Elephants: Involuntary Simplicity

Sharon December 4th, 2008

Note: This is a draft of a piece written for a forthcoming collection of essays on Voluntary Simplicity and its role in thinking about Peak Oil, Climate Change and the Economic Crisis.  I welcome comments, critiques and suggestions for this piece.  BTW, in the interest of fairness,  if you want to read a cogent critique of my Informal Economy analysis, you should check out Crunchy Chicken’s latest _Depletion and Abundance_ book discussion club post - she takes me to task for overemphasizing the value of the informal economy.  I found her critique useful as I try to make the idea of the role of the informal economy clearer.   

Although I admire the Voluntary Simplicity movement, when I was asked to write about simplicity and the economy, I was at first stumped.  I can certainly see the grace and benefits of living a simpler life.  We already grow much of our food, buy most of our consumer goods used, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” try and keep our energy use down to below 1/5 of the average American’s, and depend heavily on community, barter and sharing.  At first glance, although we’re Jewish, not ”Plain” our life evokes a simpler past with the wood cookstove that heats our house, the jars of home canned food, the milk goats and our carefully managed budget. 

When I think about Voluntary Simplicity, I tend to think about the end  – imagining, if I could only get there, that my life would have the clarity, beauty and elegance of a a sculpture – nothing extraneous, only the essence of the thing.  I want this, although it seems hard to achieve.  My own sense of the voluntary simplicity movement is that it works kind of like sculpture – one pares away everything that isn’t needed, until one find’s the essence of one’s life.  It reminds me of the old sculpture joke, that one starts with a block of stone, and “cuts away anything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”  At times, the idea of the elephant, the life lived gracefully has haunted me.

And yet, for me, the simple life has arisen from a conviction that we face a kind of “involuntary” simplicity, a shift to a life with less from necessity.  It isn’t that I’m not taken by the aesthetic beauty of the transformation – how could I not be, as the snow falls upon my woodpile and as I come in, dusted with white stuff,  carrying the milk from the barn, with the memory of my goat’s warm bodies and the gentle sounds of chickens settling in for the night.  But along with an appreciation of the pleasures and clarity of a life with less, there is also the convictions that many of us, including me, will have no choice but to live simply, and that we are more likely to live well and beautifully if we practice now.  I think there has been a tendency in the Voluntary Simplicity movement to see simplicity as primarily a chosen path, one which all compromises are voluntary, and the art of living is the primary mover.  How then, might simplicity change when it is thrust upon many of us?

Why do I think that it will be?  Why do I believe that hundreds of thousands of Americans and Europeans are facing a radical drop in standard of living, and an urgent need to live simply, make do and do subsistance work that helps them live that way?  Well, as someone once pointed out, ”its the economy, stupid.”  Oh, and peak oil and climate change.  But for now, let’s stick to the eocnomy.   

As I write this, the official unemployment numbers are rising quite rapidly, to 6.5%, with the broadest estimates including the underemployed at 11.8%.  But more importantly, those numbers don’t tell the whole story of US unemployment.  Because US unemployment numbers are routinely understated – they do not include most of the underemployed or workers who have been unemployed more than 1 year, some analysts place the numbers as high as 16%.  By the end of 2009, many economists are predicting unemployment rates of 9% using the lowest estimates – and since time to finding new work has also extended, we can anticipate than many of the currently unemployed will have fallen off the radar screen, used up their unempoyment benefits, and no longer be counted.  Full national unemployment will probably be debatable, but may be as high as 20% when all workers are counted. At minimum, more than 3.6 million additional jobs will probably be lost.

It is possible that unemployment benefits may be extended – this occurred during the 2001 recession, for example.  But if that comes, in the US, it will have to come from the federal government, not the states, which are already nearing a crisis in their unemployment funds.  California, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Michigan and Rhode Island are among the early canaries in that coal mine, with unemployment funds already near empty,  but other states will also struggle. Two-thirds of American states are already experiencing budget crises as I write this, at the end of 2008.  And since the government has already committed 7.7 Trillion dollars, mostly to financial institutions, there are real questions about what they will be able to fund, and to what extent. 

Unemployment is uniquely disheartening and destructive to people’s sense of self.  And families dealing with extended unemployment will have an urgent need to reduce their economic needs, and also find supplemental income, often unreported income that won’t impact their unemployment or their eligibility for social support programs.  Perhaps even more importantly, they are going to need meaningful work, or risk depression, despair, the destruction of families and households.  John Maynard Keynes argued that having work, any work was so important to morale and thus to the hope of the economy that people should be set to work burying money in the ground, while others are paid to dig it up.  For those who are unemployed, finding some kind of way of contributing to their family’s well being is going to be essential.

But unemployment isn’t the end of the story.  Wages are also likely to fall in the current economic crisis. To give a sense of what is possible, in the Great Depression, according to historical documents collected in David Shannon’s _The Great Depression_ both salaries and hourly rates fell quite dramatically.  For example, in the state of Ohio, fully employed wage earners (that is, this doesn’t average in the losses of the unemployed) saw their annual salaries fall from an average of $1499 in 1929 to $960 in 1932, a huge decline.  Unemployment on a large scale begets lower wages, as employers can pick and choose, and employees will increasingly take any work.

Meanwhile, many US employers will respond, as they have in the past, by reducing hours for employees, shifting more and more of their employees to part-time work without benefits, to save money.  Electronics retailer Circuit City was an early example of this, but we are seeing more and will continue to do so.  For now part time employees, there is likely to be a strong need to remain healthy (ie, to shift their lifestyle so that they don’t make use of medical care if it is avoidable) and also to reduce expenses and find supplemental income.

For many older baby boomers, the loss of a job and a period of extended unemployment may push them out of the workforce altogether.  Unemployment at 60 is different than unemployment at 35.  Right now, stock market losses are discouraging retirement – but the comparative certainty of Social Security and Medicare may soon look better than a long job hunt with minimal prospects of success, creating a new class of older adults living on a comparative pittance, with a strong need to reduce costs and perhaps make some extra money  under the table.

Because many US two earner households, particularly those with children, find that a second income is often eaten up by increased expenses associated with working – the second car, the daycare costs, the meals out because there’s little time to cook – a decline in wages, particularly accompanied by a dramatic cutback in available credit (at this time credit card companies are planning to pull back 2 trillion dollars in personal credit lines to consumers and small businesses – at a time when credit card use is increasingly necessary for strapped consumers), may actually push workers out of the workforce, as the marginal value of their work declines. 

While the cost of living will almost certainly decline along with wages, it probably will not do so proportionally – for example, the price of gasoline has declined dramatically since the summer highs – but not to nearly the price levels of the last time oil was at $48 barrel.  Utility price raises implemented earlier in the year remain in place, and food prices have not come down dramatically, despite lower ability of consumers to pay.  So the marginal cost of going out to work may well narrow, discouraging people, especially women providing second incomes, from working.

