggestions from the worldwide experiences of Mennonites.
  • Voluntary Simplicity (1980), Duane Elgin, ISBN 0-688-12119-5 — key text in voluntary simplicity.
  • A Simple Choice: A Practical Guide to Saving Your Time, Money and Sanity, Deborah Taylor-Hough, ISBN 1891400495 (SourceBooks)
  • What Are People For? (North Point Press, 1990), Wendell Berry, ISBN 0-86547-437-0
  • The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture, David E. Shi, University of Georgia Press (2007).
  • Wealth 101: Getting What You Want-Enjoying What You've Got, Peter McWilliams (1992)
  • Your Money or Your Life (1992), Joe Dominguez & Vicki Robin, ISBN 0-14-016715-3 — another classic voluntary simplicity text.
  • Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter, Elaine St. James, ISBN 0786880007 (Hyperion)
  • Self-reliant, Tree-based, Autonomous Vegan Villages (Movement for Compassionate Living, 1996), Kathleen Jannaway.
  • Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet, Mark A. Burch (2000), ISBN 0-86571-423-1
  • Affluenza (2002), John de Graaf et al., ISBN 1-57675-199-6 — popularized approach to voluntary simplicity.
  • What Should I Do If Reverend Billy is in my Store? (2003), Bill Talen, ISBN 1-56584-979-5, more recent anti-consumerism, anti-corporate. Talen gives an account of his activism.
  • American Mania: When More Is Not Enough by Peter C Whybrow, 2005 W. W. Norton & Co.
  • The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life, Cecile Andrews, ISBN 0-06-092872-7 — leading guide for simplicity study circles.
  • Nothing's Too Small to Make a Difference, Wanda Urbanska & Frank Levering, ISBN 0-89587-297-8
  • Simplicity and Success: Creating the Life You Long For, Bruce Elkin, Trafford {2003]
  • Serve God, Save the Planet (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2006), J. Matthew Sleeth, M.D., ISBN 1-933392-01-0, religious approach to voluntary simplicity.
  • Living the Good Life. How one family changed their world from their own backyard. (2006), Linda Cockburn, ISBN 1-74066-312-8
  • The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (2006), by David E. Shi
  • Downshift to the Good Life. (2007), by Lynn Huggins - Cooper ISBN 978-1904902379
  • The Complete Tightwad Gazette: Promoting Thrift as a Viable Alternative Lifestyle." (1998), by Amy Dacyzyn, ISBN-10: 0375752250
  • Simple Living Newsletter, by Janet Luhrs -- Healthy Directions: Simple Living

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