lifestyle simple living

10 myths about simple living

1. Simple living is about retreat, and withdrawing from the world
On the contrary, simple living is about engaging more fully in the world, but with a different set of criteria about what matters. People matter, relationships, community, nature, the present moment, and life is full of distractions. Simple living clears the clutter away so that we can appreciate more fully what we have, and experience a richer life for it.

2. Simple living is about self denial
Moderating our wants is important – it might be wise to deny oneself the second doughnut, perhaps – but self denial is a way of maintaining balance and is not an end in itself. Simple living isn’t about ‘giving things up’ and adopting strict rules about what we can and can’t have. On the contrary, it is a great freedom. “To live simply is to unburden ourselves” says Duane Elgin, “to live more lightly, cleanly, aerodynamically.”

Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond

3. Simple living is about rural pastoralism
The cliché is of course taking off to a cabin somewhere, keeping goats and chopping your own wood. In reality, you can practice a simpler way of life anywhere, and there is nothing inherently rural or rustic about it. You can only start with yourself and where you are – and if you’re in the city, yours will have to be an urban simplicity. “Simplicity is a state of mind” says John Lane, author of Timeless Simplicity.

4. Simple living sentimentalises poverty
There is a crucial difference between poverty and simplicity – simplicity is chosen, and poverty is imposed. In fact, Amartya Sen defines poverty as ‘unfreedom’, the inability to shape our own lives and make the most of our own capabilities. There is nothing romantic about that. “Poverty is mean and degrading to the human spirit, whereas a life of conscious simplicity can have both a beauty and a functional integrity that elevates the human spirit” says Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity

5. Simple living is opposed to progress and technology
Advocates of simple living do not need to be luddites. If a technology empowers and liberates, then it can play a part in a simple lifestyle and may well enhance it. Many technologies have the opposite effect, consuming our time and sapping our energies as we work to pay for them. Simple living just means a healthier, more discerning relationship with technology.

6. Simple living is hypocritical
You might claim to want to live simply, but you’re still using a laptop and the internet – doesn’t that make you a hypocrite? That’s a comment I’ve had before, and it’s a misunderstanding. I want to live more simply, but I aspire to have enough, not to have nothing. As the mystic Ali Ibn Abi Talib wrote over a thousand years ago, it “is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you.”

Warren Buffett's house

7. Simple living is anti-capitalist and anti-wealth
It’s true that the economy would move a lot slower if everyone chose to live simply, but we all need to eat, travel, and furnish our homes – it wouldn’t overturn industrial capitalism. In fact, modern capitalism took shape in the Victorian era, which was characterised by prudent and abstemious private lives. It’s also quite possible for very wealthy people to live simply, particularly those who are not motivated by money. See Steve Jobs, or Ratan Tata. If you passed Warren Buffett’s house, you’d never guess it belonged to one of the world’s richest men.

8. Simple living is only for westerners
The irony of simple living, so the argument goes, is that it could only emerge from a culture where everybody has what they need – in a poor country, the idea is laughable. Simple living is often a response to excess, so it’s easy to see why that false impression arises. In reality, some of the biggest proponents of simpler living are from developing countries, such as Mahatma Gandhi in the last century or the Dalai Lama in this one. Gandhi believed that “Europeans will have to remodel their outlook if they are not to perish under the weight of the comforts they are becoming slaves to.”

9. Simple living is a passing fad
There are times when simple living gets a bit of attention and becomes a trend, but the desire to live simply goes back thousands of years. All the major religions have a tradition of simplicity, and ancient wisdom is rich with teaching on being present and living with moderation. There are always going to be simple living fads, especially in times of recession, but as Edward de Bono says, “simplicity should become a permanent fashion”.