What will all these households do to survive?  Most of us rely heavily on what economist call “the formal economy” – that is, the wages and benefits paid by employers.  And yet these are going to decline or disappear.  The second largest source of consumer liquidity is credit cards, and credit lines are disappearing as well.  What happens when the formal economy stops supporting 10, 15 or even 20% of all of us?  Do we starve to death?

Well, if evidence from other countries that have experienced economic collapses, and from the Great Depression itself is any measure, the answer is, for the most part, we don’t.  Government social programs may well pick up more of the slack.  So will charities, although most will suffer from decreased giving and increased need.  But the other thing that we rely on is the informal economy.

What’s that?  Well, worldwide, according to Teodor Shanin, the founder of “Peasant Economics” the world of GDP statements and taxable labor only produces about 25% of all economic activity.  The other 75% is the territory of the “informal economy.”  What is that economy made up of?  Well, it includes everything from off the books labor (illegal alien employees, your habit of driving your cousin’s taxi off books, the babysitting your sister takes cash for, your daughter’s babysitting wages), to volunteer work (enormously economically valuable – I’m betting your city or state has quite a few major tourist-drawing institutions like museums, parks, annual events and symphonies that depend heavily on volunteer labor but bring in income), to love-labor (Grandma watches the kids for free while the parents work, you don’t put Grandpa in the nursing home, you take care of him at home) to the criminal economy (15%+ of the world’s total GDP comes from criminal activity, believe it or not, and drug dealers and bribed politicians shop at Walmart and McDonalds too – that is, that money makes it into people’s pockets), to subsistence labor (the food you grow and preserve yourself, the clothes you fix instead of replacing, etc…), from barter,  to what was once “women’s work” (now often shared between the genders – the household labor you do yourselves instead of paying for).

Three full quarters of the world’s economic activity is informal economy labor.  There’s more of it in the poor world, and less of it here, more of some kinds in the country (more seasonal, off the books work and subsistence work) and more of other kinds in the city (prostitution, illegal immigrant labor).  And in hard times, there’s more of it than there are in good ones.  In fact, in hard times, the informal economy is the last and most important safety net.

Peasant economics emerged in part out of studies of Africa and the collapsed Soviet Union – economic models claimed that Russians, for example, should have been starving, but they mostly weren’t.  Instead, the informal economy grew up to replace the formal one – people grew food in gardens, and small farmers actually did better than they had when imported goods undercut their prices.  People dismantled their abandoned workplaces, and sold the metals, sold goods on the street, and brought unavailable imports over the border.

But we don’t have to go to Russia, with all the baggage that implies, to see the role of the informal economy.  After all, what are the iconic images of the last Great Depression, except stockbrokers selling apples on the street?  During the Great Depression, the informal economy expanded enormously.  For example, the New York Times in 1932 reported that the number of shoeshine “boys” (most were adult men) rose from 423 in 1928 to 7,000 in 1932.  Hawkers of non-food goods rose dramatically – on 14th St, between Sixth Ave. and Union Square, 38 street sellers were counted, where two years before there were two.  The number of truck farmers from New Jersey and Long Island coming into the city to sell the vegetables they grew rose by more than 400%.  Tens of thousands of “Okies” ended up picking fruit or doing farmwork under the table when the dustbowl cost them their own farms.  One study of African-Americans in and around Baltimore found that more than 20% of households relied on gardens, backyard chickens or other “farm” activities in the city” to feed themselves.  A WPA study of rural women in Tennessee found that 74% of households relied on money made by women outside the formal economy – by taking in laundry, sewing, selling sandwiches or home cooked food, caring for other people’s children. In 14% of the cases, the women were single parents or sole earners living entirely outside the formal economy.

That is, the informal economy, which includes many of the traditional activities of a simpler life – having less stuff, consuming less, making your own, cooking from scratch, growing a garden, bartering with neighbors, relying no community, taking care of your own, being self-sufficient – is likely to experience a rapid influx of people who now depend on this segment of the economy.  As the formal economy shrinks, the informal economy becomes more central to people’s lives. 

There is a tendency to understate and devalue informal economy work, particularly the portion of it that has typically been the work of women, or laborers - and thus,  to underpay it.  I remember being a teenager and being astonished to find that many of the people who employed me as a babysitter a substantially higher hourly wage to the landscaping employee who mowed their lawn than they did to the person they left their children with.  We are told that our work in the informal economy is too physically demanding (growing food) or too mind-numbing (caring for children or the elderly), and that we won’t enjoy it.  Never mind that much of the work we do is physically onerous (working in nursing homes did much more damage to my back than gardening ever has, and sitting still in front of a desk can be as physically painful and disabling as any outdoor labor), mind-numbing (do I really have to provide a list of jobs that aren’t particularly stimulating?) and unenjoyable.

But because we devalue the informal economy and its work, we are blind to the power it has.  It isn’t a magic bullet, and our lives of involuntary simplicity will probably be complex and difficult at times.  Sometimes they will have that measure of grace and beauty we associate with simplicity.  Sometimes we will look and find that we are happy despite what we don’t have, despite the hardships.  But no one can be happy if they live in fear, in hunger, in cold -  ensuring that when the  formal economy falters,  when the promises it made to us are left unfulfilled, there still is the informal economy to enable us takes some work, work we should start now. 

What work?  Well, if we plan to rely on meeting the needs of our neighbors informally, perhaps we’d better meet them now, and learn what they need.  If we plan to rely on our adult children to help us survive the loss of our retirement funds, perhaps we’d better live more closely now.  If we plan to live the simple life, perhaps we’d better get some practice at simplicity – try and pick up the skills of mending and fixing, making do and stretching menus.  If we’re going to live in the informal economy, perhaps we need to first locate the ways that economy exists in our area, and the community structures that enable and surround it. 

Getting to the simple moments in my life hasn’t always been easy.  Coming from the barn, warmed by animal bodies and smelling of hay and life with fresh eggs and a container of milk, into a kitchen warmed by wood and full of the smell of roasting homegrown root vegetables,  comes in part from many small scrimpings and struggles, many of them made possible by a life lived partly in the informal economy.  The good price on hay to feed the goats came from a barter arrangement we made with a nearby farmer.  The barn was rebuilt with the money we saved by cramming all six of us into a single compact car, and by not driving that very much.  The garden was the product of time – time in which I might have been earning money but wasn’t – time bought by the value of the food I grew.  It adds up to a measure of security, a kind of certainty that I find rich and valuable in this uncertain time. 

Choosing the artful life has merit.  But it is worth noting that most lives are a combination of choice and necessity.  What if there is another way of sculpting an elephant – what if we cannot start with the pure vision of the elephant in the stone, and then choose what to remove.  What if bits and pieces of the stone are being worn or cut away without our intention?

