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Simple Living: Trend or Tide?
by Bruce Elkin
"There's a couple of hazards in Voluntary Simplicity. One is arrogance. Another is success (artistic, commercial, personal) which leads to temptations which lead back again to Involuntary Complexity." Stewart Brand, The Co-Evolution Quarterly, Summer 1977
While browsing best-sellers in my local bookstore recently, I was shocked to find tomes on money and success displayed alongside guides for simplifying your life and enriching your spirit. How-to-be-happy titles sat next to treatises on saving-the-earth.
"What kinds of people," I asked my bookseller, "buy these different kinds of books?" "The same people," she said, smiling sweetly. I must have looked perplexed, because she leaned forward, touched me gently on the arm and said, "There's a convergence of interests, dear, a kind of shared vision is emerging." I thanked her and left wondering if she was right.
Researcher Paul Ray thinks so. He claims 24% of adult Americans are "Cultural Creatives," interested in psychology, spirituality and self-actualization. Most are strong advocates of sustainability and simpler lifestyles. Ray says this group could herald the birth of an "Integral Culture" -- a synthesis of modern and traditional values and practices. However, he warns, "Our future is not ordained."
Though the possibility of an Integral Culture is exciting, Ray rightly urges caution. It's too easy to assume "the transformation" is happening just because we read and talk about it. We've heard predictions like these before. A 1977 report documented similar findings to Ray's and predicted that, by 2000, there could be 90 million Americans practicing voluntary simplicity.
Instead, we got the eighties.
What happened? Why did we tell pollsters one thing then do another?
Because, I believe, we suffer from a dichotomy of desires. We want two things: a good life and a healthy environment. So, we can, for example, support a local clean air initiative, yet still own two cars, drive 100 miles a day and live in houses that leak energy like sieves. We read books on simple living even as we bone up on mutual funds. Such divergence leads to confusion about what matters. Before we give birth to an Integral Culture, we need to cultivate integrity in our own lives and values. This, however, is no small task in such chaotic times. It will take more than trendy intentions and glib affirmations to bring it about.
Our dichotomy of desires occurs because we have been raised in a culture that, on one hand, values material growth, individualism and competitive achievement. But, we've also been urged by parents and religious teachers to share, cooperate and value the higher things in life. So, even as we strive for material well-being, we also long for a simpler, more fulfilling way of life. However, when we simplify, we often find ourselves lamenting, not only lost luxuries, but also a lack of challenge and the rewards and respect that come with social and economic achievement.
Because of this dichotomy, changes in one area of our lives often lead to problems in other areas. Take Celia and Alverjo, for example. They, like many people, saw simple living as a solution to the stress of a complex urban life. Though committed to the environment and simple living during college, this well-intentioned couple later morphed into what they called "fast-tracking yuppies" immersed in the "adventure of business." After ten frenetic, but materially successful years, they burned out. On the edge of both breakdown and break-up, they sold everything and moved to the country.
"We wanted," Celia said, "to escape the craziness, to slow down, re-connect." It didn't work. Country life was too simple. They felt isolated, bored, too dependent on each other's company.
"We thought getting rid of problems would be enough," said Alverjo, "but it wasn't. Attaining simplicity just increased our hunger for challenge and involvement." After two years they moved back to the city searching for a middle way. They're not alone.
We all have contradictory values. However, that's not necessarily a "problem." Like the poet, Whitman, we are large, we contain multitudes. We can contain-- and transcend -- contradictions. Besides, it is not conflicting values that cause conflict, but how we structure (i.e. organize and arrange) those values as we create our lives.
"Composing a life," says Mary Catherine Bateson, "involves an openness to possibilities and the capacity to put them together in a way that is structurally sound."
Arranging values in "either/or" structures, leads to actions that oscillate back and forth between one value and the other. However, if we arrange values in "both/and" structures or, better still, in hierarchies in which values are prioritized, we can more easily satisfy both values without detracting from either. The structure, "a good life or a healthy environment", is likely to lead to conflict and oscillation. The structure, "a good life and a healthy environment," though better, is still unstable, likely to slide back into an either/or structure at any time. Neither of these structures is likely to lead to real and lasting results.
