Back to basics

Biking with your dog

Courtesy Charlotte Jessen


By Jack Flatley

The thinking behind voluntary simplicity, or simple living, as it has sometimes been called, goes back thousands of years. The basic notion of living a simpler, yet paradoxically fuller, life, weaves through history, in the lives and teachings of the Epicureans, Francis of Assisi, and the Zen Buddhists, among others. In America, various religious sects practiced some form of “off the grid” living, including the Shakers, and today the Mennonite and Amish communities continue that tradition. The classic secular spokesman for the movement, of course, is Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden remains a classic of both literature and earth-friendly philosophy.

The recent revival of interest in the modern movement results from the steady acceleration in consumption and consumerism. The vitality of capitalism, linked with the increasingly sophisticated strategies of the advertising industry, has succeeded in creating a consumer culture in which people derive their sense of self-worth from the things they own. This has created a society of compliant consumers who believe that they never have quite enough, for there is always something newer, bigger, better (or in the case of personal electronics, smaller), to acquire.  During the second half of the century television greatly aided this process, both through its ubiquitous commercials touting the products necessary to live “the good life,” and the even more persuasive presentation of that life on its shows. The strategy succeeded so well that the American economy now depends largely on people purchasing and replacing goods that are often still functional, and, in many cases, were never necessary in the first place.

Dissatisfaction with the inherent futility, frustration, and lack of meaning of this materialistic way of life has led to a revival of the voluntary simplicity movement. The term “movement” is a little misleading, since many different individuals and groups have embraced aspects of voluntary simplicity, including various Green parties, vegans, and an array of conservation organizations, and those concerned with sustainable practices in agriculture, energy production and so on. For some, the reasons for choosing a life of voluntary simplicity are purely personal—to get out of the rat race and rediscover more meaningful values. For others, it is a way to offset the devastating impact that consumerism is having on the larger environment.

While it may seem like a daunting task at first, it actually doesn’t require much effort to begin to embrace simplicity, and the benefits tend to be immediate. In addition to the almost inevitable economic savings, there can be a satisfying upsurge in self-confidence, integrity, and authenticity that comes from declaring one’s independence from at least some aspects of the prevailing culture.

Voluntary simplicity is an elegant notion, meaning to live, as much as possible, without consuming excessive resources, and in a way that doesn’t harm the planet.  Every aspect of one's life can be examined through this prism—finances, housing, transportation, entertainment, clothing, food choices, education, career choices—ultimately, how we choose to spend our allotted time on the earth.  We can choose a frugal path, and perhaps with that choice, forgo the need for a time-consuming, highly demanding, pressure-filled job. We can become serious gardeners, growing and canning as much as possible of our own food.  We can pull back from car culture by sharing rides, using public transit, and organizing our lives to minimize our miles traveled. We can reuse and repair things rather than replacing them with the latest models. We can rise above fashion by mending, sewing, and making things last. 

Perhaps most significantly on a personal level, we can re-learn old-time family activities such as playing cards, games and—amazing thought—musical instruments. We can sing together, as all families used to do, restoring the notion of a home entertainment center that isn’t an electronic device that lulls us into passivity. We can rediscover the value in relationships, spiritual growth, and the cultivation of the mind over the accumulation of more and better material possessions.

The list is unending. By making decisions, large and small, we can transform our lives. We can live simply, sanely, contentedly, and well, while taking charge of our lives and living lightly on the planet.

For a list of excellent resource materials on the history and practice of voluntary simplicity, visit The Simple Living Network online at

Jack Flatley is a long-time Sierra Club leader and currently serves as vice-chair of the Governor Pinchot Group.

Published August 2008