In that case, we have a stark choice.  We can attempt to hold on equally to everything, to each piece of stone.  But what if we can’t?  Then the question becomes what we end up with, when our losses are complete.  Do we have an elephant, perhaps a smaller and less perfect elephant than we’d dreamed of?  Or do we have a pile of rubble? 

The role of voluntary simplicity is helping us understand what we can let go, that we can let go of more than we thought we could.  Its role is finding the elephant in our losses – that is, leaving us with a life with less we can live with.  We know what this means – the kind of life where we can say “we were poor, but we were happy” or “we were poor, but there was always food on the table and plenty of love and friendship.”  The difference between that and the kind of poverty that leaves us in the rubble of our lives, without anything to cling to is vast.  In order to achieve a kind of functional poverty that we can live with, we have to know what we can really live with – and without.  In return, we get an elephant.

56 Responses to “Elephants: Involuntary Simplicity”

  1. Texicali says:

    Looks good, but I think you left a word out:

    I remember being a teenager and being astonished to find that many of the people who employed me as a babysitter {paid?}a substantially higher hourly wage to the landscaping employee who mowed their lawn than they did to the person they left their children with.

  2. Susan in NJ says:

    Sharon, I admire your writing, thinking and vision, but as a piece of writing, this didn’t strike me as one of your best essays. I don’t mean to sound harsh, and it could be just me today, but since you asked . . . I can’t quite put my finger on what distracts me about this essay, but the beginning and ending seem stronger than the middle.
    I don’t see voluntary simplicity as “the artful life” but it’s your essay and that’s your viewpoint so that was an intriguing take. But if I were reading a collection of essays on Voluntary Simplicity, I would be disappointed in this offering from someone who co-founded a movement called “Riot for Austerity” which evokes simplicity of sorts.
    One issue I see with the essay is you set up the question how would simplicity change if it was involuntary, but then without addressing that, you move immediately to why it might be thrust upon us. For me, this a structural/organizational issue with the essay.

  3. mea says:

    I have much the same problem as Susan, and I think that while the question of how does the nature of VS change if it is forced upon one (at which point, of course, the S may be the same, but the V isn’t) may have been a useful jumping off point for you, but isn’t essential to the essay as it stands. What seems to be the heart of the matter is that no matter how S comes to us (as long as we aren’t make making choices such as which child to let starve in the hopes of the rest surviving, we can have a meaningful and joyful life) with less. And I think your points about the need for the unemployed to find ways to contribute to the household that they (and the rest of the household) feel are valuable) is more germain to the issue at hand than an exploration of the very interesting question you initially raise.

    Good luck,


  4. Sharon says:

    Maybe the difficulty is this – I don’t really feel very connected to the voluntary simplicity movement. The only book that I’ve read (and I’ve read quite a few) that I really liked was Jim Merkel’s _Radical Simplicity_ – otherwise, quite honestly, I don’t find them that valuable as a whole. For example, I think _Your Money or Your Life_ is valuable for introducing other calculations of what value is, but I think the whole idea that you should try to become financially independent and live off your investments is, well, problematic at best, from both a practical and a moral standpoint. A lot of the simplicity emphasizes things like decluttering – which can be valuable, but it really depends on where the things you get rid of actually go to in the long run. My feeling is that VS is an affluent person’s version of simplification, and that most of the acccounts emphasize keeping your affluence intact, if shifting it around some. Since I think affluence is at the root of the problem I’m really not sure how to approach this subject in a way that fits in. Maybe I should just not participate, since I don’t want to write a harsh critique of the movement – and it probably wouldn’t be accepted anyway. I appreciate that people doing VS are trying, but I’m not sure that seen as a whole, the texts I’ve read on the subject really combine to suggest to me that VS is a good way to live.


  5. Lance says:

    Unlike others, I liked this essay very much. It is one of my favorites Sharon, despite any grammar or structural issues ;-) Maybe this ain’t the demographic for this particular essay, but I loved it. People have accused me of being a circular thinker though…it’s part of my NA culture I hear.

    This essay hit right at the heart of what I am experiencing in MY life…INVOLUNTARY simplicity forced upon us. Yeah, hand-to-mouth stuff. This week I ate for four days off the same pot of “garbage sink” soup and for three days off a trout my brother caught on Thanksgiving. I haven’t been able to pay utilities for two months, as I chose to pay rent ($450 a month for a room) instead. I make $250 a month in my parttime job and get no food stamps, no unemployment, no public relief of any kind. My wife is unable to work. And no, I don’t do crime. I tell stories on local walks when have interested people, shovel walks, collect change. Mostly I do without. I walk where I need or want to go. I am working on some religious art and hoping a book I wrote will be published. I wildcraft and get leftovers from family. I did buy some vodka last month…to make tinctures from herbs I gathered (bee balm and echinacea). But don’t think I haven’t been tempted a few sips, but so far I have resisted.

    Bless their souls in their own struggles, but I haven’t resonated much in my own experiences with those folks who are into voluntary simplicity, described in posts as downsizing from a McMansion to a McFarm.

    It all reminds me of a story I heard once of an Inuit man who got lost out on the sea ice, and then found himself floating off in the boundless Arctic Ocean. He realized he was dead, only his body didn’t know it yet. So what did he do? He began singing a song. And the only word was “Joy”…over and over again, as he floated away.

  6. Sharon says:

    Sorry, that last statement in my previous quote sounds harsh, and I didn’t quite mean it that way – what I meant was that my aggregate sense of the VS movement, outside Merkel, is that it doesn’t provide a coherent path to moving to sustainability.

    BTW, I appreciate the critiques – no offense taken at all, I asked for it and am grateful.


  7. Sharon says:

    Dammit, Lance, I appreciate the kind words, but that is way, way, way too fey for me. For cripes sake, get some damned food stamps!!!!! Go to the food pantry. Ask for help – please. I don’t mean this in a mean way – I admire your ability to get through this, but for your wife’s sake and yours, take help. There’s no shame in it – I know you will give it back when you can. I think your pride is admirable – but there’s such a thing as too much pride, and the wrong kind. Besides, if you are an early casualty of hard times, you aren’t going to be able to help people through later, when they need you.


  8. Lance says:

    I appreciate it Sharon, but it’s really not that bad. It sounds worse than it is. We have some stores of rice and beans, and cans from last spring when I had money to buy some of it. Things will get better in January, when I will be teaching two classes rather than only one. Also, I am slowly getting off my high blood pressure meds under a doctor’s supervision so that means I won’t have to come up with the money for that every month or so.

    Besides, there’s a real learning curve about hard times to consider. When/if things get really bad (this ain’t nothin’), there won’t be any food stamps or food pantry. I will be an old pro by then ;-)

    The only thing to fear is fear itself.

    Umm, how is that “fey?” You mean “like an elf” fey? LOL…well I am a druid, so maybe I am a little fey.


  9. Sharon says:

    Hey Lance – Ok, I believe you, but remember, while the safety nets are still there, it is ok, even good to use them if you need them. High wire tightrope walkers use nets – they practice until they can do it without a net, but they use the nets while they are practicing. The nets are part of the ability to survive without them eventually.

