Voluntary Simplicity
Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly
Simple, Inwardly Rich
Duane Elgin
Harper, New York (USA), second revised edition, 1993 (1981) 210 pages, including index

The root of it all:

After two hundred or more years of material growth, we are confronted with an unyielding question: If the material consumption of a fraction of humanity is already harming the planet, is there an alternative path that enables all of humanity to live more lightly upon the Earth while experiencing a higher quality of life? This question reaches deep into humanity's psyche and soul. Transforming our levels and patterns of consumption requires our looking directly into how we create our sense of identity and seek our happiness. Furthermore, because the ecological challenges we face are global in nature, so too must be our conversation concerning how we are to share the Earth with one another and the rest of life.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 3)

As a solution, Elgin proposes the concept of voluntary simplicity. However, he warns right away that there are four misconceptions about what this lifestyle represents: the idea that simplicity means poverty, that it means rural living, "ugly" living and, finally, economic stagnation.

On a growing movement:

Although leaderless, this self-organizing movement for sustainability is growing rapidly around the world. In the United States and a dozen or so other "postmodern" societies (including those of Europe, Japan, and Australia), a movement toward green living has grown from a minuscule subculture in the 1960s to a respected part of the mainstream culture in the early 2000s. Glossy magazines now sell the simple life and green living on newsstands across the United States, and it has become a popular theme on major television talk shows. Based upon three decades of research, I estimate that as of 2009, roughly 20 percent of the US adult population, or approximately forty million people, are consciously crafting Earth-friendly or green ways of living. These lifeway pioneers are providing the critical mass of invention at the grassroots level that could enable the larger society to swiftly develop alternative ways and approaches to living.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 23)

Now, that sounds quite naive, doesn't it? Yet, Elgin argues that these people will make a difference:

The power of living examples to teach was brought home to me a number of years ago. I was attending a conference with a number of leading thinkers who were exploring the concept of a transforming society. Although the meetings were of great interest and many grand pronouncements were made concerning the need for social change, I no longer remember anything that was said. However, I do remember having lunch with Elise Boulding —a devout Quaker, feminist, sociologist, and compassionate advocate of the need for nonviolent, though fundamental, social change. At the end of the first morning's discussion we emerged from conference rooms to encounter an enormous buffet heaped with fruits, cheeses, saladas, meats, breads, and more. Having worked up a considerable appetite, I filled my plate and sat down next to Elise. She had, without comment or display, selected for her lunch an apple, a piece of cheese, and a slice of bread. I was surprised that she had chosen such a modest lunch when such a bountiful offering was available. I asked Elise how she felt, and she reassured me that she was feeling fine. But I was still puzzled. I persisted and asked why she had taken such a small helping. In a few quiet sentences she explained that she did not want to eat what others in the world could not have as well.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 26-27)

Reasons to choose voluntary simplicity:

Overall, this survey revealed an important insight: The single most common factor among respondents was an emphasis on inner growth and being awake to the miracle of life. Living more consciously seems to be at the core of a path of simplicity and, in turn, makes it clear why this way of life is compatible with Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Zen, and many more traditions. Simplicity fosters a more conscious and direct encounter with the world. From a more intimate encounter with life there naturally arise the powerful experiences at the heart of all the world's great spiritual traditions.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 49)

In various ways, many respondents said they did not want to drop out of politics, but rather to change their manner of participation. In general, people seemed more interested in local and global concerns than with national issues. Examples of local concerns were changing zoning codes to allow the use of innovative building designs and materials. Examples of global concerns were actions to stop the destruction of rain forests and to preserve endangered species. This is a political perspective that is primarily concerned with building a sustainable future for all life on the planet.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 57)

The feminist movement has contributed to the growth of simpler living in several ways. First, feminism, by its example, has encouraged people of both sexes to explore alternative ways of living and working. When persons or groups empower themselves to act in ways that move beyond traditional roles and expectations, it provides an example of cultural liberation that all can emulate and translate into their unique circumstances. The liberation of women from sexual stereotypes has relevance far beyond women and sexual roles —it is a significant example of cultural liberation that applies to many other limiting stereotypes of traditional Western industrial societies.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 60)

But why voluntary?

