A few years ago I read a book called ‘Voluntary Simplicity’ (1977) by Elgin & Mitchell, which is about people who are living simpler lives, and why they are doing it. Not to be confused with the back-to-nature movement that entails moving to a rural community, living without electricity, and milking cows.
Instead, voluntary simplicity is about incorporating sensible practices into an ongoing – and very urban, in my case – lifestyle and creating new habits. And it made sense to me.
There are movements in art and music, but what about minimalistic lifestyles?
It primarily relies on simplicity from materialistic aspects, the non-essentials.This kind of lifestyle clears the path for creativity, and freedom from dependence on stuff.
Let me just preface this by saying that I am not a radical minimalist, and I don’t live off the grid, although, I admit, it has intrigued me at times. I am curious about radical minimalism and I do admire some people’s determination and purpose, but I think there is an achievable balance for all of us, and that is what I will be addressing here.
The book defines voluntary simplicity as a balance between inner and outer growth and the lifestyle as “non-consumerist – based on being and becoming, not having”.
This is in contrast with involuntary simplicity or forced minimalism as a consequence of poverty.
Obviously, it means buying and relying on less ‘stuff’ and, in turn, it helps individuals be more in touch with the self and our abilities, as opposed to being oblivious – and, indeed, we are mostly completely oblivious – to how much energy and resources are spent on us and our lifestyles.
It does not mean being frugal and stingy, per se. And, although it has some roots in austerity, restriction, and spending less money, it’s not about the money or the spending. It’s about a different, spiritual, ethical path – an unbearable lightness of being.
As such, it’s about social responsibility, compassion, care, and the willingness to contribute something to the natural world, conserving the resources and maintaining the beauty and integrity of the environment, instead of constantly and continuously robbing it.
There is a consistent and continuous interconnectedness and interdependence of people and resources. Think about it: how much effort and energy is used to get you through the day? Your morning cereal, the water you brush the teeth with, your clothes washed and tumble-dried, the gas for your car, that phone screen you tap all day, your take-out coffee, the waste you throw, and the waste you recycle or can’t bother to recycle, the book you flip through.. – were all created and made available for you by someone, somewhere!
You are a whole mechanism in itself and you require a support system.
Now multiply it by 7 billion, more or less because not all of us have a tumble-drier and, thankfully, there are some rebels out there (and they have their own, slightly different support mechanisms)!
No man is an island. And minimalists aren’t either. They are, in fact, dependent on collaboration and sharing in the global village they live in.
Minimalists, for example, can be – and there are many definitions – people whose desires are aligned with necessities (!), they don’t amass things, they produce less waste, they even compost, they reuse existing stuff for different purposes, they borrow (and share) things, they don’t turn on artificial air-conditioning (they dress for the weather), they re-sell and donate what they no longer need, they commute by bike or on foot, occasionally relying on public transport or carpooling, they don’t take long-distance journeys and if they do, the don’t fly, they are in touch with nature and aspire to pursue practices that contribute to its conservation, they eat whole, natural unprocessed foods (vegans mostly, though not necessarily), etc..
I’ll accept that there are still people out there who are unaware of their consumption practices and their impact on society. However, there are still more of who are indifferent to it, unwilling to change, and downright opposed to it.
While quite a large number sympathize with the principles and values that will help stop the degradation of the environment and help them see how a simpler life can be more fulfilling, on the whole they are still resistant to act on it, because
1) they enjoy their comfortable, luxurious lifestyle too much to give it up;
2) having worked so hard to be able to afford it, they believe they deserve it; and
3) they are not convinced that individual choices make a difference for environmental sustainability.
But we will never get anywhere if we don’t start to change individually.
Personal growth and purpose (non-materialist, non-profit-oriented purpose) leads to ecological awareness, followed by material simplicity and, finally, a greater opportunity to live on a smaller, more human – sustainable – scale.
Somewhere along the way, when enough of us reduce the scale of consumption and restore life more to a human sense of proportion and perspective, we will help the planet balance out between its capacity and our needs.
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