    “Fey” in the sense of “welcoming death” – I didn’t mean it literally, I realize you aren’t starving, but I thought that Inuit thing in conjunction with you not having enough food feels a little too enthusiastic to me. Maybe I misunderstood.


  10. Karin says:

    Well, this may take the conversation in a different direction but here it goes…

    Several years ago I was struggling with a chronic illness and was not able to work enough to really support myself and my son. I was forced into involuntary simplicity. And somehow it worked. I had an understanding landlady who did not ever raise my rent and never complained or threatened when the rent was late. I was able to find a community garden spot and I lived in a city that had a vibrant Time Dollar Network that helped provide free alternative health care. I had a strong group of women friends in my neighborhood and we all lived with marginal means. But we were creative and supportive. We often shared hand me downs and free meals with each other. A local church gave day old bread away on Sunday afternoons from a local artisan bakery. There were many free things going on in the city so I never felt like I lacked social stimulation. And many days I felt that life was good.

    This is not to say that I did not get calls from bill collectors or worry that I might not be able to find shoes for my son when he outgrew a pair. It is not to say that I did not worry when the grocery bill was more than I had in my wallet. Some of that worry I would rather do without. That is also not to say that I did not feel a sense of social stigma if I was in a crowd where the question “what do you do?” was more important than ” what gives your life meaning”.

    But, what I learned about at that time was invaluable. I learned how to eat better and simpler. I learned self-reliance on a level I never had. I had more time to spend with my son. Life slowed down to a reasonable pace.

    At that time I did do a lot of reading about VS. Maybe to find some validation of the life I was forced to live. I turned to these books as a way to squeeze one more dime out of every dollar. But it is only now that I think where VS is much different from Involuntary simplicity is that VS is living a life with enough. With the option of layering a little more complication if circumstance require it. Involuntary simplicity means that there may be needs not met and you may not have a way of meeting them.

    I feel so fortunate now to be living a more secure life now. But I know that at any moment that can change. If that should happen I know what I can live without, what I would need to do to cover the basics.

  11. Kerr says:

    Oh! “Fey” as in “fate” via early mediaeval French, not “fey” as in “faerie.” I get it now.

    Etymology: cheap entertainment.

  12. Caitlin says:

    You need a comma in between “Economics” and “the”, since it’s a clarifying clause that isn’t a part of the root sentence. I would also change “worldwide” to “globally”, since you use the word “world” again in the same sentence. I would change it to something like this:

    What’s that? Well, according to Teodor Shanin, the founder of “Peasant Economics,” the world of GDP statements and taxable labor around the globe only produces about 25% of all economic activity.

    Just a small suggestion, but comma problems bother me. :)

    As for your disconnect with the VS movement, I completely understand where you’re coming from. As I read Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, for instance, I couldn’t help but notice that she already had a complete support system in place for her decision to get off the industrial grid. Not only had her entire family been avoiding industrial meat for several years, but she also had a lush farm and book royalties and a hybrid vehicle and an enormous freezer to support her during her “difficult year” of Voluntary Simplicity. I laughed out loud at Lance’s comment about the switch from the McMansion to the McFarm! It definitely reminded me of her book.

  13. Stephanie says:

    Hi Sharon,

    I think you meant on instead of no.

    That is, the informal economy, which includes many of the traditional activities of a simpler life – having less stuff, consuming less, making your own, cooking from scratch, growing a garden, bartering with neighbors, relying no (on?)community, taking care of your own, being self-sufficient – is likely to experience a rapid influx of people who now depend on this segment of the economy. As the formal economy shrinks, the informal economy becomes more central to people’s lives.

  14. risa b says:

    Charles Gray, who was a member of our Friends Meeting, was a VS activist. He wrote Toward a Nonviolent Economics (Available for $10 including postage from Sylvia Hart, 256 North Grand, Eugene, OR 97402), and espoused (and exemplified) living on a World Diet, whereby your choices concerning personal food, clothing, shelter, health, and entertainment expenditures do not exceed the average, calculated for each person in the world. Though he had been a wealthy man, when I knew him he was living on $350 a month quite contentedly.

    We also knew Peace Pilgrim, who walked pretty much everywhere without possessions, to quietly preach peace by her example.

    These were good people to know. We haven’t followed all their recommendations (cowardice, I’m sure) but simply by following some of them, we have cleared almost all our debt and more than half feed ourselves here; a serious bout of ill health would threaten all that, but so far, so good.

    We live in an area that is really country (with a few real farms) but still thinks it is suburbia.

    Most of our neighbors, seemingly, haven’t got a clue — driving hundreds of miles to football games, zipping around the reservoir in big motorboats, hauling enormous TVs from the back of their gigantic six-wheeled pickup trucks to their plush-carpeted living rooms. And all the McCain posters they had on their lawns.

    Fortunately most of them, here, have from two to forty acres. Soon, I suspect, they will be spending more time at home.

    And then, one by one, they will mow less, and actually begin planting things, as was done here in former generations.

  15. Emily says:

    I think you could make this piece more powerful by shortening it up by a third. Perhaps because I’ve heard a lot of this before, I found myself skimming a lot. What is the most important point you’re trying to make? It seems that you tried to hit a few, and the overall impact was lessened.

  16. MEA says:

    Do you have a chance to look at Elgin’s book?

    I agree that much of what has been written about VS is on the make your life easier end of the scale, but if I don’t think the origional idea was that at all. I think it was more like what JS Mills who tried to live his life on the same income he started out with so that the balace (which grew as he got older and made more) could go to the poor. Of course, he lived in a time of no inflation, which helped.

    I think at the root of all crit. of VS is that fact that there is a big difference between living on rice and beans (which I’m using for short-hand, here) and knowing that if push come to shove you’d have enough to buy more rice and beans even if it meant cutting back on the amount of rice and beans you could give to others (which while it may not be a comfortable thought, gives a certain sense of security) and knowing that if push comes to shove, you either have to find a free source of rice and beans, or watch your family starve, which does not lead to peace of mind — in fact, even thinking about some of the sources and what you might have to do doesn’t lead to peace of mind.

  17. Susan in NJ says:

    I haven’t done a lot of reading into the VS movement and what I have read I have found to be rather disappointing. I think in a collection of essays you can be forthright about your disconnect (and I think you do so rather lyrically in the essay) without offending proponents of the movement. MEA makes some good points — how VS would change isn’t critical to your essay. You can make your point without posing that particular question, but rather posing the contrast. It seems to me from your comment here that this is what you are doing but the point doesn’t come through in your essay.
    If part of the VS movement is unplugging from unrelective consumerist aspects of an affluent society, a nonaffluent society is going to require active participation in your informal economy — the difference between a truly impoverished life and a “poor but” life.
    That’s why I said I thought the problem might be organization/structural. Then the question becomes (after your historical economic “proof”) what should we be doing now to prepare for that life. The core of all that is in your essay.