10. Simple living is environmentally futile
It’s easy to look at our individual actions, conclude that they make little difference, and give up. But to suggest that simple lifestyles are doomed to failure is to get it backwards. It’s the average, ‘normal’ rate of consumption in developed countries that is unsustainable. Sooner or later, we will all have to use less energy and consume fewer resources. Some of us just have a head start, and are finding that we are healthier and happier for it. As Richard Foster puts it in his book Freedom of Simplicity, in a phrase I adopted as the tagline for this blog: “the earth cannot afford our lifestyle.”

31 comments

  1. Re.10 myths:
    I agree with most of it. But, as always, it depends what exactly is meant and one liners will never do justice to an idea, that’s why your negations of them have required more than one line.
    In particular at no.8, it really does hang on the word ‘need’. And no.7 relates very much to that word ‘need’, in that, there is surely a contradiction with one of the world’s richest men being interpreted as living simply, merely because his home represents some degree of simplicity. By which, I mean, his wealth does not. Wealth is obtained from the earth which is all our birthrights and to exchange it for a few men’s finances is no simple matter. It is at it’s worst, theft, and at it’s least, wrong. To do wrong is no simple matter. Have I explained the contradiction, I see in your response to myth no.7? A simple home and a grand wealth is like having the outside looking clean while the inside harbours the germ! Will I receive a reply, or is this kind of site not for discussion? Sorry, if I’ve misunderstood the nature of the site, just let me know.

  2. No, this site’s for discussion, I just can’t always reply instantly!

    Yes, it’s the nature of blogging that you’re never going to drill down to definitions and detail, and I don’t pretend that any post is going to be the final word on these issues.

    I initially hesitated to mention any specific rich people, but I thought that it’s helpful for those who have that specific misconception in mind. And I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with you a little – it is possible to be wealthy and live simply. Of course Warren Buffett is not living simply to the degree that others do, but these things are relative and you only have to compare his house with Donald Trump’s to see how different his values are.

    I also think it’s quite possible to admire a person for one aspect of their lifestyle without approving of everything they represent. I admire Warren Buffett’s modesty and generosity, but that doesn’t mean I endorse his business practices.

    But these are just examples, and none of them are perfect. Perhaps Ratan Tata is a better one, since his company is two thirds owned by a charitable trust.

  3. Jeremy! I would most certainly not expect any instant reply! You have misunderstood me. Because much has not been responded to before, I was merely making a sincere enquiry & with nothing but polite intention. Hence, my final apology. But, no worries, I don’t judge either! I merely offer my understandings, and I’m always keen for a polite reply.

    I agree with all you have said, which is speaking in relative terms. Unfortunately, they cannot answer my point – that surely there is an inherent contradiction between a GRAND wealth and a SIMPLE life, as this is not discussing in your ‘relative’ terms (which is why you mistakenly thought a better example would have helped your point) but on principle terms. Thank you anyway for your offer. Sincerely, KW.

    1. I’m not sure. I think it is possible to make a fortune and live simply. There’s nothing wrong with making lots of money – not if you make it fairly and use it well. Ratan Tata heads up the Tata Group, two thirds of which are owned by charitable trusts. He is most passionate about business that serves the needs of the poor. Wealth is not wrong on principle terms if it used well, surely?

  4. Jeremy, I dare say it may be possible, but why should it occur; we must remember that it takes from the earth and its other life-forms, the birthright of all. What’s that saying about not doing what you would not allow the world to do – Not practical but a sobering & thought provoking one. But, from my experience of life, I have seen an appalling amount of grand wealth wasted at all levels, and used for purposes which do not help those who need help, to anything like an excusable and acceptable degree. Personally, I believe it would be used much better on a more equitable basis. I’m not professing to know how! I’m sure it’s best for no one person to have such gross wealth, whatever they do with it, it has to be better used in direct ways. I only wish I knew how to implement the better answer.
    I somehow thought that ‘Make Wealth History’ stood for the same concept! Best wishes, KW.

  5. Of course equality is better, and any form of extreme wealth is a form of waste, locking up financial resources that others should use.

