Americans Seek to Live Simply Amid Recession

March 16, 2009 01:19 PM
by Shannon Firth
Is now the time to pare back and start fresh? In difficult times, more Americans are following Thoreau’s path toward voluntary simplicity.

Living Simply in the Recession Era

Embracing financial self-restraint during a recession seems like a no-brainer, but what defines simple living? In order to better understand the movement, look to its history.

In May 2008, findingDulcinea wrote that voluntary simplicity, having surfaced in the consumer-driven 1980s, was making a comeback. The New York Times profiled the Harris family of Texas who gave away all of their possessions and moved to Vermont to begin living as organic homesteaders.

Kristen Martini, now a single mother living in Florida, said her own conversion happened after meeting friends who embraced simple living. She told The Oprah Magazine, “I saw how much happier they were than me. They were authentic.” Martini decided her country club lifestyle was making her sick. She divorced her husband and moved to a one-bedroom cabin in Florida with her twin daughters. She also stopped dying her gray hair, saying, “I don’t want to spend time altering myself anymore. I want to be happy as I am, with who I am and what I have.”

Colin Beavan, who lives in downtown Manhattan with his wife and daughter, caught the public’s attention when he decided to live with zero impact on their environment, earning the nickname “No-Impact Man.” His family eats only organic food grown within 250 miles, uses a composter for their waste, and denies themselves certain amenities such as carbon-based transportation, dishwashers, television and even toilet paper. His extreme lifestyle garnered him a book deal and a documentary.

According to Mother Jones, Judith Levine, author of “Not Buying It,” chose not to shop for a year. She writes of her angst at passing up new movies and art shows, but learns to read library books and seek out free leisure activities instead. Mary Carlomagno, author of “Learning to Live Better With Less,” chose to give up a different luxury each month, from cell phones to coffee to alcohol.

Dr. Mary Grigsby, a sociology professor and author of “Buying Time and Getting By: The Voluntary Simplicity Movement,” told the Times, “The idea in the movement was ‘everything you own owns you.’” She adds, “If you are burdened by these things and they become the center of what you have to do to live, is that really positive?”

In the 1840s, Henry David Thoreau lived a life of “voluntary poverty” in the woods of Concord, Mass., where he chronicled his reflections on life and nature in the book “Walden.” He never drank alcohol, never married, never voted, never held a permanent job and never paid taxes. After his death in 1862, Thoreau came to be seen as a philosopher and a luminary, while throughout his lifetime, he’d been branded an eccentric, a rabble-rouser and an idler.

According to Mothers Jones, some viewed Thoreau’s decision to withdraw from society as condescending. Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “So many negative superiorities begin to smack a little of the prig.” And yet, the guiding principle of Thoreau’s life was that every person must be true to his own nature: “I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible, but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way.”

In 1936, Richard Gregg, took up Thoreau’s torch when he published his book, “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity.” He defined voluntary simplicity: “It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life.” As far back as the 1930s, Gregg recognized that man’s machinery was contributing to society’s moral decay.

In 1998, Peggy Noonan echoed Gregg’s prescient worries. Where Gregg had written, “[T]ime spared from necessitous toil ceases to be leisure.” Noonan explains that it takes only five minutes to heat and eat a microwave meal, yet she’s envious of the experience she’s missing: “And I think: That cavewoman watching the antelope turn on the spit, she was probably happily daydreaming about how shadows played on the walls of her cave. She had time.”

Background: Spreading the gospel of simple living

According to Time magazine, the trend of simple living was big business in the 1990s. In 1992, Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez authored the book “Your Money or Your Life.” By 1995, the couple living on $13,000 a year had earned $3.5 million on their book. They chose to donate their income to charity. 

Today Robin lives in a small apartment in Seattle and drives a hybrid car. She told Oprah magazine, “For me, frugality equals freedom. I don’t have any debt, I know how to live within my means. I am not scared by the economic bogeyman.”

Opinion & Analysis: The New Thoreauvians

Michael Agger of Mother Jones argues that Beavan, Levine, Carlomagno and other authors who write about their experimental lifestyles are simply opportunists parading a gimmick to swing a book deal. Agger writes that most of these new Thoreauvians will return to their old ways of living, teaching us perhaps a different lesson: “Change is rarely drastic. We must strive for continuous, daily, incremental improvement toward whatever social, environmental, and economic goals we deem important.”

Related Topic: How to live simply

Visit Leo Babuto’s Zen Habit’s blog and read the “Simple Living Manifesto: 72 Ideas to Simplify Your Life.”

Reference: Green Living


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