  18. BrianM says:


    Let me start out by saying that I know absolutely nothing about the VS movement, so I am simply commenting on the content and feel of your essay.

    I don’t know what the limits and ground rules are for these essays, but it seems to me that if you are unsure of the VS movement, then perhaps your goal should be a more outright questioning of its value (or values, or assumptions, or limitations, etc.).

    I feel that, to some degree, you are beating around the edges of the idea. It seems like the question you want to raise is… “Fine, VS is a reasonable path to simplicity for those who have the affluence, time, opportunity, and ability to make that choice. Now, what does the movement have to offer for the other 98% of the population that feels it has no way to close the gap between the (very real) requirements of the existing economy and the likely realities of the coming economy(ies)?”

    You touch on the idea in the last paragraph, but I think it could be a stronger thread throughout. Explore the problems that most of us without the requisite “affluence” (and with less all the time) would have following these practices. Suggest ways that the VS movement could be modified, expanded, augmented to help those who cannot make these changes voluntarily. Perhaps the movement should include some kind of pay-it-forward ethic. Do those that have the affluence that affords them the luxury of choosing when to simplify their lives have some social, moral, ethical responsibility to help those who do not have this luxury? Should the movement call for a strong teaching component, i.e., should those who can do VS help teach those who can see the benefits of simplifying, but who can also see that it will have to be done in an involuntary way, at what will almost certainly be an inconvenient and uncomfortable time? Does simplifying require these acts in order to rebuild the sense of community, which is, after all, the true fundamental unit of human existence?

    As I said, I don’t know anything about the movement, so I cannot offer any meaningful answers or suggestions beyond these general types of questions (which the movement could already address for all I know). Still, simply reading, and re-reading, your essay and comments, leaves me with the distinct impression that you are more contrarian to VS (or some aspects of VS) than your words allow. Perhaps your goal should be one of healthy agitation. From healthy agitation the healthiest ideas grow.

    Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion. :-)


  19. Greenpa says:

    My 2¢.

    I’ve lived in a 20′x15′ cabin, without indoor plumbing, heated only by wood, off grid, for 32 years now. NOBODY understood those choices back when I started doing it.

    Just recently, trying to explain it to a mainstream friend, I did say it was “Voluntary Simplicity” – but it really isn’t; that was just a quick hook to hang it on.

    My real models were Thoreau and Gandhi. And they both espouse poverty, as well as simplicity. Henry David wasn’t able to sustain his experiment; but Gandhi lived it. By any official measure, I’ve been way under the poverty line forever; but my kids know they grew up very wealthy in everything that matters.

    I’ve never read any of the VS books, I’m pretty sure they’d drive me crazy. I’ve never intended or wanted to launch a “movement” – just to live my own life, and maybe provide an example for others saying “this is possible, take what works for you”.

  20. Vegan says:

    Sharon, I agree that the voluntary simplicity movement for the most part is a bourgeois version of simplicity (I would not condemn it either). Not many people have investments or wish to invest in our predatory economic system if they could. I think ethics is important when examining simplicity, as well as our individual and societal context in the world today and throughout history.

    I personally embraced simplicity and rejected the bourgeois lifestyle more than thirty years ago. I was assisted in doing so by seeing myself in the context of world history, empathizing with the world’s poor and wanting to embrace what many Catholic Saints (I was brought up Catholic) and sages of every faith and tradition had embraced before me.

    I, too, enjoyed reading Merkel’s “Radical Simplicity.” BTW, I’ve been reading your book since last night. I love it! A lot of the interesting anecdotes I recognize from reading your blog for more than a year. :)

  21. Eva says:

    Part of the problem with VS is that it can amount to outsourcing of goods and services. Its hard to have only 100 things as has been suggested when striving for a more sustainable, self-sufficient life. Its easier when all you need to do is pop down to the store and pick up dinner. Just think of gardening, preserving, cooking, repair needs. Minimalist living doesn’t include a lot of tools or animals either.

    We can and do share but country living sure looks cluttered compared to simple, spare, city living.

  22. virginia says:

    Re: two income families forced into voluntary simplicity. My guilty pleasure, embarrassing to admit, is that I’m secretly happy to be underemployed. Most likely the only reason I can say this is, is because my husband has a full time job with benefits. I do feel guilty that I’ve stopped pounding away searching for a full time job. But I was so tired of the 40-hour treadmill. As a part-timer, I get crappy hours (occasional nights and weekends) –but, I am usually able to work a 5-hr shift while my kids are at school, don’t have to pay for after-school care, have time to volunteer on my days off, and can plan and cook better meals. It means the world to me, just to have more time that I can call my own. We’re not wealthy people, my attitude would probably change in a hurry if DH lost his job. But for now …. shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but

    I am content.

  23. Vegan says:


    I thought you’d enjoy reading Bill Porter’s “Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.”

    My DH reviews it at his site:


    “Live simply that others may simply live.” ~MOHANDAS K. GANDHI

  24. Lance says:

    There’s a big difference between being a fatalist and welcoming death. I am indeed a fatalist. Death will come when it comes, and no amount of negotiating will change that. But I will not go quietly into that good night.

    The Inuit man was a fatalist, but he embraced and celebrated life with every breath. His song “Joy” was not about death; it was about each moment of life that remained.

    I think over again
    My small adventures, my fears.
    The small ones that seemed so big,
    For all the vital things I had to get and to reach.
    And yet there is only one great thing, the only thing:
    To live to see the great day that dawns,
    And the light that fills the world.
    -Old Inuit Song

    You may have heard the Native American war cry, “It is a good day to die!” That does not mean the warrior wants to die. A warrior loves life as much, and perhaps more, than most others. It means every moment is perfect. It is a good day to die because all the beautiful things in life are here in this moment. So this day is as good as any other to face death and perhaps meet it.

  25. dewey says:

    I cannot abide Merkel. He strikes me as falling into the young, healthy, childfree, and obnoxiously self-righteous category. For example, if you want to meet his standards for how many “acres” of productivity you should use (never mind that he has defined these most unscientifically, as if forests that absorb CO2 do not harbor wildlife), you should have almost no medical care. Does that mean that you should just get sick, suffer, and die? No, he suggests that the “wiseacre” will need to depend on friends. That is, find a relative with a job who will shell out for your health care bills, after which you can sneer at him for being “consumptive” while continuing to be self-righteous yourself.

    Merkel’s claims for how many “acres” are used by various activities often seem to have just been pulled out of a hat. His ideal lifestyle includes almost no paid education – never mind the legal and social issues there – or he suggests that you could pay for higher ed if you thereby learned to live in a debris hut for the rest of your life and thus not increase your lifetime resource use. Surely the amount of resources used by a college or kindergarten class vary enormously depending upon individual circumstances? Instead of paid education, Merkel thinks that education and training should be provided through the gift economy. Well, how is it that when I pay my teacher so she can eat, this magically causes “acres” [of resource equivalents] to be utilized by the teaching activity, whereas the same teaching provided for free would not have? How many “acres” did the medieval universities utilize?

