This post is an edited version of a similar one I wrote for a work blog on sustainability. The research and writing for that blog post inspired me to take on the challenge of cultivating a simpler life.
After reading a post by a contributor to our office’s blog on living with less and some recent reading on the “simplicity movement,” most notably Jim Merkel’s “Radical Simplicity”, I was inspired to take another look at my own lifestyle. Having done so, I saw a lot of room for improvement. So, I decided to take on a new challenge – to find the sweet spot between unsustainable minimalism and simple living in a modern world.
Why do people choose to live with less (which is different from being involuntarily poor)? Isn’t more always better? It appears that more stopped being better sometime in the 1960s as increases in GDP and standards of living could no longer be equated with a rise in happiness and quality of life. We have bigger houses, more cars, and a plethora of convenience appliances, yet having them is not making us happier. The development of new ways of assessing our quality of life, (such as the World Happiness Report and those presented by Mark Anielski in his last book on the Genuine Wealth Model and Genuine Progress Indicator) reflect our growing dissatisfaction with measures of National success that are based on the production and accumulation of material and financial wealth. The voluntary simplicity movement is another response to this growing dissatisfaction with a consumer culture that hasn’t been able to provide what truly makes most of us happy which is community connections, family, meaningful work, good health and high quality governance structures.
Choosing to live with less is also good for other people (who don’t have enough) and other living creatures (like bees) that we share our world with. This is the case because to have more is no longer possible as our Earth’s bio-productive land base, which provides for all our human needs and the ever increasing human wants cannot keep up. As Bill Rees tells us, we are already extracting more than the Earth can provide and dumping more waste than the Earth can assimilate. So the less we take the more will be available for others.
Some people choose this lifestyle to reduce their impact on the environment; some want to reduce debt levels and dependence on unfulfilling 9 to 5 jobs; others want to focus their time, money and energy on family or social and community causes; and some do it for all the above and more.
My path to complex consumerism: The old roadmap
When I returned to work after my maternity leave last year I realized that the gap between my values and my lifestyle were Grand Canyon deep. We were over half a million dollars in debt after having invested in a 2,400sf townhouse (where I have my own bathroom that no one else uses), a mid-sized sedan and multiple shiny new “i-Devices” among other things. We drove to all our destinations, consumed so much we had an entire room of our house dedicated to hiding clutter, and every day I dropped my son off at a daycare with “strangers” and spent the day away from him at work.
My current lifestyle and the inherent contradiction between my values and consumption patterns were the result of many choices that seemed insignificant at the time or were compromises that “locked” us into long-term consumption commitments (e.g., the purchase of our townhouse will mean higher energy bills, a longer commute to work, and more space which encourages the collection of more stuff).
Although sustainability was always a consideration, our decisions as a family were frequently based on our autopilot script of what is considered “normal” or “common sense” in our society right now. Sustainability was a consideration, but not a guiding principle. We were using what Vicki Robin, author of “Your Money or Your Life,” calls the old economic roadmap based on what used to work for an industrial society. We rarely questioned the deeper assumptions underlying our decisions and, looking back, many were based on comparing ourselves to family and peers, external factors like the housing market, and on emotions and pre-set ideas of what constituted “the good life.”
The Challenge: Create a new roadmap
So my challenge is to break out of my old “more is better” thinking and behaviours, encouraged by the more is better mantra, and to reimagine what my life could be like if I learned the value of “enough.” The challenge end goals will be to
a) reduce my own footprint from 14 acres to 6 (a goal developed with the help of Jim Merkel in his book “Radical Simplicity”) using the tools in “Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth” by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, and
b) to align mine and my family’s lifestyle with our deepest values rather than our attachment to “stuff”.
I’ll be noting my progress toward these goals through this blog to keep my efforts honest and to share the challenges, successes and things I learn along the way with others interested in living a simpler life. I hope my efforts and those of others working toward similar goals will demonstrate that a simpler lifestyle is both possible and desirable in the modern Western World.