It makes an enormous difference whether greater simplicity is voluntarily chosen or involuntarily imposed. For example, consider two people who ride bicycles to work in order to save gasoline. The first person voluntarily chooses to ride a bicycle and derives great satisfaction from the physical exercise, the contact with the outdoors, and the knowledge that he or she is conserving energy. The second person bikes to work because of the force of circumstances —this may be due to the high cost of gasoline or the inability to afford a car. Instead of delighting in the ride, the second individual is filled with resentment with each push of the pedals. This person yearns of an automobile and is indifferent to the social benefit derived from the energy savings.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 73)

In other words, the situation that many of us find ourselves in right now, as a consequence of what has become known as the Great Recession.

On the nature of simplicity itself:

The dictionary defines "simplicity" as being "direct, clear; free of pretense or dishonesty; free of vanity, ostentation, and undue display; free of secondary complications and distractions." In living more simply we encounter life more directly —in a firsthand and immediate manner. We need little when we are directly in touch with life. It is when we remove ourselves from direct and whole-hearted participation in life that emptiness and boredom creep in. It is then that we begin our search for someone or something that will alleviate our gnawing dissatisfaction. Yet the search is endless in that we are continually led away from ourselves and our experience in the moment.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 90)

To live more voluntarily is to live more deliberately, intentionally, and purposefully —in short, it is to live more consciously. We cannot be deliberate when we are distracted. We cannot be intentional when we are not paying attention. We cannot purposeful when we are not being present. Therefore, to act in a voluntary manner is to be aware of ourselves as we move through life. This requires that we pay attention not only to the actions we take in the outer world, but to ourselves acting —our inner world. To the extent that we do not notice both inner and outer aspects of our passage through life, our capacity for voluntary, deliberate, and purposeful action is diminished.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 92-93)

Once a person or family reaches a moderate level of income, here are the factors that research has shown contribute most to happiness:

  • GOOD HEALTH: Physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
  • PERSONAL GROWTH: Opportunities for learning, both inner and outer, and giving creative expression to one's true gifts.
  • STRONG SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS: Close personal relationships with family, friends, and community in the context of a tolerant and democratic society that values freedom.
  • SERVICE TO OTHERS: Feeling that our lives contribute to the well-being of others.
  • CONNECTION WITH NATURE: Communion with the wildness of nature brings perspective, freshness, and gratitude into our lives.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 95)

On simplicity and consumption:

To live sustainably, it is vital that we each decide how much is "enough". Simplicity is a double-edged sword: Living with either too little or too much will diminish our capacity to realize our potentials. Balance occurs when there is neither material excess nor deficit. To find this in our everyday lives requires that we understand the difference between our needs and wants. "Needs" are those things that are essential to our survival and our growth. "Wants" are those things that are extra —that gratify our psychological desires. For example, we need shelter in order to survive; we may want a huge house with many extra rooms that are seldom used. We need basic medical care; we may want cosmetic plastic surgery to disguise the fact that we are getting older. We need functional clothing; we may want frequent changes in clothing style to reflect the latest fashion. We need a nutritious and well-balanced diet; we may want to eat at expensive restaurants. We need transportation; we may want a new Mercedes. Only when we are clear about what we need and what we want can we begin to pare away the excess and find a middle path between extremes. Discovering this balance in everyday life is central to our learning, and no one else can find it for us.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 99-100)

A conscious simplicity, then, is not self-denying but life-affirming. Voluntary simplicity is not an "ascetic simplicity" (of strict austerity); rather, it is an "aesthetic simplicity" where each person considers how his or here level and pattern of consumption can fit with grace and integrity into the practical art of daily living on this planet. Possessions that previously seemed so important and appealing could gradually lose much of their allure. The individual or family admired for a large and luxurious home could find that the mainstream culture increasingly admires those who learn how to combine functional simplicity and beauty in a smaller home. The person who was previously envied for his or her expensive car could find that a growing number of people are uninterested in displays of conspicuous consumption. The person who was previously recognized for always wearing the latest in clothing styles could find that more and more people view high fashion as tasteless ostentation no longer fitting in a world of great human need. All of this does not mean that people would turn away from the material side of life; rather, they would place a premium on living ever more lightly and aesthetically.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 102-103)

However, is this truly happening in any developed society (beyond the compulsory need to reduce consumption due to the crisis, of course)? Is there a clear trend towards a voluntary simplicity that can be considered meaningful at all in a sociological sense? Or are the social pressures to promote a wasteful lifestyle still in place?