  26. margaret says:

    Yeah Lance,
    I’m with Sharon on this one. Get some fricken food stamps. I am very low income as well, and I do depend on my stamps, but I am using them frugally, and building stores of grains, beans, and canned goods while I improve my gardening, preserving and community safety nets. And also I have my limited cash income available then to pay bills, etc. Do it.

    And Sharon,
    I could identify with your assertion in the article that VS is just how most Americans are going to have to live now. Many of my VS choices are now necessity. For example, I make my own laundry soap, use cloth t.p. and hankies, buy used clothing, and keep my heat at 58. I used to do these things out of a desire to walk more lightly on the earth, now I do them to get by. There is no room in my budget for Tide, Charmin (okay we only use cloth for pee, but still), or wearing shorts in December.

    And I’m not much on critiquing, but I love this line: “But because we devalue the informal economy and its work, we are blind to the power it has.”

  27. Vegan says:


    I often wondered about the size of your cabin, but never asked. Thanks for sharing the info.

    We plan to build a similar size cabin in VT. Does your cabin have a basement? Is it necessary to have a basement for better insulation in climates such as MN or VT? We’d like to skip building a basement, but have heard otherwise. What’s your take on this? Thanks.

  28. Sharon says:

    Well, I’m not sure that a book about the VS movement, that I’m being asked to contribute to, is really the best time to go hard at the VS movement ;-) . I’m trying, and perhaps failing to find a balance between critique and endorsement. I’m mulling over whether I should give up or not.

    I will say that the reason some of the material is familiar to my readers is that I suspect that the overlapping readership will be small – that is, I know if you read me regularly you know about the informal economy and about most of this – but most people who will read this essay probably won’t.

    Thank you all again for the comments.


  29. MEA says:

    Could you take the tack of while I’ve never felt involved in the VS movement, here are some valuable things it has to offer?

    I agree, you are not the obvious person for this sort of book, but reaching a new audience who make be VSing like made but with no thought of how radically things are about to change, seems a great oportunity.

    To paraphrase, from those who do much, much is asked.

  30. Sharon says:

    I should also add that I’ve been asked to write specifically about VS and the Economy – that is, that’s the reason I’m not coming at this through, say, the Riot for Austerity.

    BTW, Lance, I get fatalism, and I agree it is different from feyness. I just want to make sure you are doing everything you can to keep the net under you until you have to do the high wire without it. I’m sorry if this comes out as questioning your choices or criticizing you – you don’t deserve that at all. I just don’t like the idea of you and your wife not having enough food.

    Dewey, I agree with you about most of your criticisms of Merkel, but I still think that his book is more valuable than that, in the sense that I don’t think he understates what’s necessary to live a particular kind of life. I find it valuable in the same way I find _Heat_ valuable – not because I agree wholly with it, but because it gets past the same platitudes and attempts to find some kind of feasible way of getting along within limits. Like _Heat_ I think it ultimately fails to come up with a feasible model – I hate to say it, but I think his insistence on leaving bioproductive land untouched is pretty much unrealistic, given the present world population and feasible standards of living.

    Merkel reminds me of the Nearings, who I also find kind of annoying sometimes, but who do actually provide one kind of model. I guess for me, at least Merkel seemed to be taking the VS movement in a more rigorous direction.


  31. Joan says:

    To Vegan

    I live in the Adirondack Mountains. Trust me, build a basement. Joan

  32. D says:

    I’d like to go on record as agreeing with those who agree with your assessment of VS (I wish I could do an old-school semi-colon wink here instead of an obnoxious winkmoticon – just picture it in your head as you read!). While I know that some of the folks who’ve written about it have tried to impress on their readers that there is a difference between voluntary simplicity and poverty, most of the VSers I’ve known don’t understand the role that economic and social privilege play in their decision to downshift. It seems to me that many of them feel that by simplifying their lives, they’ve somehow divested themselves of their class privilege, which is very rarely the case. In particular I hate to see people who’ve moved into a rural setting look down their simplified noses at their neighbors – people who are working class or poor and will always be – for eating conventionally grown produce and going snowmobiling. Of course, not everyone who’s involved in the VS movement is like this, but so many are that I’ve never felt comfortable using the term to describe what I’m aspiring to do with my own life.

    As far as the essay goes (if no one else has suggested this by the time I get done writing!), you know, you don’t *have* to contribute to this anthology if you really don’t want to. You have one book published, another coming out next year, and your readership here is steadily increasing. The economy will only continue to go bananapants, which will attract even more readers as people get serious about finding ways to adapt. Your message is effectively out there. So, unless you feel really strongly about being part of this project, I say screw it! Your time is too precious to spend on things you don’t feel truly excited about.

  33. Greenpa says:

    Vegan- nope, no basement; the house is up on piles, basically. Floor is insulated to around R18; not much, but heat loss through the floor is not as rapid as elsewhere; roof is R40, way more than normal for the time.

    But- we do have a substantial cellar, for food etc; it’s just not attached to the house, and was dug probably 10 years later.

    Multiple reasons- when we first built this cabin, it was not intended as a long term main home- just a kind of vacation home. A basement would have been way more expensive. Also; our soils. I was concerned a log structure would slide around on minimal footings; so we picked a spot where we could put piles down sitting on bedrock; very stable.

    My next house (in planning for, oh, 20 years now- this one won’t last forever) would be set into a hill side; first floor basically entirely below grade, except for the front wall- which would open on a patio kind of thing. You could live in just the first floor, in times of high heat or extreme cold- with very little energy expense. Second floor above that would give lots of expansion room, usable easily for most of the year.

    A steepish hillside with a southern or eastern exposure would be great for that kind of thing. The excavation expense would be substantial, but the energy savings would be forever. Below-grade construction does requires some good engineering; soil slump pressures and water problems through seasons and wet years need to be planned well.

    Infinite variations are possible. :-)

  34. Sharon says:

    Vegan, I’m with Joan and Greenpa – either earth sheltered (do you have Mike Oehler’s book?) or basement. Houses with basements live longer. When Eric’s grandparents were building their addition, they built it on a slab, and because it was their money, I let them. I wish I’d pushed basement.


  35. Heather Gray says:

    I think other people have posted most of what I noticed (including tightening the focus). I like the sculpture analogy although I’ve never thought of it as a joke — I learned it from a book on Michelangelo and agree with it, having sculpted just that way.

    Esp. like the part on informal economy — my mother’s mother was definitely a part of it during the Depression and later. Widowed mother of four who’s brother-in-law took control of the money and doled it out in miserly amounts, among other things she took in make-work, which the kids helped out with, as well as a short stint making bootleg rice wine (Chinatown, San Francisco). They shelled shrimp, put buckles on belts, and more. During the earliest, hardest times, one of the kids’ “treats” was sugar sandwiches.