    At the same time, we have to be careful that we don’t end up with a simplistic idea that all financial wealth is bad. If you’re great at what you do and you’re doing it fairly, then you’re going to make money and that’s fine. Used well, wealth can be a huge blessing to others. It can make things happen that would not happen otherwise. The fight against malaria, for example, is never going to be funded by the pharmaceutical companies. It’s a disease of the poor and it’s more profitable to develop cures for rich people’s ailments, however trivial some of those may be. Instead, it is rich donors and trusts that are focusing on malaria, because they’re able to look beyond profits.

    Wealth is not wrong, it’s all about how it is made and how it is used. All of us have a responsibility to use our money for good, however much or little of it we have.

  6. Jeremy, Yes again! But still – except that, my point is that wealth used against malaria has to a grand extent been acquired by damaging the earth (at an irreplacable pace, which is pehaps less forgivable than the disease itself), which helps to encourage these diseases, and it would quite possibly be a better outcome, all round, if we did not create wealth in the ways we do, then we would not need to be quite the good samaritans that you have praised. Of course, good is good, but, I’m trying to take a deeper step into the question. This point, which I see has been at the root of my opinions, is in accordance with your own comment, ‘it’s about HOW it is made’. Perhaps we find agreement on that, if not which WAYS are acceptable.

  7. Sure, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that all wealth comes at the expense of the earth. There are plenty of ways to run successful businesses without destroying the earth. One of my favourite clothing brands is fairtrade, uses organic cotton, and has renewable energy for their factory. The guys who run the company aren’t rich yet, it’s still quite new. But their venture is a success and they probably will be rich before long. Is that wrong?

  8. If I attempt to sum up what I believe, it is that OVERALL, (no doubt including most (if not all – your point), of the individual level too – and the apparent goodness of ‘organic’ because of it’s unnecessary scale & need), the accumulation of wealth does more damage than any good it can offer. I hope this makes my point clear and if not, I’m always ready to persevere, but thank you anyway for going this far with me. Apolgies for complex sentences but I’m trying to prevent us going round in circles! Best wishes,KW.

  9. I agree that overall, our drive to accumulate more for ourselves is destroying the earth. The question is what we do about that. Do we outlaw wealth? Do we insist that everybody gets an absolutely equal share?

    I think attempting to stop people from making money would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Some people have good ideas or extraordinary talents, and that they are naturally going to succeed.

    Instead, how about we regulate business so that it is harder and harder to make an unfair or exploitative fortune? We can raise standards about how workers are treated, make all raw materials traceable, tax extractive industries and support sustainable industries to get them started; We can create cooperatives and social enterprises rather than shareholder corporations, and there are a thousand other small steps. Taken together, it adds up to an economy that reward good sustainable business practice and dis-incentivise shortcuts and bans exploitation outright.

    The other advantage to that approach is that it is possible. We can never create an absolutely equal society. But we can create an incrementally better society, one campaign at a time, one law at a time. And that’s what I hope to contribute to with this blog.

    Thanks for the discussion!

  10. I couldn’t agree more. I believe we came away from this agreement when you made some other comments which I felt were unhelpful. I can search back for that point of depature, as this was my actual case, but there appears to be little success gained from me drawing attention to whatever it was, so I’ll back off! With regards for your good work, KW.

  11. Re my latest response. Sorry, I forgot the history of our converstion flow is directly above! I see quite easily now that you have, above, changed the point of my original question about the accumulation of wealth by some to your point about the general accumulation of more, and introduced your different question on what to do about it. Never-the-less, we were not getting anywhere with mine and we did try – that’s good in itself.

  12. Yet again, sorry, (I am tired today!). My original point was that wealthy living is not consistent with simple living. I had no answer, that’s why I can agree with your approach, but this has never answered my actual point. Sorry to go on, but personally, I believe it worthwhile to aid clear thinking (even if belated!).KW

  13. FINALLY understood what going on (you may have long ago)! Mine was a philosophical point. Yours was a worthy practical approach, but not a direct answer. KW.

  14. Yes, that’s pretty much it, a philosophical objection to extreme wealth, and the practical recognition that it’s not going anywhere soon and we have to find ways to live with it!

