Global trends indicate that a rapidly developing “world storm”—a planetary systems crisis—will push the human family to make deep and lasting changes in our approach to living. We confront many simultaneous challenges: climate disruption; an enormous increase in human populations living in gigantic cities; the depletion of vital resources such as fresh water and cheap oil; the massive and rapid extinction of animal and plant species around the world; growing disparities between the rich and the poor; and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. We are being pushed to wake up and learn to live far more sustainably by making profound changes in our manner of living, consuming, working and relating.
Simplicity is not an alternative lifestyle for a marginal few; it is a choice for the mainstream majority, particularly in developed nations. Even with major technological innovations in energy and transportation, it will be crucial that people embrace simplicity as a foundation for sustainability and change our overall levels and patterns of living and consuming. Fortunately, we can introduce simplicity into our lives in several ways.
A garden of simplicity
For more than 30 years, I’ve explored the simple life, and I’ve found that the most useful and accurate way of describing this approach to living is with the metaphor of a garden. I see seven ways to grow in the “garden of simplicity.”
As with other ecosystems, the diversity of expressions fosters flexibility, adaptability and resilience. Because there are so many pathways into the garden of simplicity, this cultural movement has enormous potential to grow. Consider the seven steps below and how they could help you simplify various aspects of your life.
The multiple meanings of simplicity
Compassionate Simplicity (Humanity)
Simplicity means to feel such a strong sense of kinship with others that we “choose to live simply so that others may simply live.” Compassionate simplicity is a path of cooperation and fairness that seeks a future of mutually assured development for all.
Uncluttered Simplicity (Physical Space and Time)
Simplicity means taking charge of lives that are too busy, too stressed and too fragmented. Cut back on clutter, complexity and trivial distractions, both material and nonmaterial, and focus on the essentials—whatever those may be for your unique life. As Thoreau said, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”
Civic Simplicity (Community)
Simplicity means a new approach to governing ourselves, recognizing that to live more lightly and sustainably will require changes in every area of public life—from transportation and education to the design of our cities, public buildings and workplaces.
Frugal Simplicity (Personal Finances)
By cutting back on spending that is not truly serving our lives and by practicing skillful management of our personal finances, we can achieve greater financial independence. Frugality and careful financial management bring increased financial freedom and the opportunity to more consciously choose our path through life.
Business Simplicity (Commerce)
A new kind of economy is growing in the world in the rapidly growing market for healthy and sustainable products and services of all kinds—from home building materials and energy systems to foods and transportation. When we consider the need for a sustainable infrastructure in developing nations and the need to retrofit and redesign the homes, cities, workplaces and transportation systems of developed nations, it is clear that an enormous wave of green economic activity will unfold.
Soulful Simplicity (Faith)
Simplicity means to approach life as a meditation and to cultivate our intimate connection with all that exists. By living simply, we can more directly awaken to the living universe that surrounds and sustains us, moment by moment. Soulful simplicity is more concerned with consciously tasting life in its unadorned richness than with a particular standard or manner of material living.
Ecological Simplicity (Environment)
Simplicity means choosing ways of living that reduce our ecological impact on the web of life. This path remembers our deep roots with the earth. It encourages us to connect with nature, the seasons and the cosmos and to accept that plants and animals have dignity and rights.
Excerpted with permission from Less is More by Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska (New Society Publishers, fall 2009; ISBN 978-0-86571-650-6).
Three steps to simplicity
What do people involved in the simplicity movement do? They reject the idea that being rich will make them happy. They understand that happiness comes from supportive relationships with other people, from a sense of purpose and enjoyment of life. It comes from creating community and a society whose members recognize “we’re all in this together.”
1. Deliberate and discern. Ask yourself what’s important and what matters—what gives you energy and a sense of joie de vivre. These are the ultimate questions.
2. Reduce spending. Once you know what you want, you’re highly motivated to save your money so that you can get what you want. In fact, reducing consumerism is easy when you’ve discovered your particular passion because you don’t even want to go to the mall. Your life is just too interesting!
3. Analyze the idea of “balance.” Even if you have work you love, too much of it sours. People in the simplicity movement want time for their family, for their community and for personal goals, as well as for work. And so they try to cut back on work hours, shopping, watching television and keeping up appearances.
Simplicity is not sacrifice
Simplicity that’s consciously chosen, deliberate and intentional supports a higher quality of life. In reality, it’s consumerism that offers lives of sacrifice, where simplicity offers lives of opportunity.
• Fosters a more harmonious relationship with the earth.
• Promotes fairness and equity among the people of the earth.
• Enhances living with balance—inner and outer, work and family, family and community.
• Reveals the beauty and intelligence of nature’s designs.
• Increases the resources available for future generations.
• Helps save animal and plant species from extinction.
• Responds to global shortages of oil, water and other vital resources.
• Keeps our eyes on the prize of what matters most in our lives—the quality of our relationships with family, friends, community, nature and the cosmos.
• Yields lasting satisfactions that more than compensate for the fleeting pleasures of consumerism.
• Fosters self-discovery and an integrated approach to life.
• Blossoms in community and connects us to the world with a sense of belonging and common purpose.
• Is a lighter lifestyle that fits elegantly into the real world of the 21st century.
• Is a consumer lifestyle that is overstressed, overbusy and overworked.
• Is long hours doing work that is neither meaningful nor satisfying.
• Is being apart from family and community to earn a living.
• Is the stress of commuting long distances and coping with traffic.
• Is the white noise of civilization blotting out the subtle sounds of nature.
• Hides nature’s beauty behind a jumble of billboard advertisements.
• Is smelling the city and not the scent of the earth.
• Is carrying more than 200 toxic chemicals in our bodies with consequences that will cascade for generations ahead.
• Is the massive extinction of plants and animals and a dramatically impoverished biosphere.
• Is global climate disruption, crop failure, famine and forced migration.
• Is the absence of feelings of neighborliness and community.
• Is feeling divided among the parts of our lives and unsure how they work together in a coherent whole.
• Is the lost opportunity for soulful encounter with others.
Duane Elgin, the author of Voluntary Simplicity, The Living Universe, Promise Ahead, and Awakening Earth, is an internationally recognized visionary, speaker and author. For more information visit his website, Awakening Earth