Voluntary Simplicity: An Overview and Environmental Argument for Adoption


As we consider the necessity of a car here on our little island, now ten days into our great experiment, I’ve been thinking a lot more about voluntary simplicity and living lightly upon the earth, not just for environmental reasons, but also for reasons of greater personal fulfillment and the pleasure of more time to enjoy life that comes from less time spent working to spend money on “stuff.”  I was reminded of a paper I wrote in college with two other students for an Environmental Ethics group project, and I thought it might be interesting to share.  It’s long (if you think I sometimes write wordy blog posts, you should have seen my college research papers), but for someone who is not really familiar with the movement it provides a decent overview of voluntary simplicity and an argument for its adoption.

The no-car experiment is going well.  We have driven twice, once for our planned exception (going to the landfill) and once when Nora and I met with a new webdesign client late Wednesday night who lives off a busy road without street lights or a bike path.  (Chris and I debated that trip, but it seemed a waste to hire a taxi when we didn’t really need to.  If we didn’t have a car, I would have called a cab, which would have been worth it since I got a job out of the trip.)  Other than those two times, we haven’t missed the car at all.  We had one cold rainy day and, like a trouper, Chris bundled up and walked to work under an umbrella; otherwise it’s been sunny and surprisingly warm.  The more I think about it, the more not having a car is growing on me.  Maybe only a little stranger than not owning a television?

Read on about voluntary simplicity, then let me know what you think.

Voluntary Simplicity:

An Overview and Environmental Argument for Adoption

Environmental Ethics
Philosophy 315
Austin College
May 2, 2005

The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s brought about much social change in the United States and abroad.  Various social consciousness movements were spurred which led towards discussion on the right way to live.  During this time, the voluntary simplicity movement immerged and gained salience (Grigsby 7).  Reasons for adopting the simple life vary greatly, though voluntary simplicity literature identifies several dominant veins, including loss of meaning and fulfillment in life, environmental degradation, and the demise of strong communities; ideas which are viewed as interrelated (Grigsby 25).  Through analysis of Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simply Inwardly Rich, Mary Grigsby’s Buying Time and Getting By: The Voluntary Simplicity Movement, Linda Breen Pierce’s Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World, and Jerome M. Segal’s Graceful Simplicity: Toward a Philosophy and Politics of Simple Living, it becomes clear that Grigsby provides the strongest environmental argument for voluntary simplicity, which can be defended against criticism.

In Voluntary Simplicity, Elgin defines voluntary simplicity as an integration of the inner and outer aspects of life into an organic and purposeful whole.  He states that there is no specific formula for simple living, but there are general attitudes and beliefs that are associated with the lifestyle, including reducing the clutter and complexity in life, changing levels and patterns of consumption, feeling an intimate connection with the earth, pursuing a livelihood that contributes to the well-being of the world, and participating in holistic practices (32-5).   Likewise, Grigsby, the author of Buying Time and Getting By, describes voluntary simplicity as trying “to get by on less conspicuous consumption and less income from waged work in order to buy time for the well-being of the global environment, and for [those who participate] to pursue more fulfilling and pleasurable activities” (2).  According to Choosing Simplicity, voluntary simplicity is a life that provides the best balance of joy and fulfillment.   In order to achieve this balance between joy and inner peace, one would first have to examine his or her life and determine his or her main value system.  Segal’s Graceful Simplicity identifies a life of voluntary simplicity as one of beauty, security, comfort, ease, and naturalness, free from overriding anxiety and ceaseless striving.   Segal focuses on reduced consumption as Grigsby and Elgin do, but also says that a life of voluntary simplicity allows time “to pay respect to the value of what you do, to the worth of those you care for, and to the possessions that you own” (160).  He identifies this lifestyle as graceful living.

