books consumerism lifestyle simple living

How to be Free, by Tom Hodgkinson

I re-read one of my favourite books last week, How to be Free, by Tom Hodgkinson. Tom is the editor of the Idler, author of How to Be Idle, a columnist for the Ecologist magazine, and the only mainstream writer I know to have used the phrase make wealth history. To sum up his philosophy, the world would be a better place if we all did less: “there’s far too much ‘doing’ going on in the world” he writes. “The responsible response to a world in which interfering has created terrible health and environmental problems is to do less, not more.” 

The world we live in is characterised by “greed, competition, lonely striving, greyness, debts, McDonald’s and GlaxoSmithKline”, a treadmill of earning and spending that is destroying the earth, oppressing its people, and hasn’t even made us happy in the process. Instead, argues Hodgkinson, we need to liberate ourselves. 

How to be Free serves as a kind of how-to manual for breaking free from all this, the debts and mortgages run up trying to buy our way into the good life, from the fear of living differently. The first step is to reclaim our personal choices from the ones set before us, and realise that “like it or not, you are free. The real question is whether you choose to exercise that freedom.”

The book is full of insightful observations on consumer culture and the things that keep us trapped in the earning and spending system. Fear for example, the relentless doom and gloom of the news, the fear of rising crime, in the face of statistics that say otherwise. (Check those statistics for yourself here – pdf). Or boredom, or the competitive nature of the ‘career’, as opposed to a calling or a vocation. He talks about housing, and the fact that “the conventional wisdom is that you are supposed to take on the biggest mortgage you can.”

The answer might just be to do less. If we work less, we will have more time for the things that matter in life – like people. In order to work less, we have to be happier with less money, and to make do with less money we need to want less stuff, be more creative, make our own entertainment, and be more self-sufficient. So, grow your own vegetables, says Hodgkinson, learn to play an instrument, throw parties. Work less and live more, and it will be better for us, for those around us, and for the earth too.

There’s plenty of good advice in How to be Free, and lots of fascinating sources of inspiration. Hodgkinson draws from the medieval age of the guilds, from the distributists, who called for each family to have their own land, Masanobu Fukuoka‘s experimental farming, or the 1960s political surrealist situationist movement, right through to Damien Hirst and The Libertines. 

The best thing about How to be Free is that it describes a much more sustainable life, both environmentally and socially, without you even realising it. It is a positive articulation, casting a vision of a better way to live. It’s provocative, inspiring, and very funny too. If you remain convinced that a sustainable lifestyle will be one of sacrifice and deprivation, How to be Free might just change your mind.


  1. Not as such, although many of the principles would apply. Many of the things here are about state of mind, so they would apply at any stage in life.

    In some ways it’s easier to be free if you start early – rather than getting free of debt, you can choose to never get into debt in the first place, for example.

  2. Loved his books. “How To Be Idle” and “Freedom Manifesto” were great too! If only more people would read his stuff and break outta their crap lives, we would have a better planet and lives!

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