The structure, "a good life in a healthy environment," includes and honors both values. More important, it clearly shows the relationship between them: a healthy environment is primary, a good life is secondary, supporting. In this structure we are much more likely to organize our "good" life so it supports and enriches the ecological systems on which we depend.
To change behavior, change structure. Rather than deny, alter or scrap values, we'd do better to align all our values in support of what truly matters. Janet Luhrs, editor of Simple Living Journal, provided a modest example of changing behavior by changing structure in her Summer '95 editorial, "To Mow or Not To Mow."
Janet wanted a neatly mown lawn and a healthy environment. She also wanted to get fit. Instead of hiring a kid to cut her lawn with a pollution-spewing gas mower while she trundled the treadmill at an expensive gym, she transcended her dilemma by buying a push mower, canceling her gym membership and cutting her own lawn. Organizing her desire for a tidy lawn so it supported her higher value of healthy simplicity enabled her to save money, get fit and contribute to a healthy environment.
Organizing values and actions so they support what you truly want is best accomplished by focusing on what you want, not problems you don't want. Though sometimes necessary, problem-solving often produces temporary relief rather than real and lasting results. The key is to integrity in life and culture is creating -- bringing into being -- what matters most to you. Not because it's a solution to a problem, but simply because you love it and want to see it exist.
"All the great things," said poet Robert Frost, "are done for their own sake. The great artists, leaders and visionaries of history were not problem-solvers. They were builders - creators - bringing into being the creations that truly mattered to them.
Even psychologist, C.J. Jung, felt the most important problems of life "can never be solved, but only outgrown." Patients, he saw, improved when "some higher or wider interest" focused their attention. Their problem "was not solved logically -- but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge."
True creating taps into and channels that stronger life urge. On two levels. First, we create specific creations. Things like a safe, mutually respectful, loving relationship, a solar-heated, cottage, an organic garden, a plan for financial independence in five years, a home-based business, or a more creative and fulfilling job where we currently work.
We also create ourselves and our lives. We can best create a life that is an integral whole, "that which we glimpse in our most perfect moments" Abraham Maslow called it, by structuring specific creations so they align with and support our highest aspirations and deepest longings.
When we see self-actualization or simplifying our lives or saving the earth as separate, reactive, "solutions" to life's problems, it is easy to lose touch with the deeper, stronger life urges that move under the surface to integrate and align these separate area into an integral whole, into a life.
Shifting your primary focus from solving-problems to creating what matters makes possible a new vision of success, one in which you organize your varied interests into an integrated daily practice; in which you simplify your life and enrich your spirit, become the person you most want to be and help save the earth while you're at it.
This vision of success is integral: it brings together separate parts of your being into a integral whole. It is creative: it focuses on producing results that matter, not just getting rid of problems. It is personal: it allows you to make your own best choices and take action to support your highest visions. It is practical: it integrates vision, reality and action into a unified framework for guiding long-term and daily decisions and actions. It is sustainable: rather than fade with time, it grows more powerful with daily practice. Most important, a creative vision of success is organic: there is no need to force yourself to take action. In a creative structure the daily acts of life more easily, naturally, accumulate into personal integrity and a better world.
The alternative to creating what we most want, is to endure whatever we get. To integrate our lives and our culture, we'd do best to see ourselves as creators, architects of our own futures. That way we can best ensure that the simplicity we create will satisfy our deepest life urges, not tempt us back to what Brand calls Involuntary Complexity. If not us, who? If not now, when?
Copyright © 1998 Bruce Elkin. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
Bruce Elkin is Director of The Earthways Insititute, a non-profit, educational organization helping individuals, groups and communities learn to live simply, yet richly -- in harmony with the ecological systems that sustain all life on Earth. He also offers personalized coaching for individuals and organizations wanting to simplify or downshift. A former Senior Trainer for The Institute for Earth Education, Bruce helped establish the Banff School of the Environment, taught environmental education at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and founded Uncommon Sense, an organizational consulting firm specializing in creative approaches to change and transformation. He lives on Saltspring Island in the Canadian Gulf Islands where he tries his best to practice what he preaches.
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