Who knows how deep I had to dig into “voluntary simplicity” search results to find Katie Barton’s 89-page college thesis in October 2016.
It was an eye-opening breakthrough for me personally when I read it back then. I thought it was so good that I read it again in full this week.
After all, who wouldn’t want less: work, stress, rushing, wants/desires, consumerism/consumption, spending/debt, competition, ecological footprint…
And more: time, meaning, intention, balance, happiness/satisfaction, slowness/pace, fulfilling experiences, relationships with family/friends, creativity, holistic health, spiritual growth, cooperation/connectedness, conservation/lower-impact living, and quality of life.
This post highlights key takeaways and direct quotes from her thesis. I’ve taken the liberty to add emphasis (in bold) and organize the content into various sections. There are many names and books mentioned throughout the full thesis, and I’ll link to some at the end of this post. Her bibliography has a full list.
You can find her full thesis here with the ability to download it as a PDF: “Listening to the Quiet Revolution: The Implications of Voluntary Simplicity for a Sustainable Society”
I’ve been unable to find any follow-up content from Ms. Barton. But, if I ever get the chance or if she reads this, I would like to thank her for writing her thesis on voluntary simplicity!
What is voluntary simplicity?
- “(Duane) Elgin popularized the term ‘voluntary simplicity,’—which pacifist Richard Gregg had coined in 1936—as a characterization of the modern simplicity movement. To live voluntarily, Elgin explains, is to live conscientiously and deliberately, and to live more simply is to unencumber oneself in all aspects of life in order to ‘(meet) life face to face.’ In short, voluntary simplicity is ‘outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich.’“
- “We define voluntary simplicity as the degree to which an individual consciously chooses a way of life intended to maximize the individual’s control over his/her own life… Individuals relatively high in voluntary simplicity seek to minimize their dependency on institutions they cannot control (such as government, oil companies, and large agribusiness food companies) and to maximize their harmony with nature.” — Dorothy Leonard-Barton and Everett M. Rogers
If you only read a little more, here’s the gist of voluntary simplicity:
- “Voluntary simplicity is not a return to a primitive way of life, but rather growth in a different direction—one that is personal and deeply fulfilling rather than material.”
- “Essentially, voluntary simplicity is the ideology that ‘we can work less, want less, and spend less, and be happier in the process.’”
- “Voluntary simplifiers reject the ideal of consumerism: the notion that the acquisition of more material goods will make our lives better. Instead, they work less and focus on truly fulfilling experiences, such as relationships with family and friends, creating things, and the cultivation of holistic health. The goal of voluntary simplicity is not self-denial or austerity—on the contrary, voluntary simplifiers believe they are genuinely happier living with less.”
- “This finding is key: voluntary simplicity is not a movement of altruism or self-sacrifice. Therefore, as many adherents have found, despite entailing fewer material possessions, voluntary simplicity can be in other ways superior to a lifestyle of consumption. This may mean that in contrast to downshifting and other shallow forms of simplicity, voluntary simplicity offers not only a lower ecological footprint, but also deeper satisfaction.”
- “It presents a vision of a cooperative society that consumes less, is truly happier, and exists in balance with the environment.”
- “Simplicity came into its own as a distinct philosophy that could on its own improve people’s quality of life.”
- “This philosophy is key to the promise voluntary simplifiers hold for a future sustainable society. In Elgin’s words, ‘They are persons who stand with a foot in two worlds—with one foot in an unraveling industrial civilization and another foot in a newly arising postindustrial civilization. These are the ‘in-betweeners’—people who are bridging two worlds and making the transition from one dominant way of living to another.’”
- “As Elgin writes, ‘Instead of a ‘back to the land’ movement, it is much more accurate to describe this as a ‘make the most of wherever you are’ movement.’ Voluntary simplifiers are undertaking lifestyle changes in all sorts of communities.”
- “Voluntary simplifiers may restructure their time so that they work less and have more time for cultivating relationships, do-it-yourself projects, and lower-impact living.”
- “The values support each other in a complete philosophy that favors slowing down, which facilitates increasingly localized acquisition of goods—with the ultimate local being the home and the self.”
- “Andrews characterizes voluntary simplifiers as those who ‘slow down and enjoy life again’ by reducing their rushing, working, and spending. Most are concerned about the environment and are searching for more time and more meaning in their lives.”