The ability to communicate is at the very heart of human life and civilization. If we cannot communicate effectively, civilization itself is threatened. If we apply the principle of simplicity to our communications, they will tend to be more direct, clear, and honest. Here are five areas where simplicity can enhance the quality of communication:

  1. Being honest and authentic.
  2. Choosing valuable conversations.
  3. Valuing the eloquence of silence.
  4. Looking with "soft eyes".
  5. Respecting physical contact.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 103)

List of global adversity trends:

  • Unsustainable population growth.
  • Wide and deep poverty.
  • Profound climate disruption.
  • The end of cheap oil.
  • Global water shortages.
  • Mass extinction of plant and animal species.
  • Unsustainable globasl footprint.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 115-116)

These problems comprise a tightly interdependent and intertwined system of problems that cannot be dealt with on a one-by-one basis. Instead they require a dramatic shift in our overall pattern of thinking and living.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 123)

I do not expect a quick or easy transition through the emerging systems breakdown. Only after people express their anger and sadness over the broken dreams of material prosperity will they turn to the task of building a sustainable economy. Only after people communicate their despair that we may never restore the integrity of the global ecology will we work wholeheartedly for its renewal. Only after people express their unwillingness to make material sacrifices unless their actions are matched fairly by others will a majority of people being to live in a more ecologically sound manner. Only after people have exhausted the hope that the golden era of growth can somehow be revived will we collectively venture forward. We are moving into a traumatic time of social turmoil that will either transform or devastate the very soul of species.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 124)

In the past the idea of a peaceful and mutually supportive global civilization was viewed as a utopian dream. Now, it is a requirement for continuing human evolution. If we do not rise to this challenge, we will surely unleash upon ourselves the most massive wave of suffering ever experienced in human history. Time has run out. The era of creative adaptation is already upon us.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 126)

Looking ahead, I see two radically different pathways for humanity. I will symbolize these two futures simply —as either a crash or a bounce. In a crash, the biosphere is pushed beyond its ability to support the burden of humanity and suffers crippling devastation. The momentum of historical evolution is dispersed as humanity pulls apart in conflict. In a bounce, the same initial conditions prevail but the human community engages in a process of intense communication and reconciliation to build a working consensus around a sustainable pathway into the future. The human family comes together and pulls together during this time of transition, conserving the momentum of historical evolution and building the foundations for a promising future.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 127)

When I was doing research for the first edition of this book in the mid-1970s, key trends such as population, resources, and climate change seemed likely to converge eventually into an intertwined and mutually reinfocring system of trends. At that time, my best estimate was that it would be the decade of the 2020s during which these trends would finally intersect, powerfully amplify one another, and produce an unyielding world crisis —a "supreme test" for humanity. Now, as I write this edition, more than thirty years later, I still think it is likely that in the decade of the 2020s adversing trends will converge into an unyielding systems challenge, producing a decisive tipping point and time of profound choice for humanity.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 132-133)

For the past several hundred years, societies in the Western world have been operating under the assumption of rationalism born of the "Enlightenment Era". Since the late 1700s, scientific belief has been premised on the idea that the universe is a lawful place governed by physical processes. This powerful idea helped free societies from oppressive superstitions such as witchcraft and from authoritarian political systems such as monarchies. It also focused human attention on material things as a source of identity and as a measure of human accomplishment and happiness. With this shift, the Earth came to be regarded as a storehouse of resources for human purposes. Several hundred years later, we are seeing the consequences of this exploitive view in the form of climate change, species extinction, resource depletion, and more. And at the very time the rationalistic paradigm has begun to lose its evolutionary relevance and power, a new, and vastly larger, "integral paradigm" has begun to emerge.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 141)

The biggest challenge facing the human community is not the climate crisis, nor the energy crisis, nor the crisis of species extinction; instead, it is a crisis of consensus around a collective vision for a promising future. The human community does not have a compelling story to guide us in responding to a world in system crisis. Stated differently, we do not yet share in our collective imagination a compelling story of the human journey leading to a sustainable and meaningful future.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 149)

