Books on:Animal Rights
Food and Nutrition
Peace and Nonviolence
Trees and Forests
Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich
by Duane Elgin
240 pages, paperback, HarperCollins, 2d ed., 2010
By embracing the tenets of voluntary simplicity---frugal consumption, ecological awareness and personal growth--people can change their lives and begin to change the world. For nearly two decades this powerful and visionary work has been a catalyst in the emerging dialogue over sustainable ways of living. As the push of environmental stress combines with the pull toward more meaningful ways of living, Duane Elgin's extensively revised and updated book is more relevant than ever.
Richard Gregg was a student of Gandhi's teaching and, in 1936, he wrote the following about a life of "voluntary simplicity:"
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My awakening to the harsh reality of poverty began on my father's farm in Idaho where I worked with people who lived on the edge of subsistence. I remember one fall harvest when I was about ten years old in the early 1950's. We were harvesting a 40 acre field of lettuce and a crew of twenty or so migrant laborers arrived to go to work. I still recall a family of three- -a father, mother and daughter about my age--that drove their old Mercury sedan down the dusty road into our farm. They parked in the field and, with solemn faces, worked through the day doing piece labor--getting paid for the number of crates of lettuce they filled. At the end of the day, they received their few dollars of wages as a family, earning roughly 65 cents an hour. That evening I returned to the fields with my father to check on the storage of the crates of lettuce and found the family parked at the edge of the field, sitting against the side of their car, and eating an evening meal that consisted of a loaf of white bread, a few slices of lunch meat, and a small jar of mayonnaise. I wondered how they managed to work all day on such a limited meal but asked no questions. When I arrived for work the following morning, they got out of their car where they had slept the night and began working another day. After repeating this cycle for three days, the harvest was finished and they left. This was just one of innumerable personal encounters with poverty. Over the next fifteen years, I worked in the fields each summer and gradually came to understand how most of these people did not know whether, in another week or month, their needs for food and shelter would be met by their meager salary.
Although the simple life has been advocated as a way of achieving more direct contact with the infusing Life-force and, although this suffusing presence is often most evident in the natural world, this does not mean that people must move away from urban areas and live on farms. Still, in the popular imagination, there is a tendency to equate the simple life with Thoreau's cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, and to assume people must live an isolated and rural existence. (Interestingly, Thoreau was not a hermit during his stay at Walden Pond--his famous cabin was roughly a mile from the town of Concord and every day or two he would walk into town. His cabin was so close to a nearby highway that he could smell the pipe smoke of passing travelers. Thoreau wrote that he had, "more visitors while I lived in the woods than any other period of my life.") The romanticized image of rural living does not fit the modern reality as a majority of persons choosing a life of conscious simplicity do not live in the backwoods or rural settings; they live in cities and suburbs. While ecological living brings with it a reverence for nature, this does not require moving to a rural setting. Instead of a "back to the land" movement, it is more accurate to describe this as a "make the most of wherever you are" movement.
Two compelling reasons exist for choosing more ecological approaches to living: the push of necessity and the pull of opportunity. The combined impact of the various pushes of necessity are staggering to contemplate. Here is a sampling of problems that gives an overview of our predicament: In 1930, the world had 2 billion people, in 1975 roughly 4 billion people, and by the year 2000 population is expected to exceed 6 billion people. By 2025, the world's population will approach 9 billion people. The vast majority of the increase in human numbers is occurring in the less developed nations. Because the world's ecosystem is already under great stress, as these new billions of persons seek a decent standard of living, the global ecology could easily be strained beyond the breaking point, producing a calamity of unprecedented proportions. The gap between rich and poor nations is already a chasm and is growing wider rapidly. The average person in the richest one- fifth of the world's countries earned an average of $15,000 in 1990 whereas the average person in the poorest one-fifth of the world's countries earned an average of $250. This 60-fold differential between the rich and poor is double what it was in 1960.
These are not isolated problems; instead, they comprise a tightly intertwined system of problems that require us to develop new approaches to living if we are to live sustainably. To live sustainably, we must live efficiently--not misdirecting or squandering the earth's precious resources. To live efficiently, we must live peacefully for military expenditures represent an enormous diversion of resources from meeting basic human needs. To live peacefully, we must live with a reasonable degree of equity or fairness for it is unrealistic to think that, in a communications-rich world, a billion or more persons will accept living in absolute poverty while another billion live in conspicuous excess. Only with greater fairness in the consumption of the world's resources can we live peacefully, and thereby live sustainably, as a human family. Without a revolution in fairness, the world will find itself in chronic conflict with wars over dwindling resources and this, in turn, will make it impossible to achieve the level of cooperation necessary to solve problems such as pollution and population.
The United Nations Human Development Report of 1992 said, "In a world of 5 billion people, we discovered that the top billion people, hold 83 percent of the world's wealth, while the bottom billion have only 1.4 percent." We cannot expect to live in a peaceful world with such enormous disparities between the rich and poor. The prosperity of the technologically interdependent, wealthy nations is vulnerable to disruption by terrorism by those who have nothing left to lose and no hope for the future. Only with greater equity can we expect to live peacefully, and only with greater harmony can we expect to live sustainably.
A common basis for living simply in all the world's spiritual traditions is expressed in the "golden rule"--the compassionate admonition that we should treat others as we would want ourselves to be treated. The theme of sharing and economic justice seems particularly strong in the Christian tradition. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, stated around 365 A.D.: "When someone steals a man's clothes we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has not shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor." In the modern era, this implies that if people in developed nations consume more than their fair share of the world's resources, then we are taking food, clothing and other essentials from those who are in great need.
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A contemporary expression of simplicity in the Christian tradition is found in the "Shakertown Pledge"--a statement developed in 1973 by a diverse group of Christians in an effort to describe a lifestyle appropriate to the new realities of the world. Two key commitments give a feeling for it: "I commit myself to lead an ecologically sound life," and "I commit myself to lead a life of creative simplicity and to share my personal wealth with the world's poor." These commitments are not meant to produce a pinched and miserly existence; instead, they are intended to encourage an aesthetic simplicity that enhances personal freedom and fulfillment while promoting a just manner of living relative to the needs of the world.
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Just as we tend to wait for our problems to solve themselves, so too do we tend to wait for our traditional institutions and leaders to provide us with guidance as to what we should do. Yet, our leaders are bogged down, trying to cope with our faltering institutions. They are so enmeshed in crisis management that they have little time to exercise genuinely creative leadership. We may keep waiting for someone else, but a key message of this book is that there is no one else. You are it. We are it. Each of us is responsible. It is we who, one by one, must take charge of our lives. It is we who, one by one, must act to restore the balance. We are the ones who are responsible for making it through this time of sweeping change as we work to reconcile the human family around a sustainable future for the planet.
Introduction by Ram Dass
LIVING ON THE NEW FRONTIER
THE PHILOSOPHY OF VOLUNTARY SIMPLICITY
SIMPLICITY AND SOCIAL RENEWAL
Appendix: The Simplicity Survey