One area of discussion is that of the need for, and the nature
of, a simplification process which would open the door to a fairer
distribution of the world's available resources. My own ideas have
changed from that of merely vowing to try to live simply, to placing it
in the context of personal lifestyle, to hoping to demonstrate to
others the need for simplification, and to discover effective ways of
effecting change. While in theory the freedom to choose to live simply
is present, the practical ability to spread the word and to persuade
others of its necessity has many hindrances. Let us look at --
* the need for simplification of life;
* the temptation to view catastrophe as a desired change agent;
* the limited testimony of voluntary simplicity;
* the possibility of revolutionary change; and
* the call for greater simplicity through regulations
The year is 1822, United States of America, a simpler time during the final term of a Democratic/Republican administration in the recently painted White House occupied by a southerner. It is an expansive period immediately after the Second War of Independence, with the burning of forests throughout the southeast for agriculture, the largest export to the Orient being ginseng, and rapid textile and heavy industrialization occurring at the river falls of New England and other parts of the east coast.
Philip Kunhardt, Jr. and associates writes in The American
Presidents about Monroe "the last leader to spring from the revolution
and the first to make politics his life work. He is know for the
Monroe Doctrine ... the American continents are henceforth not to be
considered as subjects for future colonization by any European Powers,
a document that Monroe's friend Thomas Jefferson heralded as the most
momentous pronouncement which has been offered since that of
Independence. Monroe longs to return to his estate, since his second
term is not a happy one. William Cranford, the secretary of the
treasury raises his cane at the president and calls him a scoundrel.
Seizing the tongs from the nearby fireplace, Monroe orders him out of
the White House. Revolutionary War simplicity is already under strain.
Monroe's wife Elizabeth is the first Lady activist, who once helped
free Lafayette's imprisoned wife, about to be guillotined.
The year is 2006, and we have George W. Bush. This year finds --
* an ocean of consumer goods;
* massive advertisement plastered on vehicles and urinals
and school soft drink concessions;
* the unbridled power of large corporations which regard
themselves as persons with all rights and few duties;
* a growing desire to equal the material extravagance of
* a massive four trillion dollar individual
* globalization and environmental degradation; and
* a false sense of patriotism which extols
material consumption as an economic good.
a) Reasons for Simplification
These new trends lead us to pause as much as it caused Lafayette or
Dickens or Emerson to pause one hundred and eighty years ago. Today
we all believe in our heart of hearts that the simple unhurried life of
the 1820s -- ill health, northern factory work conditions, southern
slavery -- is not worth revisiting.
Today, people of all stripes seek more. They generally recognize
the need for good health and nutrition. However, they are also
realizing that striving to gain all possible comforts takes a heavy
toll on one's mental life. A recent issue of Utne Reader has an article on
how much depression is affecting the affluent of our country and world,
especially the younger generation. This occurs even in this time of
immense prosperity and relative peace. An uneasiness comes upon those
with plenty for there is the gnawing feeling that bounty needs to be
shared -- and that it is unpleasant to have the destitute around to
prick our conscience.
The 1820's had their debates on slave trade and the peculiar
institution. Currently we are concerned about global trade, distrust
and breakdown of communal relationships, poor working conditions, AIDS,
and crushing national and personal economic debts. We need to reduce
waste of resources, expect a higher quality of life coming from living
more simply, and share, not hoard, material things -- all good reasons
for simplification of lifestyle.
Furthermore, the trickle-down theory -- that if wealth is created
it will automatically go in some amounts to all -- is wishful and even
dangerous thinking. It does not fit emerging facts or current economic
conditions whether in this country or the world. We hear there were 66
billionaires in 1989 and now 268, and during that decade 31.5 million
Americans living below the poverty level which has now climbed to 34.5
million. Today, the top one percent of American households
have more assets than the entire bottom 95% combined. In the world the
top three billionaires have more money than the entire least developed
portion of the world (600 million people). The growing gap between
rich and poor becomes all the more critical when we realize that mass
communications allows even the destitute to hear about and observe that
conditions are better elsewhere. They know that concentration of
wealth is also concentration of power, and that fragile democracy can
easily become an empty term when big money is involved. How can even
small nations stand up to multi-nationals?
