I came across the concept of ‘voluntary simplicity’ for the first time a few weeks ago. The sailor, Teresa Carey, spoke eloquently on her website about her reasons for choosing voluntary simplicity. She said it wasn’t an easy way of life – simplicity didn’t mean that there was less to do. In fact the opposite was true. It involved self-reliance, hard work, and making choices to live simply in a consumer-driven world. But it was also a life-affirming choice. In choosing simplicity she was opting out of the conditions that create and re-generate global poverty and inequality. Simplicity also made her alive and alert and attentive to the world around her, and it gave her opportunities to engage with the world in ways that were not mediated through the over-consumption of stuff.
I had to be in Exeter early on Wednesday morning, so decided to stay overnight on Tuesday. A friend gave me the use of her flat, while she was away. It’s always nice to visit a friend’s home for the first time, to get a glimpse into their lives. I can never resist browsing other peoples’ bookshelves, to get a sense of what they’ve read, what they’re interested in, what their books say about who they are or who they aspire to become. And that evening, I came across a book on my friend’s bookcase called ‘Sustainable Consumption’. I flicked through it, and I found a chapter by Duane Elgin, entitled ‘Voluntary Simplicity’. So I sat down and I read this delightful treatise on the concept. Elgin has been writing about this idea since the early 1980s, so how come I’ve only discovered his work now? He writes about material simplicity, simplicity of scale, self-determination, ecological awareness and personal growth. Voluntary simplicity is not about impoverishment. Indeed, it is the opposite of impoverishment. In rejecting material affluence, it celebrates the affluence of encounter, experience, engagement.
I thought about Elgin’s words, and I thought back to what Teresa Carey talked about in the video on her website, and I realised that this is what we are striving to do. It’s an on-going challenge and, as Carey noted, it’s difficult to live simply in a world where everything points you to consumerism and complexity. Striving for simplicity is an ongoing process, to rid ourselves of the unnecessary excesses in our lives, to make room for the things that are really important. So we’ve eliminated many of the material things we used to own, things that got in the way of us living this life.
The ‘voluntary’ part of ‘voluntary simplicity’ is as important as the ‘simplicity’ part. We’ve made choices. There are things that we have chosen as necessary in our lives and others that we deem unnecessary. A car, a television, excessive clothes, a house. These are things we can do without. A radio, a laptop computer, these are things we feel we need right now. We own a lot less than we did two years ago, when we sold or gave away most of our possessions. We also strive to live simply in the way we get through our lives from day to day. And for us, there are multiple reasons for choosing voluntary simplicity. One is economic. Because of the lifestyle we have chosen we don’t have a very high income, and we plan to go cruising next year for as long as we can. In order to do that, we need to live frugally and simply. The best way to be economical is not to need or consume so much.
Another reason emerges from a concern for our planet and its inhabitants. The less we consume, the less we contribute to environmental degradation and global poverty. The deaths of over 1000 clothing factory workers in Bangladesh at the end of April was both shocking and sobering, when I considered that some of the clothes worn by myself and my children had potentially been made by those underpaid garment workers or by the mothers of children who died in the on-site creche. Walking past the cheap clothes displayed in chain store windows in Plymouth, I can’t help but wonder which of the bright summer clothes were manufactured by those unfortunate people. They died making ever-cheaper clothes for us, and I want to remove myself and remove my children from those cycles of poverty creation and inequality.
So, I want to use this page to explore what ‘voluntary simplicity’ means in practice. It embraces the same philosophy of living that is to be found in the ‘Living Aboard’ and ‘Education’ pages, but I hope to explore that philosophy in more detail here.