Individual benefits of simple living are peace of mind and personal fulfillment, which come from living in keeping with one’s values and knowing that one is shaping a positive future for the world.  In Voluntary Simplicity, Elgin cites many personal benefits of simple living.   These benefits tend to include having more time to do the things one wants, such as spending time with friends and family, developing “the full spectrum of [his physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual] potentials” (Elgin 32), and developing personal skills that contribute to a greater self-reliance.  Simple livers tend to push toward elimination of gender-specific roles, allowing the individual to live in a less sexist society.  Grigsby discusses the concept of the “green triangle” (41), and the healthier lifestyle that can be gained through simple living.  For example, if one were to ride a bike instead of driving a car, he or she would become more physically healthy in addition to the environment.   Simple livers have a greater peace of mind, developed through the knowledge that their actions minimize environmental impact and that they have more financial stability.  Individual benefits, according to Pierce, are improving the quality of life by having personal freedom, less stress from work, becoming more in touch with spirituality, having a greater connection with family, friends, and all other life on the planet, and having a job that is more purposeful and meaningful.  Pierce talks about her own career change, resulting from her experience as an attorney, which “did wonders for [her] pocketbook and [her] ego, [but] did little for [her] soul” (31).  Segal also discusses the benefit of having a more rewarding job.  He discusses one strategy for incorporating work into graceful living through making it poetic.  Work is made poetic through inner dignity, which Segal defines as knowing oneself and one’s values.  Dignity will allow one to take pride in one’s work, which allows for it to be more satisfying.

Social benefits of voluntary simplicity are comprised of positive environmental effects, progress toward equality, and community solidarity for those who practice simple living.  As previously mentioned, simple livers exist in “ways that minimize the wasteful destruction of the planet’s diminishing resources.  They also seek to model earth-respectful behavior” (Pierce 266).  Practitioners of voluntary simplicity seek to establish socioeconomic equality, in addition to seeking elimination of defined gender roles.  One way that simple livers work toward socioeconomic equality is through their consumer habits. “Ultimately responsibility is about everyone in the world having enough, and finding ways for all of us to get there-for the well-being of the earth” (Grigsby 33-4).  Elgin states that simple living can lead towards the rebirth of the community as an area of mutual living.  Specifically, he identifies the importance of smaller neighborhoods serving as villages with the “flavor and cohesiveness of a small town and the sophistication of a larger city” (Elgin 200-201).  Consistent with Elgin’s view, is Grigsby’s belief that there is a need to build an alternative culture of simple living, starting at the community level.  If one follows Segal’s suggestions for attaining a life of simplicity, social benefits would include a free college education, simple living tax credits, and neighborhood beautification and revitalization.

Accepting a life of voluntary simplicity entails making sacrifices, such as living in a way that eliminates over-consumption by determining the difference between personal needs and personal wants.  Elgin’s discussion of voluntary simplicity states

there are no fixed rules or norms to define this way of life.  The worldly expression of voluntary simplicity is something that each person must discover for him or herself in the context of his or her unique circumstances (109).

Because each person must individually discover voluntary simplicity, authors of literature on the subject can only identify main themes within the lifestyle, and not articulate specific sacrifices that should be made.  Although there is no set of guidelines in Buying Time and Getting By, there are trends in the sacrifices that interviewees made.  Interviewees gave up as much as possible to minimize their impact on the environment; in particular many gave up high paying jobs and luxury goods, as well as moved to lower income housing and began eating organic foods.  “Usually simple livers say that most of our spending should be for food and shelter” (Grigsby 62).  Grigsby also cites a group in San Francisco that focuses on buying things that promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, as well as serve a specific need; this group considers the impact of their consumption patterns on other people and the earth.  Like Grigsby, Pierce also says there is no set of guidelines to follow.  Sacrifices can entail a career change, a change in atmosphere, or could even mean simply slowing down the pace of one’s life.  Most people interviewed in her book noted that a career change was necessary to achieve meaning and fulfillment in their lives.  They found that their careers lacked a sense of purpose which is essential to finding gratification in one’s work.  One could change the atmosphere around him or her by moving to another part of town, for example from an urban area to a rural area.  Making such a move would provide an opportunity to slow down the pace of life, allowing one to enjoy life more fully.  Segal also focuses on achieving greater fulfillment through lifestyle change.   In Graceful Simplicity, Segal states that the key to living a graceful life is having self-possession, or knowing who one is and being at peace with oneself.  This belief that, in order to live a graceful life, one must be aware of whom one is mirrors Elgin’s, Pierce’s, and Grigsby’s belief that one must determine the difference between personal wants and personal needs.  Segal states self-possession is inner capability coupled with the external environment.  He provides the equation, “(Good Fortune) x (Inner Orientation) = Gracefulness” (Segal 165).   Unlike Elgin, Grigsby, and Pierce, Segal does provide specific sacrifices he thinks must be made, including shifting the 40 hour work week into a 30 hour work week.  Instituting this plan would allow more free time in which to live gracefully, but would require willingness to give up extra money.