- “Conscious simplicity… represents a deep, graceful, and sophisticated transformation in our ways of living—the work we do, the transportation we use, the homes and neighborhoods in which we live, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and much more. A sophisticated and graceful simplicity seeks to heal our relationship with the Earth, with one another, and with the sacred universe.” — Duane Elgin
What is the history of voluntary simplicity?
- “The trajectory of simplicity in the United States has followed a long history, from ancient wisdom, to early American thinkers, to the voluntary simplifiers who abandon the ‘rat race’ of work and consumption in order to pursue something better.”
- “The Eastern teachings of Zarathustra, Buddha, Lao-Tse, and Confucius, which emphasize material self-control, especially influenced Henry David Thoreau and the counterculture of the 1960s. However, according to Shi, ‘The most important historical influence on American simplicity has been the combined heritage of Greco-Roman culture and Judeo-Christian ethics.’”
- “Moral skepticism toward captivation by material wealth can be traced back to Ancient Greek wisdom. Socrates advocated a ‘golden mean between poverty and wealth’ and considered virtue, not wealth, the measure of a person’s merit.”
- “The Socratic ideal of a middle road between sufficiency and excess appears in Proverbs: ‘Give me neither poverty nor wealth, but only enough.’ Jesus was a radical in his rejection of material culture, teaching that undue esteem for material wealth opposed devotion to humankind and God.”
- “In the 18th century, republican intellectuals envisioned an ideal society as primarily agrarian and grounded in the values of hard work, frugality, simplicity, enlightened thinking, and public good.”
What’s going on today? Over-consumption, busyness, and the ecological crisis:
- “I’ve also learned that this society’s insatiable level of consumption is incompatible with a healthy planet. Every consumer good—from flowers to cell phones to houses—creates an environmental footprint at all stages from resource extraction to disposal.”
- “The reality is that Americans and those who consume at similar levels are responsible for a grossly disproportionate share of the earth’s environmental woes: the wealthiest 25 percent of the world’s population consumes about 85 percent of the planet’s resources and produces about 90 percent of its waste.”
- “In truth, feelings of relaxation during screen time, followed by feelings of dissatisfaction and regret after the TV is off, are parallel in many ways to the high and low feelings addicts experience.”
- “In the early 1990s, the recession produced disillusionments with the cycle of work-and-spend: many workers were laid off, and those who kept their jobs were responsible for more tasks. Then, as the economy ‘kicked into high gear,’ employers demanded employees spend more time at work. On top of this, as Maniates notes, ‘the proliferation of personal computers, home fax machines, pocket pagers, and the overall rise in ‘home offices’ meant that Americans were spending more time on the job as well, even when they were not… in the office. The result: overwork, stress, information overload, and growing doubts about the benefits of running the ‘rat race.’”
- “Increasing levels of work and consumption did not make people happier, leading many to question the consumer lifestyle.”
- “The United States as a whole has surpassed the point at which increasing wealth makes us happier.”
- “The human race is pushing the earth past its capacity to support us—and probably to support anything resembling life as it has been for the past 10,000 years.”
- “In a 2009 article featured in Nature, scientists conclude that we have already exceeded the boundaries of a ‘safe operating space for humanity’ in the realms of biodiversity loss, climate change, and alteration of the nitrogen cycle.”
- “I have an extraordinary love for the earth, and I reject the Judeo-Christian tradition that it exists for the sole purpose of human exploitation. In sum, I don’t think humans are the only species with an intrinsic right to exist. It is important to note that this belief is not anti-human—the exploitation of the earth is also the story of the exploitation of fellow humans; thus, the quest for a healthy environment is also the quest for a just human society.”
All of these combine to create tension in society:
- “I had the notion that what American culture tells us to overlook is exactly where we should be looking; that maybe the holiness of the consumer lifestyle was worth reevaluating. I decided that I would dedicate my life, in some form, to the fight against this culture of mindless consumption.”
- “In order to fully realize the ecological benefits of reduced consumption, it is necessary to completely overhaul material culture.”
- “Voluntary simplicity shifts the focus of society from one based on competition and an endless search for more, to one based on deeper fulfillment through less.”
- “According to Elgin, the industrial era view focuses on money and material goods as sources of happiness and identity. It favors the exploitation of nature, competition, selfishness, and personal autonomy.”
- “In contrast, the ‘ecological-era view’—one conjured by the harmonious and purposeful voluntary simplifiers—emphasizes conservation, frugality, creativity, balance, cooperation, fairness, responsibility, and connectedness of the individual with the whole of the planet and humankind.”