  15. Jeremy, I previously, felt we needed to conclude our discussion around the subject of wealth as we were repeatedly agreeing but I was not getting to the root of my point. I knew that I was not entirely satisfied with my conclusion because ‘philosophy’ may be the description of my attitude but, I have not explained it. And, I knew my point was not just your summary of ‘a philosophical objection to extreme wealth’. Perhaps then, you will permit me to try once more?

    My ‘philosophy’ is based on my violently held belief that integrity is the most important thing on earth that we should be building, because, everything good flows & grows from it, everything bad without it. You stated that the adverts reflect what society wants. I believe there is a fundamental problem with this idea that we ‘want’ these products and I do not like to hear it stated like this as it promotes this idea to both the producer and the consumer, whereas, understanding what lies at the root of this apparent ‘want’ may help towards removing this error and its subsequent, very real, very evident, dangers.

    I believe that due to many reasons, such as families no longer living so close & the decline of the better ‘religious’ values, we are freer in some good ways, but, this break of relationships and shared values, has also ‘freed’ us of a sense of identity & respect, security, and an integrity based on reputation in the close community. On a ‘laisser faire’ attitude, this can be argued as good, and indeed, I would actually agree. However, the result, I believe, is that we search, hopelessly, for our loss of identity & respect in the acquisition of many unnecessary products, our security in acquiring unseemly wealth, and our integrity in our desire to ‘give something back’.

    This occurs in such a myriad of ways which are so diverse, that, although we see the huge consequence, we, all too often, no doubt, due to our immediate needs, FAIL TO PUT THE PIECES TOGETHER AND THEREBY FIND THE COMMON CAUSE AT THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM. The ways it is reflected is NOT by the adverts reflecting our ‘wants’, but in the adverts reflecting our hopeless search for what we have ‘LOST’, but, have a FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN NEED to try to fulfil. Hence, we are converting (raping?) the earth’s resources into billions of unnecessary products, to produce varieties and qualities of various degrees, in order to try to reflect our own personalities and our own wealth, or to gain security in wealth; all as false substitutes for the real thing on which they hang ‘integrity’, which cannot be bought by products, bank balances or giving a little away. On the basis of ‘needs must’, we will have to revert to a different lifestyle, as currently being promoted by many, (with the pain this may bring to many), but will this ever get to the root of the problem? I think not, and, at least, (like any practical method, it cannot resolve it entirely), the root disease needs to be exposed as much as is possible.

    If what I have tried to explain, in my layman’s terms is indeed, as I believe, a VITAL truth, then, we surely need to have this truth made as evident as possible and not hidden in phrases like adverts reflect our wants and rich men can be good. Else, the error continues on a falsehood and the fundamental truth gets buried deeper and deeper, with the subsequent results that we now see in the state of the earth and the violence amongst its people, all struggling for some respect and integrity, in their own ways.

    My effort here, to explain my original reaction to one or two of your comments may help in some way. I do hope so. It, of course, does not negate any of the practical ways of helping that you are promoting, but it does begin to explain my ‘philosophical’ approach (it’s perhaps more of a ‘psychological’ one), which ALSO has its very important value, and needs, desperately, to be understood SO THAT it is not repeatedly undermined by the comments which cover it up.

    We previously got stuck around the wealth matter alone, but there is a bigger picture, (on a psychological, sociological & philosophical basis), which I have now attempted to explain, in a layman’s way. I wish someone capable would bring the whole matter together, to a wider, more general audience, in a book. I believe it to be this important. How many would read it, I do not know, but ‘every little bit helps’ hence, my contribution! I do not think you will disagree with the actual point, but if it does not then cause you, as I set out to originally, to evaluate the comments of yours which I have questioned, could you at least, please let me know if you have read it?
    Best wishes, as always, KW.