Not all people are able to make the changes and sacrifices necessary to adopt a life of voluntary simplicity because many obstacles stand in the way of doing so.   Elgin, Grigsby, Pierce and Segal all discussed socioeconomic status as an obstacle to adopting the lifestyle.   By definition, one must choose voluntary simplicity of his or her own free will.   People of limited means cannot choose the lifestyle, because, as Grigsby says “the global poor are so caught up in survival activities they don’t have time to think of alternatives” (124).  In addition, it is extremely difficult for people of a lower socioeconomic status to consciously decide to adopt a life of simplicity, as they do not have the time to think about environmental and social issues and how their lifestyle affects those issues.  Tied to this is a job related obstacle.  If living simply requires one to cut back work hours, as all the authors suggest, a complication arises if the person’s specific job will not allow him or her to do so.  Both Pierce and Segal identify this as an obstacle in simple living.  Segal states that “most jobs don’t come with this kind of divisibility […and t]he choice workers face is most often between a full-time job or some different kind of job at half-time” (25).  A third obstacle is presented by Segal and is the obstacle of desire.  Segal states that we, ourselves, are “the primary obstacle that stands in the way of a politics dictated not to expanded incomes but to expanding the opportunities for simple living” (213).  Choosing voluntary simplicity requires a shift in how we think and perceive personal wants and personal needs.  Simple livers often cannot, on the surface, be distinguished from those who live in poverty.  Many people would not be willing to accept such a lifestyle, “don’t want to give up what [they] have” (Segal 25), and “[i]ndeed, most of [them] want even more” (Segal 25).  Segal also discusses a fourth obstacle, that of the practicality of some changes that are suggested by authors on voluntary living.  One of those changes that Segal contradicts is Grigsby and Pierce’s suggestion that one could move to an area where the cost of living is lower.  Segal states that if a large number of people followed that advice, the cost of living in these areas might suddenly become much more expensive (27).

Given all of the above, Buying Time and Getting By provides the strongest environmental argument for adopting a life of voluntary simplicity.  Grigsby provides an argument that the middle class, and presumably the upper class, should adopt a simple lifestyle in order to create more sustainable consumer habits.  An argument based on Grigsby can be laid out as following:

1.         All things in the universe are interdependent.

2.         The middle class of western societies, especially the United States, is to blame for over-consumption of the earth’s resources.

3.         The over-consumption habits of this consumer class are part of the dominant culture in these western societies.

4.         There is a great disparity between the lives of the western middle class and the lives of the rest of the global population.

5.         The western middle class is damaging the sustainability of the interdependent relationships through relentless consumption of the earth’s resources.

6.         Adopting a life of voluntary simplicity reduces consumption.

7.         So, the western middle class should adopt a life of voluntary simplicity.

Grigsby presents an almost apocalyptic vision of the future, but says that many voluntary simplicity authors “maintain that humans choosing to simplify can prevent it” (31).  The first premise, that all things exist in an interdependent relationship, is central to the argument because if that relationship did not exist, then a life of voluntary simplicity could not shape a positive future for anyone or anything but the simple livers themselves.  Further, any decisions made by one group will affect all other things on the planet.  Premises two and three aim at the over-consumption of the middle classes.  Over-consumption is part of the dominate culture in western societies, especially the United States.  It is generally agreed upon that one-third of the world’s population consumes three-fourths of the resources.  In an essay on environmental ethics, “Lifeboat Ethics” Garrett Hardin supports this statement by identifying two-thirds of the world’s population as “desperately poor” (EEPB 403) and one-third as rich.  This illustrates the vastly unequal distribution of resources between the rich and the poor, as the fourth premise establishes.  The fifth premise states that the over-consumption of the western middle class is damaging the environment and that this over-consumption is an unsustainable way of living on a planet with finite resources.  Elgin, Pierce, and Segal support the sixth premise, Grigsby’s statement that a life of voluntary simplicity reduces consumption.  As result of these six premises, Grigsby states that the western middle class should adopt a life of voluntary simplicity.