The Question is -- Can we continue in a world two-thirds enslaved
by poverty and indebtedness and one third in affluence? Besides
political health there is growing evidence by epidemiologists around
the world that the greatest danger to public health is inequality of
resources - children going without the simplest vaccinations because
public health programs are curtailed to pay debt service. This growing
inequality also affects our spiritual health and well-being as well,
making people insensitive to the genuine needs of others and more ready
to distance themselves from conditions requiring responsible action.
What about the high price of necessary oil for irrigation pumps when
those with Sport Utility Vehicles may consume as much as their
pocketbooks and their own addictions allow -- a famine in which only
the wealthy can afford the price. One can make an effective case that
actual available resources are limited just as food is limited during
a famine -- and some do not have the means to obtain their fair share.
Abraham Lincoln struggled with his earlier held position that this
could be a nation half-slave and half-free, tolerating the former as
long as the latter could thrive -- and not wanting to extend slavery to
the new territories, e.g., Kansas and Nebraska. In the middle of that
terrible Civil War in the gloom of 1862 he would retreat late at night
into the telegraph office in the Executive Office Building and there
write and rewrite the Emancipation Proclamation. Then he delivered it
first to his Cabinet and then the nation after the Battle of Antietam.
Are we arriving at the same but more universal conclusion through
similar struggles of human suffering and mental anguish that we cannot
continue in a world which is two-thirds hopelessly in debt and one-
third with concentrated and over-bearing affluence?
b) A Catastrophe Model is Simply Unacceptable
The temptation exists even with some learned persons that the
only solution is an unspecified Catastrophe -- a meteor strike,
economic depression, worldwide epidemic, famine, earthquake, or war --
as long as these occur elsewhere. When this daydream ends we realize
that disasters do not work magic -- The Black Death brought out the
worst in some people in their turning toward isolation and failure to
help others; disasters always affect the poorest first and most;
disasters move beyond predictable boundaries; they do not rectify
things; they should never be called Acts of God. Disasters may happen
but this does not excuse us from acting politically in a socially just
manner. The Y2K banter proved over-drawn and turned
some of us away, at least temporarily, from catastrophes.
c) Voluntary Simplicity Model is Restricted
A second route towards simplification which differs considerably
from awaiting disasters is that of voluntary simplicity and has many
* it champions good healthy food in moderate amounts as well as
lower impact on the environment for use of less resources and less time
consuming practices of upkeep of complex technologies;
* it builds on the solid achievements of the past without
ignoring or belittling them;
* it is basically conservationist in nature and leads to reduced
use of available non-renewable and renewable resources;
* it professes the power of demonstration as a way to show others
what to do and affirms our solidarity with others in the world who try
to get by through an involuntary simple life of poverty;
* it respects the practices of others without directly curbing
* and it affirms the translation of individual proper action
into a grassroots groundswell that is expected to carry the day.
Granted we have witnessed partial success. We see small groups
living simply in various places and communities, namely community land
trusts, eco-villages, religious communities. We read materials which
are long on technique ranging from organic gardening to building solar
greenhouses. I was one of the early proponents of this movement as
lead author of a book entitled 99 Ways to a Simple Lifestyle by
Anchor/Doubleday. The statements in the Simple Lifestyle Calendar which we have produced for 24 years and our 60 issues of the ASPI Technical Paper series, along with many talks and conferences given on conservation would make one conclude that we are committed to voluntary simplicity.
I must share with you emerging doubts -- not about the validity of
the message, but the ability to remove ourselves from the margins that
seemingly triumphant high technologists have relegated us. And the
mass media reinforces this by making the quest for affluence the norm.