  16. Hi Karen, I understand your philosophy, and I agree with much of it (as you expected), but I don’t see it as black and white. Consumerism is something that we are complicit in, and so it is much more complex than just advertisers telling us what to want. After all, we can say no. We don’t have to go and buy what they say.

    The fact is, we do want the things that are offered. Yes, there’s an imbalance of power, but we as ordinary people are just as much a part of the machine as the advertisers. Without our wallets and bank accounts, they are nothing.

    You’re right that we need integrity, and part of that is admitting that we do want shiny new gadgets, that we do want to be admired and envied. It’s only when we acknowledge these desires in ourselves that we can begin to examine them, look at the underlying insecurities behind them, and think for ourselves.

    By the way, I have written a lot more on advertising than those 10 implicit messages. That was a post I wrote on the train, and wasn’t a deeply thought-through analysis of advertising. For more depth, try these two:

    http://makewealthhistory.org/2011/10/27/reducing-the-negative-impact-of-advertising/

    http://makewealthhistory.org/2011/10/26/the-trouble-with-advertising-2/

  17. Thanks. When I read your responses above ‘we are COMPLICIT’ (in consumerism), ‘we CAN say no’ & ‘FACT IS, we DO want the things being offered’ I thought ‘Oh NO!, he’s still missing my point!”. THEN, I read on, and finally in paragraph three, I received the united ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, I was always after achieving with you, and thought I’d eventually made! These desires for admiration & to be envied are indeed HIDDEN and WE DO INDEED NEED to ACKNOWLEDGE them in order to stand a chance of stopping them from affecting us AND TO SEND THE MESSAGE to those who are feeding off them. We need to stop BOTH sides of the coin in us adults and also to help our children from its influence. The effects are enormous. It eats into everything at EVERY SCALE/LEVEL, beyond the part of our daily lives that we are most often aware of. Even in the apparently good processes which you are naturally quick to highlight.

    The still missing agreement in our united thought/explanation is that I believe the egotisic parts of our nature, of which you speak (to be admired & envied) are the result of us not being able to develop integrity in more natural ways. Because, I believe this understanding requires some insight/intellectual thought, which many cannot achieve for various reasons, I feel it imperative that we make EVERY effort to help people to see it and just saying we ‘want’ these things and can say ‘no’ (which I am well aware of, and I suppose that’s why I expected you to see this point in my explanation), is not good enough at any time as it is working AGAINST ALL of us, in even the most seemingly good projects, which is the last thing we need to contribute to.

    In effect, I feel society does not often enough, make the CONNECTION that the problem is within us all. In not doing this, we, JUST CONTINUE, to either blame or commend each action on the EVIDENT results, (as in consumers can say no, some rich men are good), while the disease continues HIDDEN UNDER all these, which needs to be seen because we are ALL falling prey to it and each of us remains BOTH the VICTIM and the ‘CRIMINAL’ ( in the gentlest most forgiving sense). We continue to harm each other. It is very far from a simple matter.

    I feel you do appreciate that I am not attacking but merely wishing to assist, and I may have mentioned before that the bolding is not shouting, but just used to emphasise some of the points. KW.

  18. Whoops! Should have included (penultimate paragraph), we just continue to either blame or commend ‘or look for the attractive current ALTERNATIVE LIFESTYLES’. (I need to include this bit to also make the point clearly relevant to your particular stance in these issues, and thereby, tie it all in).KW.

  19. Jeremy, I assume that if you had tired of this conversation you would simply conclude politely, so, I do hope your absence does not mean that you may have taken my last comments as a personal attack, as this is not my intention.
    Whatever the cause, I would just like to say that thanks to your discussion with me I have come to realise that my points do in fact stem from what many would call an idealistic point of view. They are probably correct, however, I maintain that if we merely give it this term as a reason to ignore such ideas, we will simply go around in circles, experiencing highs and lows, and seeking ways to improve only in part and for the short term.That’s what I was referring to above. I appreciate that we still need to employ these methods, but believe we can deepen our understanding too.
    You have helped me to understand my own position more. Thank you. KW.

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