books lifestyle simple living

Book review: Voluntary Simplicity, by Duane Elgin

There’s a long list of classic environment and lifestyle titles from past decades on my reading list. Every once in a while I pick one up – The Limits to Growth, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Silent Spring – and see how it has stood the test of time. Usually it confirms the impression I got when I first started investigating sustainability: almost everything we need to know to create a sustainable society was written about forty years ago.

Duane Elgin’s book is a celebration of voluntary simplicity, and inspired my recent post on 10 myths about simple living. “To live more simply is to unburden ourselves” he says in defining his topic “to live more lightly, cleanly, aerodynamically”. And the ‘voluntary’ in the title matters too. It suggests intentional action, a life lived more carefully and deliberately. It is about creating “a way of life that is outwardly simple, inwardly rich” as the book’s subtitle puts it.

There are multiple reasons for wanting to live more simply. There are the push factors of wanting to reduce our environmental impact and stewarding the earth’s resources more carefully. Then there are the pull factors of freeing up our energies and creating a way of life that is more rewarding. The book treads a balanced road between the two, both extolling the freedoms of a simpler way of life and showing why there is such an urgent need for it.

If you’re wondering how to simplify your life and where to start, you will have to look elsewhere. There are no practical tips here, and Elgin insists that there are no specific things that constitute a simpler way of life. It’s a state of mind, an aspiration, and how you choose to achieve it is up to you and your own context. “There are no fixed norms that define this approach to living” he writes, except that it is practical, creative, and a gradual process. It’s also personal, and voluntary simplicity needs a change of heart before it can become a change of behaviour.

There’s a lot of wisdom to be found here, some Elgin’s own and much drawn from historical traditions of simplicity. I particularly enjoyed the section on mindfulness, where Elgin suggests that most of us live in a constructed reality of social norms, advertising and peer pressure messages. Part of his philosophy is to become more aware of ourselves, live more consciously, and begin to question whether that construction is in line with our values.

It’s interesting to find language in Elgin’s book that foreshadows the Transition movement by a quarter of a century. The Transition Town ethos has a real emphasis on head, heart and hands, recognising the need for internal work on ourselves as a vital part of ecological living, and supporting that through community. Elgin also uses future scenarios, a favourite Transition tool.

I also couldn’t help but notice Elgin’s prediction that ” a number of trends involving population, resources and the environment will become critical by the second decade of the 21st century. Therefore my best guess is that industrialized nations will be forced to confront squarely the challenge of civilizational disintegration or revitalization no later than the 2020s.”

Time to get cracking on revitalizing civilization.

5 comments

  1. Jeremy, it’s one of the great mysteries to me that my generation were talking about sustainability 35 years ago, albeit using different terms, and nobody would listen. I literally preached this stuff in the early 80’s! Why is it to the new generation and the current media that they don’t seem to have heard a single thing of what we were talking about then?

  2. It is mysterious, and yet the same vested interests are at work now as they were then. Business, government, and let’s face it, the average consumer doesn’t really want to know. We all like the appearance of action of course, but it’s a lot easier not to think about it too much.

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