Although television and the Internet are merging into an integrated media system, it is important to recognize the different strengths of each. Broadcast television can, as its name implies, reach broadly —but its messages are often shallow. The Internet can reach deeply, but its messages are often isolated. By joining deep but disconnected conversations over the Internet with broad but shallow conversations over television, we can transform social communication about our collective future. Neither the Internet nor broadcast television substitutes for the other. However, working together, they can create a broad and deep, resilient and powerful capacity for awakening the collective consciousness and conversation of our species, and for building a working consensus for a sustainable and meaningful future.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 155)

The most precious resource of a civilization —the shared consciousness of its citizenry— is literally being prostituted and sold to the highest corporate bidders. Each time we watch commercial television, we are putting our collective values, attitudes, and priorities up for sale. The pervasive commercialization of television, and thus society, represents far more than an offense to "good taste" —it is crippling our capacity to comprehend and respond to mounting world challenges. Commercialization is distorting and undermining the very foundation of civilization —the view of reality and social identity that we hold in common. Television advertising takes exceedingly trivial concerns (such as which deodonrat, shampoo, or denture adhesive to use) and blows them up into issues of seemingly enormous importance for our lives. Concerns that are utterly insignificant relative to the task of making it through this time of profoundly ecological and social transition are given vastly inflated significance and then force-fed into our collective consciousness. To break the cultural hypnosis of consumerism, we must begin by breaking the corporate stranglehold on broadcast television.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 158)

In a world systems crisis, the most sustainable places to live will be towns and small cities that are nested within a larger agricultural area. As the cost of energy becomes increasingly expensive, the least well-adapted places will likely be high-rise cities, which are voracious consumers of energy and generally far from agricultural resources. Also poorly adapted are sprawling suburbs that are far from any significant economic core and food sources. Particularly in the United States, we can see the enormous misallocation of resources represented by urban sprawl, in which more than half of the population lives in suburbia. In the years ahead, we will see waves of migration toward towns and regions more favored for sustainability by weather and local resources.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 164)

In the future, many neighborhoods with single-family dwellings will be configured into unique clusters of small village communities. Modern cohousing communities or ecovillages are showing the way to make this work. To illustrate, my wife Coleen and I lived in a cohousing community in Northern California for a year and a half. The three core organizing principles for the community are simplicity, family, and ecology. With seventy people (fifty adults and twenty children), this was a scale of living that was small enough to create a genuine feeling of community and large enough to use our size to advantage. We lived in a newly constructed community consisting of thirty units in two-story flats and town houses clustered in rows to establish a common green area on the interior and parking on the exterior. The common house is used as a dining area but is regularly transformed into a dance floor, meeting room, or whatever else it needs to be. The common house also includes two guest rooms, an informal lending library, and a playroom for small kids on rainy or cold days.

As a community, we would eat together three evenings each week and often join up for a brunch on weekends. Each person is expected to participate in a three-person cooking crew once a month, preparing food and cleaning up for roughly fifty persons. People are also expected to participate in work crews to perform functions like landscaping, conflict resolution, or kitchen maintenance. Every other week there are meetings to run the workings of the community. Happily, these are run efficiently and expertly, attendance is high, and much is accomplished. This cohousing community also has a half-dozen office and commercial spaces connected with it (a coffee shop, a green consulting business, a copy shop, etc.), so it is both a housing entity and a commercial enterprise.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, pp. 168-169)

Although ecovillages are designed for sustainable living, there is not the time to retrofit and rebuild our existing urban infrastructure around this approach to living before we encounter the world systems crisis. Climate disruption, energy shortages, and other critical trends will overtake us long before we can make a sweeping overhaul in the design and functioning of cities and towns that have been a century or more in the making. We can regard ecovillages as greenhouses of human invention, learn from their experiments, and adapt their designs and principles for successful living.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 171)

We cannot create a new world in the cultural context of old media programming. The old media is selling a culture of consumption. The new media must serve a culture of conservation and sustainability. As we think, so we will become. If we fill our social mind with old media, there is no room to imagine new possibilities. The wonderful thing about media is that it can change in the blink of an eye. For example, if the public wanted it, television broadcasters could open the airwaves to "Earthvisions" created by the youth of the world —appealing for a sustainable pathway for all. This could rapidly bring a new culture and consciousness into our lives and help shift our society in a new direction.

(Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity, p. 179)

Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 6/10