- “This is the core of voluntary simplicity. We are trying to find a way to live that helps us become fully alive. We are trying to discover and remove the things that are deadening, that cause us to escape to drugs and to shopping and to television, all the things that numb us and put us to sleep.” — Cecile Andrews
- “The most consistently voiced reason for interest in voluntary simplicity was the felt need to ‘get my life back’… The enduring theme of the meeting was that as currently organized, work and shopping—production and consumption, in other words—are not organized to meet the full range of human needs.” — Michael Maniates
- “Maniates argues that voluntary simplicity is a response to the stressful culture of work and spend, rather than a quest for spiritual awakening or ecological harmony.”
- “Zavestoski’s perspective on the role of environmental values further develops this idea: he finds that while many respondents were aware of the ‘burden of their consumption habits on the environment… It was not until they experienced a crisis of being that these individuals began to explore alternatives to consumption.’”
- “According to Zavestoski, labor and production in a capitalist economy fail to meet people’s needs of self-creation, and they turn instead to consumption for fulfillment. However, consumption can only meet the needs of self-esteem (prestige through symbolic status consumption) and self-efficacy (meeting goals through consumption). Consumption is not a valid means of creating an “authentic self”—that is, being true to one’s identity and values. Zavestoski concludes that people are drawn toward anti-consumption attitudes due to a failure to realize their authentic selves through consumption.”
- “Voluntary simplifiers are disillusioned with waged work and affluence. They take issue with many aspects of the prevalent culture, especially its emphasis on domination and competition, consumption as a measure of worth, traditional gender roles, and environmental destruction.” — Grigsby
- “Voluntary simplicity (is) an act of self-defense against the mind-polluting effects of over-consumption. To live in North American society is to be, in one way or another, under attack. We are flooded every day with countless ‘messages’… most of which have to do with consuming things or services. The language of our economic system is the language of discontent.” — Burch
Moving forward — balance and de-growth:
- “One must remember that the longing for higher satisfaction is present in all human beings.”
- “I’m not making the naïve and deluded claim that my life would be better as a nomad of prehistory.”
- “Like simplicity author Mark Burch, I wonder ‘if true wellness might lie somewhere between the rigors of a hunting and gathering lifestyle and breathing the canned air in the glass-walled cells of our high-rise urban prisons.’”
- “The steady presence of the voluntary simplicity movement over the course of 40 years may be due to its successful balancing of the hierarchy of needs.”
- “Oikonomia, or the art of living well, is simplified in the voluntarily simple squatter settlements: ‘Time is the central oikonomic end.'”
- “I’m disillusioned with the idea that reforming our growth-based system will gain us any environmental ground.”
- “The mainstream environmental movement’s focus on small consumer choices — what Voluntary Simplicity’s Duane Elgin terms ‘green lipstick on our unsustainable lives.’”
- “What matters is absolute energy consumption, which will only decrease with a conscientious change of mindset.”
- “The growth-oriented economy and the over-consumption it facilitates are overtaxing the planet’s resources without increasing the overall satisfaction of those who over-consume.”
- “Voluntary simplicity targets per-capita consumption, while de-growth focuses on the total consumption pattern of a society.”
- “In the words of de-growth scholar Serge Latouche, a degrowth society is ‘built on quality rather than on quantity, on cooperation rather than on competition (…) humanity liberated from economism for which social justice is the objective. (…) The motto of de-growth aims primarily at pointing the insane objective of growth for growth.’”
- “In a sort of positive feedback loop, voluntary simplicity and de-growth will both feed and be fed by a revolution in time use.”
- “Voluntary simplicity has the power to change the collective imagination of society as a whole in favor of de-growth.”
- “A spirit of unity in the fight for humanity’s common future.”
Voluntary simplicity books mentioned (just a selection, in no particular order):
This was a long one! Please share your thoughts to start a constructive discussion in the comments.
Also, check out the following posts if you liked this one:
- “Then what?” The Story of the Tourist and the Fisherman
- Use Minimalism as Momentum into Slow & Simple Living
- Slow Lifestyle Design: One Pixel (Day) at a Time
- Slow Hack 004: You Have a Choice
- Experiences vs Things: A Thought Experiment on Spending Money
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Thank you for posting this! I am writing my thesis on voluntary simplicity, and I am just curious, would you mind sharing when was this posted? I am trying to put together a timeline for when the term “voluntary simplicity” may have morphed/merged with “minimalism”.
Hi Sari – This post was originally published in April 2018.