Voluntary simplicity is not popular and can be easily
misinterpreted. For individuals the practice has meant much and they
have been able to live healthy, productive lives, and find much
satisfaction with use of renewable energy, organic foods and clean
domestic environments. However, all is not roses. Offspring sometimes
want junk food and designer clothes; quality public education is
lacking; HMOs bring forth insurance officials deciding medical
treatments and those in the non-money economy go without health
We have schools which do not teach; medical programs that do not
reach; and churches which do not preach; except the materialism of ever
bigger sports arenas and air conditioned interiors. Our individual
voluntary practices may be tolerated, but it is becoming difficult to
express their health, environmental and social justice values in such
a powerful and covertly oppressive culture, with its rich media and
Choosing simplicity is one thing -- but try biking on a highway
built for the auto, try to get low-cost solar energy when all
governmental subsidies go to the non-renewable ones, or try to discuss
simplicity in a world filled with higher and ever higher technological
innovations with their instantly rich dot com folks. We are
theoretically able, but, practically speaking, we are drowned out.
The SIMPLICITY model is powerful as demonstration: our center's one
twentieth of an acre raised-bed garden, planted on what was a black-
topped parking lot, produces over a half-ton of produce each year and
is well-observed by neighbors. However, such demonstrations take time
to maintain, have limited reach, and are generally not press-worthy.
Voluntary Simplicity is certainly not dead, but it isn't a
popular issue either. We must not abandon our goals and the beauty of
cordwood buildings, dry composting toilets and solar cars. However, we
are now becoming more concerned here about practical implementation and
spreading the word -- advocating for a national and world program of
d) A Revolutionary Model is Hard to Control
Another alternative is for violent change through revolution. In
an ideal world it would be far better that the poor would not attempt
to invade gated communities and take from the wealthy what is
rightfully the poor's, but that the wealthy enter knowingly and, to
some degree, willingly in a grand redistribution. What is at issue is
the powerlessness and disunity of the poor and the gross addictive
behavior of the wealthy who spread their condition to others as well.
Grievances. Democracy was threatened in the last part of the
18th century by the Alien and Sedition Act and the suppression of
dissent during the John Adams Administration. It is just as threatened
today in more liberal times but in far more subtle ways. The power of
corporations is so vast that it overwhelms us. This power has usurped
its so-called right as a person; it has spread its attack to the far
reaches of its realm -- the world; it has trampled on the rights of
small farmers and tradespeople. Our list of grievances is surprising
similar to, but far more far-reaching, than in 1775. However,
affluence has taken its toll on us. We lack --
a shared sense of moral outrage,
a willingness to unite for the good of all, and
a risk of putting ourselves on the line.
The shame is that our lack of simplicity
* has dulled our senses,
* has turned our attention to manage and upkeep our
expensive gadgets, and
* has diverted simplicity from being a tool for change
to becoming a refined time-consuming technique always in need
of further fine-tuning.
The shame is that environmental groups are often at odds over what
constitutes a victory or the need for further work. A prime example is
the recent Kick-66 campaign over a billion dollar 30-mile stretch of
unneeded highway in south central Kentucky.
The shame is that all people do not share the prosperity of the
few who make their billions and retain their six or seven-digit
salaried CEOs -- the latter day King Georges.
The shame is that people do not burn with indignation over what is
happening to the "little ones" around us, and that includes the
threatened plants and animals as well as impoverished people.
The shame is we do not share the spirit of the founders of this
Any revolutionary movement would have to consider simplicity not
as an end, but as a means to a better life.
It would have to use volunteer services for staffing, the
Worldwide Web for communications, and modern training and organizing
techniques for making the movement function better.
It would have to be grassroots-based and thus decentralized in
Its vision could not possibly be totally decentralized, or how
could a new world order control pollution on the oceans or on
A totally decentralized economy espoused by some voluntary
simplicity people is as unrealistic as a totally globalized one which
would become the ultimate triumph of Big Brother. Revolutionaries know
that simple appropriate technology has value and that the Internet can
-- within limits -- be part of it.
Was the "I Love You" virus a latter day Boston
Tea Party? Was it a wake up call that says OVER-COMPLEXITY IS
EXTREMELY VULNERABLE? And has this message been heard in Silicon
Valley, the United Nations, and the halls of Congress? Throwing a
monkey wrench at a pony express may hurt a horse or rider; placing it
in the Internet system could paralyze the modern world.
Spouting "revolutionary jargon" will not ensure success.