This argument can be criticized for being too narrow.  The conclusion specifies that only western middle class consumers have a duty to adopt a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity.  Some might argue that voluntary simplicity cannot work unless it is adopted by every person, not just those in the consumer class.  Even if the consumer class has a shift in attitude toward voluntary simplicity, those not in the consumer class will not necessarily have the same attitude shift.  Because the over-consumption attitude is a dominant part of western culture, the lower class, although they may not have the ability to rise to the middle class, desire to do so.  Given the opportunity, the lower class will become over-consumers.  Grigsby’s argument does not require all people to adopt the fundamental attitude shift, but that would have to happen for global change to occur.   Guy Claxton, in an article analyzing voluntary simplicity, “Involuntary Simplicity: Changing Dysfunctional Habits of Consumption,” states that for voluntary simplicity to work, one has to “translate the wanting to want into not wanting” (644).  Claxton sees this as a main problem with voluntary simplicity literature.  If all people do not adopt the attitude of not wanting, then the consumer class will persist.  Even if all of the current middle class becomes simple livers, people in the lower class, provided the opportunity, will create a new consumer class.

Although it is true that a new consumer class could be created by those not mentioned in Grigsby’s environmental argument, an attitude shift among the current middle class is the first step toward global change.  Further, this criticism does not state that the argument itself is invalid, only that the limited scope makes positive global impact hard to achieve.  And, this criticism does not take into account that a new consumer class would also be required to change.  The environmental argument does not say only that the current middle class should adopt a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity; rather it has implications that any future consumer class, as well as any person who partakes in unsustainable over-consumption, would also have a duty to change.  Grigsby generalizes by identifying the western middle class because they are currently the group responsible for consuming the majority of the world’s resources.  Though she makes this generalization, the reasons that create a duty to change (interdependence and sustainability) apply to any person who over-consumes, making the argument valid.

In summary, there are few specific guidelines present in voluntary simplicity literature regarding how simple livers should live or what sacrifices they should make, but Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity, Grigsby’s Buying Time and Getting By, Pierce’s Choosing Simplicity, and Segal’s Graceful Simplicity all cite specific trends among simple livers.  There are also several dominant reasons for choosing to live simply, one of which is eliminating environmental degradation.  Grigsby presents a strong environmental argument for voluntary simplicity which concludes that the western middle class has a duty to adopt a life style of voluntary simplicity.  This argument can be criticized for being too narrow but can be defended so that it is still a valid argument for the adoption of a simple lifestyle.

Works Cited

Claxton, Guy.  “Involuntary Simplicity: Changing Dysfunctional Habits of Consumption.”  The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book.  Ed. Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce. 3rd ed.  Belmont, CA: 2003. 643-648.

Elgin, Duane.  Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple Inwardly Rich.  Rev. ed.  New York: William Marrow and Company, Inc., 1993.

Grigsby, Mary.  Buying Time and Getting By: The Voluntary Simplicity Movement. Albany, NY: New York Press, 2004.

Harden, Garrett.  “Life Boat Ethics.” The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book. Ed. Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce.  3rd ed.  Belmont, CA: 2003. 402-408.

Pierce, Linda Breen.  Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World.  Carmel, CA: Gallagher Press, 2000.

Segal, Jerome M.  Graceful Simplicity: Toward a Philosophy and Politics of Simple Living.  New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.

About the Author


2 responses

  1. Thankfulness vs. Desire — Au Coeur

    […] the college essay I shared yesterday, there is a point where I discussed that the greatest obstacle to adopting a life of simplicity is […]

  2. sarah meyers Avatar
    sarah meyers

    I haven’t read your essay yet, but I thought (based on the title) that you were supporting Adoption for simplicity. Meaning, adopt kids so that we don’t have more created : ) And I was like, “wow, I’ve been thinking that too, how funny that Amber wrote an essay on that!” B/c my argument is that instead of creating more consumers to consume the planet, we should just raise the ones that we’ve already got. I say this being pregnant mind you, but still : ) I read a really great article about population recently that I think you’d like: http://motherjones.com/environment/2010/05/population-growth-india-vatican This is one of the best articles I think I’ve ever read.

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