    Here on the farm L’s folks like to pay for jobs we do around the farm, but we only let them pay for some of it, doing some odds and ends as needed without bothering to see them about it later. Some things we do as part of rent (our rent is pretty nominal, $350 for the 2nd floor of the house plus we have stuff here and there on the farm) — mowing, weeding, various other odds and ends. And there are definite bonuses to living here, like sharing the cost of heat, occasional company, and helping them out with eating some of the cracked eggs ;)

    I guess I count as one of the unemployed, although somewhat voluntarily. I’m a freelance artist these days (and yes, I have some work this winter although I won’t get paid for it for a while yet) but mostly I grow/cook/save food, repair clothing, make useful stuff, and pay attention to the bills — including finding ways to save money.

    Want to hear something strange? My credit card interest went down again. And the credit limit is still high. I use it primarily for online purchases and come close to zeroing it out every month. It’s a very weird thing, especially after reading about the $2 trillion cut that’s coming. But I don’t let that limit tempt me to use it to the max! Even though it would be nice to get all the things we’re pretty sure we need for doing more on our own Right Now! — who’s to say what our situation will be a year from now? Better safe than sorry.

  36. Greenpa says:

    Vegan- many thanks for the link to the Chinese hermits book! I will definitely dig that up; it would be fascinating.

  37. southernrata says:

    Sharon, I think it’s important that your essay is included in the book, for the sake of its readers. They need to have that critical point of view expressed, however gently. I liked it very much, though perhaps it could be shorter, and you could put the negative stuff nearer the top, and just save the warm goat bodies and gently falling snow for the end, instead of repeating it.

    I’m in sympathy with D above, and even Caitlin’s critique of Kingsolver, much as I love her book, mainly because I’m in the same privileged position of being able to choose VS. I also often find myself being critical of people who appear to make “bad” lifestyle and environmental choices but who have never had any real chance to choose.

  38. Heather Gray says:

    I think I should add that like Virginia, I’m lucky that I don’t have to work at a regular job right now. It took a little while to get there though, and as recent as this fall I was debating if I should go through the expense of re-upping my massage therapy certification (exp. last week) (exam, insurance, etc.). It’s kind of strange sometimes, not being in a “regular” job, but the truth is that given where we live, and given how far I’d have to travel to do most of the things I’m qualified to do, it’s unlikely the income would significantly outweigh the expenses — and of course increase our footprint by quite a lot (L works from home).

    Thanks for the reminder that jobs like housecleaning and cooking count!

    Oh, and while it’s been strange on occasion getting used to being unemployed voluntarily, I’d hate to be one of the people this is happening to involuntarily. What a blow to one’s self-confidence! Makes it that much harder to get on with the job of living. I’ve been playing cheerleader for some of my friends who’ve had to go through this (one for a little over 2 years before finally getting a job), and suspect that’s a job that may be adding more hours/week as time goes on :(

    *sigh* On the happier side, the new town volunteer winterizing team is getting called on to help people winterize their homes.

  39. TH in SoC says:

    I think your thoughts on the informal economy are quite valid. I do wonder though if discussing these things out in the open might lead to some unwelcome attention from the masters of the “official” economy. The best these masters can do for us right now is stay out of our way, but I doubt that they will do that. The Wall Street bailouts, the Patriot Act and the National Animal Identification System are three examples of them getting in the way.

  40. Kate in CT says:

    You give Crunchy credit for a cogent critique of the Informal Economy analysis but it seems to me that she is starting from a completely different assumption than you are. She clearly does not think times will become hard enough here in middle class America for her family and social circle’s participation in the IE to become necessary. She only addresses it in terms of -do I want to do those drudgery things or not- and doesn’t think outside the box to imagine the IE providing more than a negligible contribution to the home. You are coming from a point of view that times are going to get very hard, maybe soon, and here’s a time tested way to fill in the income/ resource gaps created if one‘s Formal Economy income dries up. (She also generalizes that work done outside the home is “challenging, using my intellect and doing work that I know serves a great deal of people in a positive way” or you can “stay home chained to household chores with its never ending litany of laundry, dishes, ironing and cooking“ yikes! but that’s another discussion.).
    As for this recent post, I enjoyed it except for the confusing beginning when it seems like we will be reading about Voluntary Simplicity, but then it quickly morphs into an essay about Involuntary Simplicity and the Informal Economy. After reading your blog for a while, as well as _Depletion and Abundance_, I’d say you don’t seem to me to be a Voluntary Simplicity kind of thinker. That’s just fine with me. I have found your writings to be much more inclusive and practical than the more esoteric Duane Elgin ever was (though I liked his book at a different time and for different reasons).And neither Merkel, Dominquez nor even St. James ever got me canning, but you did!
    Warm Wishes

  41. Shelley says:

    Sharon I agree with you about the voluntary simplicity movement. Jerry and I joined a VS group when we were first married and both still in college. We went to the first 4 meetings and then quit….because we couldn’t AFFORD the suggestions in the text. This particular program was a group study of VS and did indeed suggest people buy this or that in order to save money in other ways and made no mention of buying second hand, gardening, cooking at home and so on. We were living on about 1000 a month at that time and had found all sorts of ways to do it….in other words, our simplicity WAS forced on us by the circumstances of our life. It looked very different than the VS of this program we were part of.

    And all of the other folks in the VS group were far better off than we were.

    I think maybe a simple word choice change from simplicity to something else would clarify what you are saying in the article. Some synonym for reduced standard of living, smaller carbon footprint, oh! or how about frugality…that might work. Living a frugal lifestyle is certainly different than living a simple one. Remember The Tightwad Gazette?


  42. Brad K. says:

    Sharon, in your comment you state “Since I think affluence is at the root of the problem ..”.

    I am not sure you actually mean that. While maintaining a credit-based affluence contradicts simplicity, voluntary or otherwise, a sound affluence of tangible resources is crucial – your safety net.

    You need an affluence of beans in your harvest, to assure having enough to last through unexpected extra meals for workers and visitors, and to allow for shrinkage and spoilage. Affluence of resources creates opportunities to help others, and creates (more palatable) choices when faced with hardships. What you argue for is to create a network of more-than-just-sufficient amounts of social and tangible resources – affluence.

    Instead of opening your piece with a criticism of voluntary simplicity, show that the transition you have faced has been a transition from fiscal or credit-based affluence, to a more tangible form. Most of the changes in your own lifestyle have been deliberate choices. If you wish, you can show how those involuntarily thrust out of the formal economy might adopt parts of the “well-laid plan” – and even thrive, with luck, perseverance, guidance, and work.

    I am unclear why you need your piece to argue contrary to Voluntary Simplicity. Just present the version you have been living.

