Simplify for a Richer Eco-Friendly Life

Betsy Barnum
Great River Earth Institute

In our complicated, stressed-out modern life of speed, consumer pressure, money worries and jam-packed schedules, the concept of living simply has crossed everyone’s mind. The truth is, it’s an appealing, attainable idea, and could make a real difference in your life.

Voluntary simplicity has become a movement in recent years. Polls and surveys show that up to 15 percent of Americans have opted to reduce their hours at work, their income and/or their levels of consumption. As many as 60 percent say they would rather have more time than more money, or they would find more satisfaction in contributing to their community than in having a bigger house or a new car.

Simplicity is attractive for many reasons. It addresses what people find difficult, unhealthy and unethical about modern American life. This may be why it is becoming increasingly popular. Some people simplify their lives for personal and economic reasons: getting out of debt, reducing stress and reclaiming one’s time. Others turn to simplicity for spiritual reasons, to avoid materialism from distracting from one’s spiritual life. Many other people voluntarily simplify their lives for ecological reasons and move closer to a sustainable way of life that is in harmony with the Earth. Justice and compassion are additional reasons to simplify one’s life. Concern about lack of equity in the distribution of the world’s goods and the human suffering it causes, motivates people who use most of the world’s resources (Americans) to use less.

But what is voluntary simplicity? There are probably as many definitions as there are people practicing it. Most would agree that simple living is both an inner and an outer progression, and whatever your motivation, personal, economic, spiritual, ecological or social justice, your efforts to simplify will have a positive impact. Richard Gregg, a student of Mahatma Gandhi’s teaching, says, “It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter [and] possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life.” Duane Elgin, in his book Voluntary Simplicity, states, “To live more simply is to live more purposefully and with a minimum of needless distraction.” My personal favorite definition is that of Mark Burch, author of Simplicity. He notes, “Simple living [is] a holistic, practical, individual response to many social injustices, ecological threats and economic insecurities.” But perhaps most famous, is Henry David Thoreau’s recommendation to “Simplify, simplify.” In 1854 he wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

There are many books, study materials and web sites about voluntary simplicity that offer many ideas for specific actions people can take to simplify. But there is no single description of what the simple life looks like. People describe it for themselves, based on personal values, family situation, location and other factors.

As you go about your own personal process of simplifying your life, here are some touchstones that can help along the way:

  • Simplicity means questioning consumer values. An advertiser’s goal is to make you feel inadequate without their product. Ask yourself at each purchase whether you need or even really want the item.
  • Simplicity means slowing down. The fast pace of modern life keeps us distracted and focused on the past and future instead of the present. Becoming mindful of where we are and what is around us, the beauty of nature, the delicious taste of the food we are eating, the face of our loved one across the room, brings a fulfillment that things and activities can never bring.
  • Simplicity does not always mean cheap. High quality products will last longer. Cheap prices often indicate sweatshop labor or environmental costs that are not included in the price but will be paid by society later.
  • Simplicity does not mean poverty. It does not mean severe deprivation. It need not mean sacrificing beauty or comfort, as you define them in your life.
  • Simplicity does not always mean time-saving. Cooking from scratch takes longer than microwaving a frozen meal.
  • Avoid excessive packaging. Buying in bulk and cooking real food puts us in touch with the essence of life.
  • Simplicity leads toward community. Although simple living is a personal choice, it is something we cannot do alone. Sharing and common effort make simplifying easier and more fun.

The idea of voluntary simplicity is that we do not need more possessions, money or activities in order to be happy. What we need is fewer material items and more of each other. Less noise. More quiet. Less machinery. More nature. Simplicity allows us to build meaningful relationships with humans, other living beings and the planet.

As the current American lifestyle uses five times our share of the Earth’s resources, it is clear that we must reduce our consumption as a society. With voluntary simplicity, this reduction can be a choice that is joyful, community-building and personally rewarding as it helps create the conditions for a humane, respectful and sustainable Earth-honoring future. Here are some ideas on ways to simplify:

  • Reduce miles driven by 10% every year. Ride a bicycle for local errands and even for commuting.
  • Question each purchase. Do I need this? Do I want it?
  • Share a newspaper subscription with a neighbor, check out the news online, read copies found on the bus or in the office, or listen to Minnesota Public Radio.
  • Read books from the library instead of buying them.
  • Keep one day out of the week free from scheduled activities.
  • Buy used clothing.
  • Daydream.
  • Sit at the table for meals and eat with your family.
  • Reduce clutter.
  • Get creative with leftovers.
  • Air-dry your clothes.
  • Grow some vegetables. Join a community-supported farm.
  • Get to know your neighbors. Do fun things with them.
  • Sleep an hour longer each night.
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Great River Earth Institute

University of Minnesota – Alliance for Sustainability
1521 University Ave SE
Minneapolis, MN 612-331-1099

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