Why Do We Choose To Live Simply?

(Updated 10/06/2006)


David's Response:

In answering that question, I'll begin by saying a few words about what I believe simple living to be. It is not necessarily ascetic or austere. It goes beyond minimalism to include direct involvement in providing for ones basic life needs such as water, food, shelter, transportation, etc. Freedom, fulfillment and participation are integral to its realization. It is a frugal way of life, yet one lived with a margin. It is a considered way of life. Frenetic activity, so endemic to our culture of affluence, is antithetical to it. It enhances and is enhanced by, community. It is a way of living that fits the natural setting in which it occurs. It is about finding delight in the discovery of simple solutions to practical needs. It is also a marginal way of life, radical and often misunderstood, though seldom taken seriously enough to be disdained.

For me, living simply is living the good life. I know of no other way of living that affords more freedom or satisfaction. Being a person of many and diverse interests, I was fortunate to learn early in life that a conventional way of living was not the best way for me to realize the freedom to pursue those interests. Given my proclivities, a better approach was to live in a relatively simple manner, with a focus on freedom rather than on conventional preoccupations of wealth or security. Contrary to the grave warnings of many along the way, the approach has served me well. Granted, if success is measured in the conventional terms of material wealth or financial security, I have little to show for half a century of living. But if wealth is instead counted in the experiences, the explorations, and perhaps most importantly, in the friends and community I've been privileged to know and be a part of, I have been most fortunate.

While I innately prefer the simple life, I believe our choices need to be based on considerations broader than mere personal preference. Although I agree with Wendell Berry's admonition (quoted on our home page), I don't live simply in order to avoid catastrophe, but rather because of what I understand to be an ethical obligation.

I find the wisdom inherent in the principle "Do to others as you would have them do to you" to be compelling and comprehensive if "others" is broadened beyond its usual anthropocentric preconceptions to include all forms of life as well as future generations of all life. As such, it is a guide for how we relate as members of the life community.

The relevance of such an ethic is clear if one realizes, as anyone who is paying attention must, that humanity's uninhibited growth is consuming the fabric of life on which its life depends. This is evidenced in a long and growing list of environmental degradations including habitat destruction, forest reduction, topsoil loss, climate change and mass extinction to name only a few.

Overpopulation is often cited as the underlying cause of this unsustainable growth, but from a biological perspective, the core issue is not simply population size, but rather "carrying capacity", the ability of an ecosystem to sustainably support the needs of a species. Carrying capacity is determined not only by the number of individuals, but also by the impact each one has on the ecosystem in which it lives. Jared Diamond refers to this, in his book Collapse, as "per-capita human impact." In most species, per-capita impact is relatively uniform from one member of the population to the next, but in humans it is widely variable. On average, those of us in rich nations have a much higher per-capita impact than those in poorer ones.

The growth of our global population and of our per-capita impact are both contributing to the decline in life forms and ecosystem health the world over. As the negative impacts of unsustainable growth continue to mount, our own future is becoming imperiled as well. We cannot increase human population indefinitely and we cannot all live a first world lifestyle. Fitting into the community of all life is not a choice, but a necessity, and one from which our technological prowess will not exempt us.

Either now and in a considered way, or later and probably more desperately, the changes we must make are radical. We must learn to live well while consuming far less than we do. We must embrace voluntary limits in our lives. We must become far more attentive than we are to the consequences of our actions. We must begin to measure our wealth not in greater consumption, but in greater involvement. We must define our involvement not in the narrow context of the money economy, but in the broader context of the ecological economy. We must move beyond reduction, to integration, providing for our basic life needs in ways that make us more fully and directly accountable to the health of the life community of which we are a part.

Living more simply is an essential aspect of living more harmoniously with the community of all life and, in the process, toward enhancing the health of our own lives and insuring the viability of our collective future.

At this juncture in humanity's trajectory, I know of no endeavor more compelling, fascinating and necessary than exploring and attempting to live out the "good life," of which simple living in an integral part.


Pearl's Response:

Why have we chosen to live in this way? This is a question we’re frequently asked, but one that we usually feel awkward trying to answer. I find myself approaching it from various angles, never finding an answer that seems complete, but here are a few of the partial ones:

1. I like it.

That’s way too simplistic, but a personal preference for simplicity, spareness, functionality, lack of clutter in both time and space has definitely played a big part in choosing the life I have.


2. It feels right.

From childhood, I’ve been saturated with the words of Jesus. Although many of my interpretations have changed since then, there's no doubt that these words are foundational to my ethics and conscience about how to live:

Blessed are the poor…

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.

You are to love your neighbor as yourself.

Treat others the way you want them to treat you.

How difficult it is for those who have money to enter God’s domain…it’s
easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy
person to get into God’s domain.

This way of living is one step of ours toward a more just economy, one that also begins to take other forms of life into account as some of those “others” who deserve to be treated as we want to be treated.


3. It moves me toward a greater sense of connectedness.

Living outdoors more brings me into daily contact with others in the family of life and makes me more aware of trying to live cooperatively with them.


4. It’s a step toward greater freedom.

More words from Jesus:

Blessed are the pure in heart.

What good does it do a person to acquire the whole world and pay for it with
life? Or, what would a person give in exchange for life?

Don’t fret about your life—what you’re going to eat and drink—or about your
body—what you’re going to wear…can any of you add one hour to life by
fretting about it? There is more to living than food and clothing.

What you treasure is your heart’s true measure.

Heaven’s imperial rule is like some trader looking for beautiful pearls.
When that merchant finds one priceless pearl, he sells everything he owns and
buys it.

The refrain to the song, “Me and Bobby McGee” begins, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Whereas it goes on, “Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’,” I like to think that this kind of nothing is worth everything. Freedom from fear, from the constraints that keep me from living fully in the light of truth, justice and beauty--this is what I most desire, and it demands that I indeed have nothing left to lose. This isn’t a final state I hope to achieve, but is rather a quest to last a lifetime. Some of the choices I’ve made that seem strange to others can be seen as part of that quest.


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