Posted on Sept. 8, 2009. Listed in:
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“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” This line from Wordsworth’s sonnet, which I reverently committed to memory in my youth, stands as an epigraph to Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture, edited by Melbourne-based Samuel Alexander.
The Wordsworth quote is just right because the voluntary simplicity which the book expounds is in part an attempt to avoid being distracted from what is best in our lives. It is also an attempt to focus on what is best for our fellow human beings – quoting Mahatma Gandhi “Live simply, so that others may simply live”.
Not least, it is an attempt to address positively the threat of ecological disaster that we are bringing upon ourselves.
What is voluntary simplicity? The editor describes it as a living strategy that rejects the materialistic lifestyle of consumer culture and affirms a simpler style of life. It is not, he hastens to add, a glorification of poverty, nor does it mean living in poverty, nor indiscriminately rejecting all the advantages of science and technology.
At its most basic it is a decision made by individuals to scale down their participation in the high consumption, materialistic lifestyle so widely celebrated in capitalist societies today. It can be practised quietly and unobtrusively or it can be proclaimed publicly to change social institutions.
It has an ancient and sometimes heroic ancestry – think of the Buddha or Jesus of Nazareth or St Francis of Assisi. Writers have embraced it – think of Thoreau or the later Tolstoy. Political activists have advanced it – think of Gandhi.
But in this book the emphasis is on more ordinary people working at a simple everyday extrication of themselves from the reigning practices and values of the consumer society. Two central themes in this process are a modest standard of living and a working life kept in proportion to other values.
This book is a substantial anthology, something of a reference for readers who seek to adopt a measure of voluntary simplicity. It gathers extracts from a number of writers, many of them academics and educators, who one way or another share in a broad voluntary simplicity movement.
The editor regards Henry Thoreau’s Walden as the greatest statement ever made on the subject, and a chapter from it concludes the collection. Thoreau’s final sentence underlines the book’s emphasis on individual decision: “…the man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait until that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.”
But if the writers start with the individual they certainly don’t end there. They are not quietists. They show a lively sense of social justice and an awareness of the need for change in the whole of society.
Gandhi again: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” There’s plenty in the book that tackles the wider organisation of communities. “Why should the law give landowners the power to erode the soil, to degrade ecological processes, or to build structures that diminish the lives of surrounding people?” asks one contributor.
An appendix carries the declaration of a 2008 Paris Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity.
Poetry is mentioned in the sub-title. This presumably echoes Thoreau’s use of the term poetic. For Thoreau, as quoted in the book, the vocational dilemma was “how to make the getting of our living poetic! If it is not poetic it is not life but death we get.”
Leaving the book for a moment it may be worth noting that Thoreau did have a go at writing poetry as well as prose, but without great success. He settles for “My life has been the poem I would have writ” and concludes ruefully in the succeeding line of the couplet “But I could not both live and utter it.”
What are the prospects for voluntary simplicity becoming a widespread phenomenon in our society? One can read a book like this and think it represents a very faint hope and a very small voice amid the tumult surrounding economic growth and the prosperity that many politicians and leaders assure us is the key to our happiness (and, one cynically observes, their re-election or continuing wealth).
But the writers have a basic logic on their side which can’t be gainsaid. Life must be about more than getting and spending. There has to be more substance to us than that. The resources which we consume without reckoning their sustainability will run out. The torrents of waste we continually feed ensures that.
The damage which we are causing to the global climate will soon become overwhelming. Calm and considered statements such as those collected here will prove their wisdom when we wake up to what the consumer culture has cost us.