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.”
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.”
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.”