A few years ago I read a book called ‘Voluntary Simplicity’ (1977) by Elgin & Mitchell, which is about people who are living a simpler life, and why they are doing it. What’s the appeal there, hello, it’s the Millennium! NOT to be confused with the back-to-nature movement that entails moving to a rural community, living without electricity, and milking own 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.
I don’t like labels, but sometimes when I am asked I say that I’m a minimalist, and I think that pretty much covers it. Still, the most common question I get is “what is minimalism, anyhow?”, and it’s a fair question.
There are movements in art and music, but what about minimalistic lifestyles?
Let me just preface this by saying that I am not a radical minimalist, and I don’t live off the grid, obviously, 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.
So, minimalism primarily relies on simplicity from materialistic aspects, the non-essentials – which is the first step. However, it further begs the questions: well, what is a necessity, after all?
I ask myself ‘can I do without this?’ and the answer, usually, is: absolutely.
Go ahead, make your list. You’d be surprised what your of your necessities vs. desires are.
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” (Elgin & Mitchell 1977). 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.
Itdoes 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.
This is in contrast with involuntary simplicity or forced minimalism as a consequence of poverty.
Instead, this kind of lifestyle clears the path for ‘creative simplicity’, and freedom from dependence on stuff.
Wouldn’t you agree that spending time on introspection is more beneficial for growth and personal development?
“Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself
If all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying”
Simone de Beauvoir
There is an immense environmental and economic toll from accumulating mass-produced goods – in the extent of production and consumption, as well as a heavy cost to us – measured by the time and effort spent investing into these things and using/consuming them.
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.
But that isn’t going to happen, is it, all the harsh realists reading this are saying. What about social responsibility, what about 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? Are those also unreal expectations?
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? The morning coffee, 2 eggs, the newspaper ink, words, information, its delivery, the water you brush the teeth with, your clothes washed and tumble-dried, the gas for your car, the electricity for your computer, the energy for your heating or air-conditioning, the hundreds of emails you send, the phone you tap all day, your take-out coffee and whoever brewed it and served it, the waste you throw, and the waste you recycle or can’t bother to recycle, the ball you chase across a manicured lawn, the book you flip through while waiting for dinner, the TV you fall asleep to.. – were all created and made available for you by someone, somewhere!
You are a whole mechanism in itself and you require your own 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 mechanism).
No man is an island. And minimalists aren’t either. They are, in fact, dependent on collaboration and on the global village they live in.
Minimalists are, and there are many definitions, people who eat whole, natural unprocessed foods (vegans mostly), their desires are aligned with necessities, 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 strictly by bike or on foot, only occasionally relying on public transport or carpooling, they don’t take long-distance journeys and if they do, the don’t fly (I know, this is where I am very guilty of jacking up my carbon footprint), they are in touch with the nature and aspire to pursue practices that contribute to its conservation..
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 you 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 up;
2) having worked so hard to be able to afford it, they believe you deserve it; and
3) they are not convinced that individual choices will make a difference.
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.
“Without greater simplicity, it seems unlikely that we will be able to cope successfully with the problems engendered, for example, by scarcity. And, unless inner learning expands, it seems unlikely there will develop the degree of internal maturation necessary for the human species to act as wise trustees of conscious evolution on this Earth” (Elgin & Mitchell 1977).
Thankfully, when I encounter such resistance, my minimalism becomes more pronounced, more effectual, and more resolute.