Revolutions -- American, French, Russian -- involved disorder and
violence. And just the possibility is not going to be a popular
alternative to our comfort-laden and consumer-addicted people.
The threat of Internet viruses of a more widespread and serious
nature is here, but it does not guarantee a better life. In fact, it
may make people call for more repressive regimes and governmental
practices in order to preserve the status quo, which some find quite
comfortable. It brings us to a moment of decision-making --
must we simplify in order to share?
or must we continue as a world of haves and have-nots?
e) Regulatory Redistribution is an Answer
A sustainable decentralized system operating in a world with some
functioning global communications requires the full assent of all the
people. Over-affluence is simply not sustainable, for it is divisive
and encourages dissent by those who regard their only voice to be
violent action. On the other hand, an aroused citizenry can do things
and do them now.
Certain trends such as a standing United Nations police force as
proposed this month by the Belgium Prime Minister would start small and
move rapidly to greater demands of resources, which would call more
heavily on the wealthier nations. The same could be said for a
regulated debt forgiveness program, or for making solar energy
incentives available at least at 1979 levels. In fact, a surer course
of simplification is possible through legislation and reapportionment
of funding for the benefit of more people and the Earth.
Simplicity coupled with a political will would allow us to focus
so that we can --
* refrain from giving tax breaks to the wealthy;
* raise the minimum to a living wage;
* require imported goods from escape industries to meet minimum
environmental, safety, and occupational health standards;
* shunt national military expenditures to world peace projects
such as low-cost decent housing and immunization programs for all
* give as much attention to bike networks as to Superhighways;
* and direct solar and other renewable energy to replace the non-
renewable energy system that is both tottering and polluting.
But these and other measures require legislation and regulations.
We need an old and new vision. In 1822 we had a nation that was
half-slave and half-free. Today, we have an indebted world
which is two-thirds technically enslaved and one-third free. And any
amount of slavery reduces the freedom of the remainder. As promoters
of democracy we know that the lowly must be raised up to levels of
human dignity; but those in high places through clever coverups and
legalisms are consuming most of the world's resources and thereby
denying limited amounts to the destitute. The global challenge is
greater than the challenge facing our nation in 1822. All must be free
-- and that goes beyond national boundaries.
How do we bring up those in low places? Through an awaited
natural disaster, by voluntarily giving up affluence, or a modern day
slave revolt? The first is full of despair, the second is tolerated
but little more, and the third is out of the question right now. What
have we left? Must we impose certain forms of coercion so that those
in high places are brought to lower more healthy and ecologically
viable lifestyles? A Simple life in the new era must be a necessity
and goal for a higher quality of life of our American people and for
the world. And it must be available for the many, not the few. Over-
affluence is anti-democratic and should not be tolerated in a fragile
democracy and can be curbed through governmental regulation.
Recall the issues facing the Republican House founders. Today we
are cowed by materialism and excess consumption. We are marginalized
by a media which does not regard simpler ways as worthy of
Our modern prophetic message is becoming clear -- we cannot have a
better world, a sound environment, or a genuine peace unless we --
* reduce world indebtedness and begin the process of
redistributing the wealth of the world;
* move toward a global renewable energy transition within a
decade, (as recent authors in Nature say in the context of global
warming) "with the urgency of the Manhattan Project;"
* set up alternative networks of safe travel for
pedestrians and bikers as the new greenway from Maine to Florida;
* address our health concerns for all people both on a national
and a global level -- and that includes affordable prescription drugs;
* make a distinction between the paper wealth of money and Wall
Street and the real wealth of human and environmental quality;
* and address all aspects of globalization issues so that no one
gets left out.
In conclusion, simple living is both a worthwhile goal and is the means for us to make a profound change of heart and to become authentic and credible political activists. True as the candidates say "In God we Trust." But we need also go farther than mouthing mottos. We must show we have that trust in the Creator by translating words into deeds of justice for our state, nation and world. It is not enough for the wealthy to give up power, or for the destitute to seize power. The challenge is to bring about a mutual letting go and taking on responsibility through democratic processes. The tough question is whether this can and will occur in this new era.