    I think you may have overlooked one aspect of the two-wage-earner childcare dilemma – taking in a servant, a helper, for “room and board and two suits of clothes a year”. At tax time this gains a dependant, you gain control over your home and a live-in additional adult for either companionship or help around the farm/house. Such positions might include butler, cook, farm hand, nanny, gardener, or handyman. By taking the person into the household, you avoid minimum wage, withholding, etc. For the price of respect, food, and floor space, and “gifts” (money, clothes, or other conveniences or luxuries), someone gets a family to belong to, and a secure place to eat and sleep.

    Have you mentioned what you expect to happen with Minimum Wage? Do you expect the MW to be rolled back, routinely ignored, or abandoned? Or just redefined to only apply to full-time wage earners (maybe for those working 50 hours per week)? While the value of the Minimum Wage is low, for surviving in the formal economy, allowing the Minimum Wage to cause companies to fail, communities to fail, and jobs to be lost, products and services to be unavailable or at prohibitive costs (for the market place at that time) doesn’t make sense.

  43. MEA says:

    Ah, the slippery slope that I fear my end with my being a slave owner someday.

  44. Vegan says:

    Greenpa, thank you kindly for your detailed response. We’ll keep your words in mind. Enjoy Porter’s book. Quite inspiring.

    Sharon and Joan, thanks for your suggestions. I’ll look up Mike Oehler’s book. Our 26 year old son with the tactile/kinesthetic intelligence has been pushing for a basement, too. My husband and I have been struggling with the issue since we dread the thought of having a wet/moldy basement. During the last few years summer floods have inundated many basements in VT.

  45. sealander says:

    I’m sceptical about using the term voluntary simplicity to describe any attempt to move to a more sustainable / frugal / self-sufficient lifestyle. Surely making a shift from a life based on the 9-5 grind, long distance commuting, paid child care, fast food etc. to one where a household attempts to produce their own food, cooks from scratch, maybe raises animals, and derives income from a variety of sources, formal or otherwise actually involves an increase in complexity? When everything you eat comes from a supermarket and you pay others to look after your chores, there’s not a lot of thought, forward planning or equipment required in your life. Planning your garden so that you will have enough tomatoes to feed your household through the winter requires knowledge of your local climate and ecosystem (when is the last frost date? should I plant extra to allow for pest damage?), the ability to preserve food, the knowledge of how to use that preserved food in meals, some idea of how much your family will eat. And let’s not forget that enormous pile of jars that has to be stored somewhere :)
    The simple life is the one where you can pick up the phone and order pizza…..

  46. rhonda jean says:

    I agree with Brad K, why argue to the contrary when you’re living simply yourself. I do have a problem with the ‘v’ word though. I live simply by choice but I don’t see myself as practising voluntary simplicity. From my perspective, I see people who live simply as making a transition to that over time, slowly and deliberately. VS, on the other hand, implies buying into the lifestyle – you know, buying the farm in the country, and tweeds for walking the springer spaniel.

    “Forced simplicity” isn’t simplicity at all. It’s being poor. A simple life is much more than not spending money, or not having it to spend, it’s more about an attitude of conservation, a respect for the natural and living well using regained skills rather than a credit card.

  47. Gaelan says:

    Hi Lance, Hi Heather. *waves* Small world.

    Hi Sharon,

    Crunchy Chicken’s critique reminds me of a series of discussions in my own blog lately about the relative values of specialization vs. generalization. Her position (that domestic labor is drudgery) strikes me as an odd one given her interests. At any rate, I enjoyed this post and I sympathize with your criticisms of Voluntary Simplicity. My biggest complaint with almost every “back to the land” book I’ve read that’s been published since the 1960s is that the authors start out with the premise that the readers have an affluent life in the city they can trade in for a farm and all the equipment needed to live off the land. Hah!

    I pursued a career in the formal economy principally so I could save for a farm. When my wife and I bought a house, we chose it more for its yard and the fact that it was outside the city limits, so we’d be free to raise chickens. When my career came to an abrupt end, I spent a few months struggling at low-wage jobs before finally turning to the informal economy. Now, it’s more like I’m blurring the lines between the formal and informal economies, as I’m raising enough chickens to sell at local farmers markets and leasing garden plots to sell produce, with plans to expand next year. It’ll be a few years before we can really start saving for rural acreage again, but I’m farming nonetheless!

    My wife works from home as a web designer and consultant, and we’re planning to homeschool our 3-year old son, so really, our lives are built around our home. Having lived this way for a year now, the idea of giving it all up to go back to a regular job and sticking my son in day care sounds about as appealing as being sold into slavery. We get food stamps, but I look at it as the USDA subsidizing a new, sustainable, urban farmer, something they ought to be doing anyway.

    Anyway, I just wanted to validate your projections about the role of the informal economy as a safety net. It has proven to be so for me and my family, and I look for more of the same to happen with others as they see their unemployment benefits run out. On the bright side, the local food movement has gained enough momentum, both among consumers and farmers, that there’s more opportunity now than at any other point in the last several decades for backyard gardeners and home bakers to sell their goods.

  48. Sharon says:

    Kate, I didn’t say I agreed with Deanna ;-) . But I did find it useful in pointing out what I may not have made clear.


  49. Lynnet says:

    Sharon, I certainly liked parts of your post, but as some others have said, your ambivalence about VS shows through in the article and makes it head off in several different directions at once.

    Perhaps you could just get up front with what you see as the failings of VS and what might have to change to make it relevant in the future, as V becomes I for many of us. This is a very useful and even essential topic, which will make the book stronger even for VS advocates.

    I don’t agree with thos who say to ditch the article; you have a “bully pulpit” here which is an opportunity too good to miss.

  50. Lisa in Oregon says:

    Before I moved to a farm(let) in the country(ish), I was single and lived in the city, and I was studying VS and it made a lot of sense to me. However, now with growing food and raising animals and what-not, it’s kind of a different ball of wax – the whole going out / shopping / impressing people / entertainment thing are not places I’m in danger of spending too much time or money :-) While I think the fundamental philosophical positions are similar, there’s just no way “Simple” applies to what we are doing.

    I didn’t like or finish your money or your life (seemed all about saving your money and retiring at 40 on the interest), but Janet Luhrs Simple Living Guide (and another one about Simple Loving) were great; mindful living. Perhaps I still do that now. Also, the Northwest Earth Institute has some great material.

    We are also practicing for hard times, and it’s difficult to be
    uncomfortable when you don’t need to be. But here’s how I think of it now, with the example of the temperatures at our house (we are trying to just heat with the new woodstove): there’s a range of temperatures where I’m chilly but okay with my sweaters and hat. But as it gets colder, and as I am cold for a longer time, it gets into a different place, an “I’m suffering” sort of experience. I feel like kind of a failure for giving in and building another fire, but perhaps even the little while I stay in the “I’m suffering” place, I think, takes away some of the fear and might make it easier in the future. Or am I kidding myself?

    Lisa in Oregon

Leave a Reply